Tomorrow night, when President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address, the First Lady will be seated next to the former NBA player Jason Collins.
Last spring, of course, Collins became the first active American professional athlete in a team sport to come out of the closet. Which makes this a big deal. But you know what would be a much bigger deal? If instead of sitting in the House gallery in a suit, Collins was in uniform on the floor of an NBA arena.
The White House has embraced Collins since went public with his sexual orientation. Obama called immediately to congratulate him on his courage. First Lady Michelle Obama took to Twitter: “So proud of you, Jason Collins! This is a huge step forward for our country. We’ve got your back!”
A lot of Collins’s fellow players -- Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, among them -- expressed similar sentiments. But when the off-season rolled around and it came time for an NBA franchise to step up and sign him, well, no one did.
To be fair, Jason Collins is a 35-year-old journeyman center. He’s not a high-impact player, and arguably never was. But he is a credible place-holder for any number of teams that are battling injuries. He’s an experienced big man who can come in off the bench and provide leadership to younger players.
Look around the NBA and you will find plenty of teams that could use Collins, starting with the New York Knicks, who just lost the already dubious Andrea Bargnani indefinitely to injury. Or, on the other side of the East River, there are the Brooklyn Nets, who are without their center, Brook Lopez, for the rest of the season. Collins’s former team, the Washington Wizards, might benefit from his veteran presence. And what do the Los Angeles Lakers have to lose at this point?
Before the season started, you could argue that a player with Collins’ limited upside didn’t belong on an NBA roster, that he didn’t have a contract because he didn’t deserve one. But at this point, Collins brings enough to the table to at least earn a modest, short-term contract somewhere. He hasn’t for the simple reason that no NBA team wants to deal with the “distraction” they fear he would create.
Collins opened his coming-out piece in Sports Illustrated with these memorable lines: “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.” Who will have the courage to do something really historic and make him an NBA center again?
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanmahler.)
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