Earlier this season, I wrote a feature for Red Bull Media House about Nick Collison, the OKC Thunder power forward universally renowned as one of the NBA’s ultimate role players and teammates. He makes a practice of sacrificing stats and flesh for the sake of winning basketball games. After years of putting common goals ahead of personal ones, teammates don’t simply appreciate Collison. They love him. Kevin Durant literally shooed away a Media Relations person who told me the All-Star was no longer taking questions once I revealed who my piece was about. The notion of helping his longtime teammate enjoy a moment in the sun appealed to Durant, because in his mind, Collison deserved it.
Along similar lines, I have a theory that benefited from having spent the majority of his career doing the dirty work. Playing interior defense against the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Dwight Howard, and Yao Ming. Setting screens. Taking charges. Using up all six of his fouls if necessary. A dozen seasons spent banging and collecting bruises in servitude of higher profile, flashier, more talented players. A job that often amounted to little more than making everyone else shine.
I’ve covered the NBA long enough to know how much players who embrace Collins” mindset are appreciated and respected by their peers. It’s no accident that two of Kobe Bryant’s favorite teammates were Ronny Turiaf and Josh Powell, just as it’s no accident everybody in the NBA seems to love Collins. You can’t help but relish someone willing to give so much of himself for so little relative glory in return. Selflessness is rare in most walks of life, and sports is often no exception.
Obviously, Monday’s vast outpouring of support for Collins among NBA players could first and foremost reflect a changing political and social climate, a world with a growing currency placed on inclusion.
It could be indicative of a league whose membership is largely black, meaning they can relate to what it feels like to be discriminated against.
Or the way most people, and NBA players are no exception, have a gay friend or family member who’ve lent a name and face to what it means (and doesn’t mean) to be homosexual.
Maybe it’s a collective awareness that this barrier will be broken at some point, so it might as well be now.
Maybe they’re just happy a fellow athlete is now able to be openly happy in his own skin.
Maybe they just recognize it’s the right thing to do.
But after a dozen seasons putting on his proverbial hard hat, I couldn’t help but wonder if the explanation for so many players getting his back is even simpler: If you’re unwilling to stand by a guy like Jason Collins, at the end of the day, what does it say about you?