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Since Jason Collins announced publicly that he is gay in a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover story four months ago, he has been given words of support and admiration by President Obama as well as NBA stars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. He has been given credit for having the courage to become the first active pro player in the four major U.S. men's sports to come out of the closet. He has been offered, and accepted, invitations to appear at events like Boston's gay pride parade and MTV's Video Music Awards. There is just one thing Collins hasn't been given yet—a job.
NBA training camps open in less than three weeks, many rosters are all but set, and Collins, a 7-foot free-agent center who never had much trouble finding a team for each of the last 12 seasons, is still unemployed. Why? A number of reasons have been quietly offered by NBA personnel people: He's too old (34), too limited offensively (he averaged just 1.1 points for the Celtics and Wizards last season) and too expensive. The minimum for a player with his experience is $1.4 million, a big salary for someone likely to play a few minutes per game at most.
But being an aging, low-scoring center didn't keep Collins from being signed last year, or the year before that. He has long been a typical end-of-the-bench veteran, valued as much for his professionalism and positive influence on teammates as for his toughness on the court. There is only one thing teams know about him now that they haven't always known—that he's gay. Is that why he's still working out at home in Los Angeles, waiting for the phone to ring? It's impossible to know for sure, but it's also impossible to ignore the obvious question.
Collins, who declined to comment for this story, has told those close to him that he doesn't believe he's being blackballed and he remains hopeful that he will be offered a contract. But there has been little interest. He met with Pistons G.M. Joe Dumars in Michigan in mid-summer, but Detroit decided to sign a younger, cheaper big man, Josh Harrellson, instead. A Western Conference team recently emerged as a possibility, according to league sources, but no offer appears imminent.
Clearly, the tone of the conversation about Collins has changed. All of those supportive tweets and quotes from NBA coaches and executives haven't translated into action. Before Collins came out, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told TMZ he would be "honored" to have the first openly gay player on his team. But in an email reply to SI last week, Cuban, one of the few NBA executives willing to comment about Collins's situation on the record, said he didn't sign the 7-footer because he "wasn't a fit for the Mavs. We were looking for a shot blocker."
That's Cuban's prerogative, of course. It's not up to Dallas or any other team to sign Collins in order to make a statement about tolerance and equality, and Collins has made it clear that he wants to be signed on merit. But when it comes to a team's last roster spot, what exactly is merit? The Heat didn't sign 37-year-old Juwan Howard in 2010 and bring him back in each of the last two seasons—during which he rarely suited up, much less played—because of his value on the court. Veteran center Marcus Camby, who's nearly five years older than Collins, averaged 1.8 points last season for the Knicks. Yet the Rockets snapped him up in July, at a cost of $1.4 million for one year. And still Collins waits.
Sometimes a barrier survives not because of a concerted effort to keep a man out, but by the lack of effort to let him in. Thirty NBA teams have made 30 separate decisions—so far—that Collins isn't an effective enough player to help him make history. But because of those individual choices, the league suffers as a whole. The NBA's public service announcements against the bullying of gays and other minorities and its participation in the It Gets Better campaign in support of gay youth will all ring hollow if the first openly gay player in the league is suddenly unemployable.
Whether he gets the chance to continue his NBA career or not, Collins will always be remembered as a player who had the courage to try to open a door. It would be an embarrassment for the league if no team proves willing to step forward and unlock it.