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Collins did his part; our turn

Published: Tuesday, April 30, 2013 12:10 a.m. CDT
In this April 17, 2013 file photo, Washington Wizards center Jason Collins (right) battles for a rebound against Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich. 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 on Sports Illustrated's website. The 34-year-old Collins has played for six NBA teams in 12 seasons. He finished this past season with the Washington Wizards and is now a free agent. He says he wants to continue playing.

It says something, nearly all of it good, that on the day a male athlete in one of the major American pro sports came as out as gay, the reaction from the NBA, fellow ballplayers and fans was almost uniformly positive.

But let's not break an arm patting ourselves on the back just yet. There's some heavy lifting still to be done.

Jason Collins certainly did his part.

In a powerful first-person account Monday on Sports Illustrated's website, the 34-year-old NBA backup center said he didn't set out to knock the sports world off its axis, although he "was happy to start the conversation."

Now it's time for the rest of us to make sure it actually goes somewhere, to put our money and our actions where our sentiments have been for some time now.

History isn't written overnight, no matter how much attention his announcement is generating.

So it's worth remembering that Collins is hardly the first professional athlete to come out. Tennis star Martina Navratilova and Olympic diver Greg Louganis did so decades ago, former Major League Soccer and U.S. men's national team player Robbie Rogers did the same in February and barely 10 days ago, former Baylor and future WNBA superstar Brittney Griner was so low key about it almost no one noticed.

But all of them were retired, save Griner, and because there were plenty of WNBA trailblazers already, she risked very little.

The same is true for those retired athletes with nothing left to lose in their professional lives and plenty to gain in personal terms, beginning with that all-important sense of self that made them stand out in the first place.

They may have changed some minds in the long run, even banked a few bucks for baring their pain, and there's no dishonor in any of that.

But because they were no longer playing, they also did less to help sports – especially men's sports – get over its homophobia than they might have.

And brave and tough as Collins has been throughout a long and useful NBA career – a dozen seasons as a 7-foot enforcer, including nine on playoff squads and one where he led the league in personal fouls – he's going to need help breaking down the same barrier his predecessors ultimately sidestepped.

For starters, somebody in an NBA front office has to give Collins a job next season.

He's a free agent with plenty of miles who saw only limited playing time for the lowly Washington Wizards last season.

Collins is also a big man in a league where those are in short supply, and long before former coaches and teammates were lauding him for his courage, the prevailing opinion was that no one was better prepared to step into a game than the former Stanford grad.

Herb Williams, a guy that Collins is often compared to, found steady work until he was 41.

Colllins' momentum likely won't be slowed at the top. His prospects would be better if he were, say, 25, and already an accomplished star.

He's not a must-have player, but he's still big, skilled, motivated and enough of a "character guy" to deserve a spot on an NBA bench.

His acceptance is likely to be decided at the next level, by teammates who share the locker room and by fans who fill NBA arenas at home and on the road. That's where the rest of us come in.

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