Saturday, March 1, 2014

J-Speaks: The Newest Edition to the Nets Makes History

When a player in the NBA signs a 10-day contract, that individual normally does not grab the front headline of not just that sports league, but the front page of newspapers or sports sights across the United States. This past Sunday though, the newest edition to the Brooklyn Nets of the National Basketball Association (NBA) was not just a big deal in terms of filling a need for them, but it broke a major social barrier.

Right before their matchup at the Los Angeles Lakers this past Sunday night, the Nets signed center Jason Collins to a 10-day contract.

You probably are asking why this is a big deal? Well, the 35-year-old Collins, who is in his 13th season became the first athlete in any of the four major North American professional sports (NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL) to be on a team and be openly gay.

He made the announcement back on Apr. 2013 in an interview with George Stephenopoulos on ABC's "Good Morning America."

The former first round pick (18th overall) out of Stanford, who is in his second stint with the Nets entered the game at the 10:28 mark of the second quarter. He had no points, two rebounds and five fouls in 10 minutes of action in the 108-102 win over the Lakers at the Staples Center.

This was a very big deal for a lot of reasons. It puts a stamp on something former NBA Commissioner David Stern always set out to do in his 30-year career, which concluded this past February 1.

A league with diversity across the board and an respect for those who are different. All that matters is can you take care of business on the court or in the front office or on a coaching staff and represent the league well?

Collins, whose twin brother Jarron also played in the NBA for 10 seasons with the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers and with him at Stanford is a great example of that.

"I don't have time to really think about history right now. I just have to focus on my job tonight," Collins said to the media before the game.

What makes Collins signing with the Nets a great choice is the fact that he played with the team's current head coach in Jason Kidd for six seasons from 2001-2008, which includes back-to-back appearances in the NBA Finals in 2002-2003. The then New Jersey Nets lost to the Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs 4-0 and 4-2 respectably.

Last season, Collins played 32 games with the Boston Celtics, starting seven times. Two of his teammates at that time and are his current teammates now is future Hall of Fame forwards Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

Collins also played last season with the Washington Wizards.

Because of that familiarity and knowledge of Collins from key people of the Nets, this was the best place for him to resume his NBA career. He also understands his role, fills a need for the Nets and his main focus is to help the team and let everything else take care of itself.

"I need to be a solid basketball player again. Its about focusing on the task at hand and not thinking about history or anything along those lines. Its about going out there and making it difficult for the Lakers," Collins, who has also played for the Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Hawks and last season with the Washington Wizards, said on Sunday.

When Collins came out about being gay last year, there was the question would he ever get a chance to continue his NBA career, especially at his age?

It goes to show the value of people having knowledge of who you are and what you can bring to the table. It is also an example of having the fortitude to stick with it and never give in to the standard of society. On top of that being able to get to a place where you can be comfortable in your own skin and being able to say who you and having people respect that is just as important if not more.

"Jason told us that his goal was to earn another contract with an NBA team. Today, I want to commend him on achieving his goal," Adam Silver, the new NBA Commissioner said in a statement this past Sunday.

"I know everyone in the NBA family is excited for him and proud that our league fosters an inclusive and respectful environment."

That is especially true for someone who he has gotten to know, who is hopefully on the verge of getting his professional sports career off the ground as well as breaking a barrier of his own.

Co South Eastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year from Missouri Michael Sam, who hopes to be drafted in the National Football League (NFL) this May announced that he is gay in an interview with Chris Connelly on ESPN's "Outside the Lines" back on February 9.

If he is drafted, which he was projected to be selected in the third or fourth round, he would be the first active player in the NFL who publicly came out.

Unlike Collins though, Sam faces an uphill battle. A number of anonymous NFL executives have said to Sports Illustrated that Sam will fall in the draft because he came out of the closet about his sexuality.

The NFL's Players Association executive leader DeMaurice Smith has stated that any team official who downgrades Sam because he is gay is "gutless."

Six days after his announcment, Sam joined his former Tiger teammates as they accepted the 2014 Cotton Bowl Trophy, which the No. 9 ranked Tigers won by defeating the No. 13 ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys 41-31 back on Jan. 3, at a ceremony that took place at Mizzou Arena at intermission during a Missouri Tigers basketball game.

Reportedly, an anti-gay activist named Shirley Phelps-Roper and close to 15 other people of the Westboro Baptist Church that is widely considered a hate group protested Sam's presence. Missouri students organized a counter-protest that numbered in the thousands and they assembled a wall in front of the protestors.

By seeing how Collins has gone about his business since he came out of the closet, Sam has seen one pro athlete do what he loves and he will hopefully get the chance to do the same and be able to do so for a long time.

In a recent statement from his Twitter account @MikeSameFootball, Sam said to Collins, "Congradulations my friend@jasoncollins34-excited to see you do work out there#courage, #groundbreaking."

In a press conference at the NFL Scouting Combine last weekend, Sam said, "I know how to handle myself. I know how to communicate with my teammates."

A big barrier got broken this past Sunday night in Los Angeles, CA. A former Stanford Cardinal, who averaged just 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per contest in his first 12 seasons made history. He told the truth about a part of his life that many people are frightened to say because of the ramifications that can pursue. What Jason Collins has shown if anything that if you want something bad enough and you are willing to put in the work to get there, things can work out. Along the way, you can change people's minds and gain their respects.

"What this day means is its 2014. YOu judge people by their character and I think that's what we have to do," former NBA guard and current NBA analyst Steve Smith said on NBATV's "Gametime," on Sunday night.

Smith colleague and former NBA guard Brent Barry echoed that by saying, "Jason Collins is in a good place and that's probably the most important part about today."

The question now is what does the future hold for all athletes from the high school level to the professional level going forward? Can one come out and be themselves without backlash from the public or their own team?

In the case of Collins, he has been able to get over that hurdle. Having people who know him has helped. However, will he be around for the rest of this season and what will happen to him after that? He only signed with the Nets for just 10 days.

So far through three games, Collins has played 25 mins, scored three points on 1 for 3 from the field and committed nine fouls. The team has gone 2-1 during that stretch though and he has provided a lift. While he may have not had an impact stats wise, he has done the little things like set picks to get other players open and his communication at the defensive end has been big.

"He came into this league knowing that he's going to give his six fouls away. He used up five of them, so were kind of disappointed that he didn't get use his six, but he's a guy that understands when to foul," Kidd said after the game on Sunday.

In the case of Sam, his professional journey is now in the hands of the teams of the NFL and he will not have the support system like he had at Missouri. Also he will bring a lot of attention to the team that he goes to and the NFL is a league where teams, especially the good teams pride themselves on not having distractions.

At the end of the day, it will get back to what NFL senior analyst for ESPN Chris Mortensen said last weekend.

"I think ultimately it gets back to whether or not that this person can help his team," he said.

Hopefully one day, a professional athlete that is gay will not be such a big deal. Until then, it will always grab headlines, but it is up to us a society across the board to keep things in perspective and allow a persons play and action do the talking for them and not their sexual orientation.

Information, quotations and statistics are courtesy of 2/24/14 12 a.m. edition of NBATV's "Gametime" with Vince Cellini, Steve Smith and Brent Barry; 2/24/14 7 a.m. edition of ABC News' "Good Morning America" with Robin Roberts, George Stephanopoulos, Ginger Zee and Lara Spencer;;;;;

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