Apr 29, 2013, 3:17 PM EDT
Jason Collins was the kind of player NBA people like on their team, but not a guy who was a household name.
Collins — a 12-year NBA veteran — came out as gay on Monday. He’s the first active major American team sport athlete to come out as gay.
At this point his game was not going to make him a household name. Here is what you need to know about Collins at this point in his career — the Boston Celtics didn’t want to trade him to the Washington Wizards this season. The two teams were talking about a deal to send Jordan Crawford to Boston, but the deal was going to fall apart if Collins wasn’t a part of it (so reports Marc Stein at ESPN).
Why? Because Collins is a great veteran presence in the locker room, and he can give you a few minutes a game of solid post defense. The Celtics wanted the size, the Wizards wanted a guy of Collins’ character in the locker room with their young players as they try to change that franchise’s culture. Collins said this about the way he plays in the article he wrote for Sports Illustrated:
On the court I graciously accept one label sometimes bestowed on me: “the pro’s pro.” I got that handle because of my fearlessness and my commitment to my teammates. I take charges and I foul — that’s been my forte. In fact, during the 2004-05 season my 322 personals led the NBA. I enter the court knowing I have six hard fouls to give. I set picks with my 7-foot, 255-pound body to get guys like Jason Kidd, John Wall and Paul Pierce open. I sacrifice myself for other players. I look out for teammates as I would my kid brother.
“He’s a pro’s pro. He is the consummate professional and he is one of my favorite “team” players I have ever coached,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said in a released statement.
Collins took a long road to get to this point, just not a road widely scene outside of NBA circles because he is not a star player. What he has been is a true professional at his craft — a guy who was certainly given gifts (he’s 7’0” and pretty athletic) but worked hard to polish those skills, he played to his strengths and with that carved out a nice 12-year NBA career that very well may continue on to a 13th season.
Collins and his brother Jarron grew up in Los Angeles and together they were stars at Harvard-Westlake High School — how good would your high school team have been if it had two seven-foot future NBA players on it? Exactly. They drew a whole lot of attention.
They were also good, well rounded students and decided to attend Stanford. Jason played four years there, along side future NBA players such as Mark Madsen and Brevin Knight. On the court the Cardinal made it to the Elite Eight one year and the Final Four the next and his senior year Collins averaged 14.5 points and 7.8 rebounds a game.
He was drafted No. 18 in the first round by the Houston Rockets but was instantly traded to the New Jersey Nets as part of a deal for Eddie Griffin.
Collins spent his first six seasons in the NBA with the Nets, coming into a good team led by Jason Kidd that in his rookie season reached the NBA Finals (Collins played 13 minutes a game off the bench for that Nets team that lost to the Lakers in the Finals).
Collins was a starter by his second season and an underrated part of those Nets teams — he provided a physical, defensive presence inside that provided a balance to the stars on that squad (Kidd, Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson). In his second season the Nets made the finals again but this time fell to the Spurs.
In 2008 Collins was traded from the Nets to the Memphis Grizzlies and that started the journeyman portion of his career — he has now played for six NBA teams.
What he has brought at every stop is what coaches love — a strong work ethic, a guy who can provide defense inside in the paint, and he’s been popular with teammates in the locker room.
Collins had been seeing fewer and fewer minutes in recent years; at age 34 he has been losing the battle with father time. He has racked up more fouls than points six of his last seven seasons. His role is pretty defined.
But there is a place for that role in the NBA, still. A guy who can provide defense and be good in the locker room can be a fit with a veteran team looking to make a playoff run, or a young team looking to show their players how to be a professional in the league (how to prepare your body and prepare mentally for games).
While Collins career was on one track, his personal growth and comfort with who he is grew as well and led him to this moment.
We’ll see if Collins sticks around in the NBA, he probably will for another season. But if not, he still had a solid NBA career, just not one that made him a household name.
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