Three Short Essays: One About Jason Collins, One About Basketball, And One About Waiting For Bigots To Finally Be Right
1. I Love Jason Collins
Jason Collins played in an NBA game last night and nothing happened. He played third-team big-man minutes, which equated to ten minutes of court time, two rebounds, one steal, and five fouls. For more about Collins’ performance, here’s Ball Don’t Lie’s recap:
This wasn’t ceremonial, or marketing, or window-dressing. The Nets are fairly thin up front, and even more so when Kevin Garnett sits to rest his aging frame, as he did Sunday; Brooklyn needs big bodies to defend and set screens. Thus, Collins, a career-long role player imported to play a role. Collins becoming the NBA’s first out gay player is exceedingly headline-worthy, but Collins’ game itself isn’t and never really has been … and as you can begin to see in the clip above, he began playing it almost immediately. Which was great.
Get up the court, set screens, give your guards room to breathe. Get back down the court, body up the other team’s biggest guy, make life a little bit more miserable for Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman, and when they beat you, hit them hard enough to prevent an easy bucket. Do it again. And again. And again.
This, incidentally, is what that moment looked like:
Just look at it! Just look at the…the…umm, that was kind of boring, right? Not for the reasons that bigots might trumpet of course, but because it was perfectly formulaic. Collins comes into the game, heads to the low block, fights off a quarter-hearted Chris Kaman attempt at something, then he comes down the floor, throws a vicious elbows-up moving screen, scrums for a rebound that won’t be coming because the Nets shooter made his three, and then he heads back on defense. As I said, it’s boring. It’s the kind of basketball that very few people watch. Hell, it’s the kind of basketball that very few people even know to look for. It’s third-string, traditional big-man basketball.
Bigots were telling us that gay athletes would never fit into professional sports because “Distractions!” or “Locker rooms!” or “Team unity!” or “The other athletes couldn’t handle it!” or whatever other stupid excuse was trotted out, but the reality was that they always assumed their own discomfort was universal. But yesterday, the New York Nets made a point of welcoming Collins back. And then they dominated they beat the hapless Lakers all over the floor, even if the game got close in the end. Everybody’s emphasis was on the real issue with any player: could Collins could still contribute? For at least one night, Collins – out gay man or not – was perfectly capable of playing 10 minutes of professional basketball in precisely the way that his team wanted him too.
That’s what makes Collins lovable. What he did last night is what he’s done his entire career: played rugged basketball. He’s been playing basketball this way for more than a decade and he’s been successful at it, even if his work isn’t the kind that shows up on the stat sheet. He’s found a professional niche and exploited it for a career, essentially committing to be among the best in the world at playing basketball in this particular way.
That basketball functions this way is one of the reasons that claims of a gay player undermining a team proved so ludicrous. If you excel at doing something and a team needs that something? What does it matter if the player doing it is gay? But we’ll get back to that.
I Love Basketball
I’ve never been particularly good at basketball, but I’ve remained enthusiastic about the game. It helps that I’ve been 6’3”ish since I was 12. That’s tall enough to occasionally encounter coaches who wanted me to play. But how they wanted me to play – “You stand here, don’t move, grab rebounds, and pass the ball the better players!” – never seemed to be particularly fun. Playing pickup basketball was always more rewarding than playing on a team so I did that instead. When I was in high-school, the NBA had a Saturday Morning highlights show, and on it, there were occasionally player profiles, including the one I saw: it was about Scottie Pippen shooting bankshots.
I was entranced. The only other thing I had going for me as a player was the ability to put some thought into what I was doing. That sounds good as a 33-year-old, but when you’re 13, standing there thinking while yet another guard blows by you is slightly less rewarding. The bankshot made a sort of sense to me that other shots didn’t, mostly because I would just be aiming at the same general spot every time I played. Hell, there’s even a box on the backboard that does everything short of screaming, “AIM RIGHT HERE!” So I set about teaching myself to shoot bankshots. Over and over and over, mostly from the right. That lead to other revelations, including that most defenders expected me to go down low, and that if I went there, I could pop out to my spot, catch, and shoot very quickly before they had a chance to defend me. When I was younger and quicker, I turned this into a relatively repeatable move. I figured out what I could do to be worth my salt on the floor. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to figure out how to be wilier, but in my heart, I’m happy going down low then cutting back out for the same sort of catch and release that I was shooting ten years ago.
Basketball rewards players who know exactly what they can do and who stick to it. It punishes players who don’t. This is true at the highest levels. It’s true on local courts. The idiots chucking up everything Philip Seymour Hoffman style eventually get frozen out, because they’re not contributing. One of my greatest pleasures in basketball* is seeing players who know exactly what they’re doing proceeding to do exactly what they know how to do. Those are the types of players you can win games with.
Jason Collins is that type of player at the premier level.
When Are Bigots Going To Get Something Right?
Bigots have always been quick to tell anybody willing to listen how divisive a gay player will be. These days, they’ll do it from the behind the veil of anonymity that national reporters offer them, but they’ll still do it.
“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” said an NFL player personnel assistant. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”
These ludicrous claims have always been underpinned by the inability to disprove them, something anonymous cowards have relied upon to assert their own bigotry. “Since we don’t know what will happen,” they seem to be saying, “…you just need to trust our insider information.”
But now that Collins is out – now, in fact, that Collins has played a game in which the earth did not tilt off its axis, in which professional basketball players paid to play basketball somehow found the fortitude necessary to continue doing so – that claim gets more tenuous. Because now the people reading this claptrap can rightfully and indignantly wonder why exactly the bigot’s strongly asserted claims never actually came to be? It’s a fair question, at least in part because the nightmarish futures predicted by the socially conservative seem to have a habit of never bothering to actually come true.
Although socially conservatives repeatedly predicted otherwise, gay marriage in Massachusetts didn’t actually destroy marriage there. In fact, Massachusetts tends to be better at marriage than literally everybody else, but especially many of the states most horrified by the existence of gays, places like Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. Then there’s this study about the state of marriage is more liberal versus more conservative places, and if the findings surprise you, you haven’t been paying attention. Finally, this, in which it is noted that, at worst, gay marriage rates don’t affect marriage where it is legal, other than encouraging a brief increase in the marriage rates as interested gay couples all head to the altar as soon as it is legalized.
At some point, this sort of predictive quackery starts to matter, especially when the promises horrors never actually materialize. That it hasn’t mattered sooner is an issue for consideration** but it has started mattering now. That is the point we’ve reached not only with gay marriage, but with out male athletes in North American sports. As we see more Jason Collinss and Michael Sams – and there will be more – we will see more and more evidence that what matters is on-field performance, not off-field sexuality. And those gutless wonders being given anonymous opportunities to slander gay players? They will end up being disproven, just as those before them who slandered gay marriage have been repeatedly undone by reality.
(Photo from GQ.)
*Quick Tip – if you’re playing pickup and a woman is shooting nearby and she can shoot? Get her on your team. Because the other guys are going to put their worst defender on her. She will carve them up. Many male players will do this repeatedly, mostly out of a chauvinistic confidence coupled with a blinkered stupidity as to what it takes to win basketball games. It takes making baskets. Anybody can make baskets. Some people look the part, but looks aren’t the same as makes.
** Perhaps society is really wedded to the idea that the tu quoque is a fallacy that matters? Even though it doesn’t.