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If center makes team and weathers storm next season, his breakthrough will prove lasting

  • FILE - In a Friday, Sept. 28, 2012 file photo, Boston Celtics' Jason Collins poses during Celtics NBA basketball media day at the team's training facility in Waltham, Mass. NBA veteran center Collins has become the first male professional athlete in the major four American sports leagues to come out as gay. Collins wrote a first-person account posted Monday, April 29, 2013 on Sports Illustrated's website. He finished this past season with the Washington Wizards and is now a free agent. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

It will be another six months before we know whether former Stanford basketball star Jason Collins is a sports pioneer in reality and not merely in theory. It's another six months before the next NBA regular season opens.

There is no desire here to rain on anyone's parade. But until Collins plays in another NBA game, the impact of his history-making announcement in Sports Illustrated last week, when he became the first "active" male pro athlete in a major North American team sport to reveal his homosexuality, will be reduced to marginalized symbolism, an answer to a trivia question.

Collins' coming-out announcement comes out during the NBA playoffs, of which he's not a part, having finished the regular season with the woeful Washington Wizards. So, although technically he's an active NBA player, he's currently, in reality, inactive. And, when the postseason ends, he'll be a free agent.

As a bench player who will turn 35 early next season, with increasingly diminished playing time and nearly invisible statistics over the past several seasons of a 12-year NBA career, it's not exactly a slam dunk that Collins will ever truly be the first openly gay male active in a major North American team sport. It's more like a jump ball.

Of course the idealist in us wants to praise Collins, wants to believe he will find a place on an NBA roster next season, wants to see his story turn into a wonderfully inspirational narrative about how being true to your individual nature trumpets diversity and triumphs over society's and sports' backwardness and bigotry.

The idealist in us wants to believe that Collins, as an openly gay NBA player, will be accepted by teammates and opponents and fans alike — to such an extent that the story quickly becomes a non-story. Wouldn't that really be something?

The hardened realist in us, though, realizes it has taken nearly 40 years since retired 49ers running back Dave Kopay publicly outed himself for an "active" male pro athlete to do the same.

Nearly 40 years later, and we've come to know of only a few former athletes who revealed themselves, after retirement, to be gay: in baseball, Billy Bean (not to be confused with current A's general manager Billy Beane) and the late Glenn Burke; in football, defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo and former 49ers and Raiders offensive tackle Kwame Harris; in basketball, former NBA player John Amaechi and in soccer Robbie Rogers, who last month said he was retiring but is now reconsidering.

The absurdist in us recalls it wasn't that long ago that high-profile athletes such as heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis and All-Star catcher Mike Piazza felt obligated to publicly say they weren't gay.

One of the most interesting revelations in last week's Sports Illustrated actually came from Jarron Collins, Jason's twin brother and a former NBA player. In an essay accompanying Jason's story, Jarron writes he "had no idea" his twin was gay until Jason told him last summer. The depressive in us realizes how deeply hidden Collins kept his sexuality, how absolutely necessary he believed it was to keep it a secret.


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