LOS ANGELES -- Here on the first day of NBA training camp, a player who voluntarily came out of the closet finds himself shut out of the locker room. And until he suits up next to a group of straight teammates, a guessing game will replace a basketball game for Jason Collins:
Is he without a team because he's an aging role player at the end of his career?
Or is something sinister going on?
He chooses not to dwell too much on it now, and most certainly won't engage in a full-blown public debate, perhaps out of fear it could backfire. Better to say all the right things and keep a healthy dose of optimism and wait patiently for something to happen. That's what Collins is doing, and not that he has much choice. Ever since he told the world his secret last spring, Collins was expected to become the first active openly gay athlete of a major team sport, which of course can't happen if he remains an unsigned free agent. It's an awkward situation for all involved, especially for the center caught in the middle.
In the summer off-season, while other free agents found work, life for Collins found himself flush with fame as he dealt with a different kind of celebrity, an intensity that escaped him for much of his 12 NBA seasons.
He attended the Hollywood premiere of "The Butler" and rubbed shoulders with Oprah. He made the TV rounds on all the major networks. He was at the MTV awards and introduced Macklemore, who performed "Same Love," an anthem supporting same-sex marriage. Collins has been honored by a string of organizations and embraced by the gay community. Complete strangers have approached and thanked him for his courage, and even hugged his twin brother, mistaking him for Jason.
"So many people have come up to me with words of encouragement. They've walked right up to me and said, `Just be yourself.' People from all walks of life, really. The response has been amazing. And I say, `Well, tell my brother that.' Then I get the confused look," said Jarron Collins.
Last week, Jason was part of a pre-game celebration at Dodgers Stadium where he was joined by singer Lance Bass and threw out the first pitch with Billy Bean, who came out after he retired from the major leagues. Once again, the applause from fans was firm and the greetings warm. As for the progress on the contract front? Still chilly.
Is he confident about playing this season?
"Always," he said. "I think you always have to be prepared. And I'm prepared to play."
Actually, it's not about whether Collins is ready. It's about the NBA and whether teams are ready for him, or more to the point, need him. When you speak with NBA general managers (none willing to go on the record), the issue with Collins lies with his age and declining skills. He turns 35 in December and really hasn't been a solid contributor in five years, or much in demand. In 2009 and 2012, he was a late free agent signee, most recently in Boston, and he finished the season getting nine minutes a game for the Wizards.
Collins is slow-footed, an average rebounder at this stage of his career and absolutely lost when he has the ball. At best, he can give the starting center a rest or be useful in a 10-minute spot against an opposing center who's a threat in the low post, although those types of centers are becoming rare.
And yet, here are the big men who've found contracts this summer ahead of Collins: Cole Aldrich, Gustavo Ayon, Samuel Dalembert, Josh Harrellson, Robert Sacre, Greg Stiemsma and Ronny Turiaf. Some of them are young and developing, others bring a certain dimension that Collins lacks. Still, it's not exactly an imposing group, and on certain teams, mainly the contenders, Collins would be a better fit for his ability to defend in the post (on Dwight Howard, for instance).
The Pistons kicked his tires this summer before going with Harrelson. At least two other teams expressed mild interest. But the opening of camp signals the end, for the most part, of signing players. Right now, his best chance lies with a key injury in training camp, or as a 10-day contract player added during the season, or if the Clippers come calling. The Clippers make the most sense because Doc Rivers had Collins in Boston and remains a fan, and Jarron Collins works with the organization as a special assistant. And Los Angeles is home for Collins.
Plus, the Clippers are a contender and don't rely on their centers for offense unless it's a lob pass to DeAndre Jordan.
"He wants to play," said Jarron Collins. "Obviously he feels he can still contribute. As far as him coming out of the closet, nothing's changed in terms of who he is. He's the same person; he's just happy and relieved to live his life in the open."
Jason Collins is preparing for the call. He says he's lighter and stronger and, for obvious reasons, pretty determined.
"I've worked out practically every single day since my announcement except for Sundays," he said, "just staying in shape and waiting for an opportunity. I'm ready to go. When my name and number is called, I'll be ready.
"I realize a lot of eyeballs will be on me when I do get the opportunity, and I will be ready for that, too."
That's the wrinkle about Collins and his big announcement. There are so many "ifs" involved. Suppose he came out while he was a starting center with the Nets and still in his 20s? What if he was in decent demand from a talent standpoint? And can you imagine if he were a star? Only then could you raise some serious questions about is sexuality and the league's acceptance of it if Collins was unsigned on the first day of camp.
Because the NBA is all about talent and will give anyone a look, even those with long rap sheets, it's hard to imagine teams ignoring Collins if they thought he could be in the rotation. Right now, many don't. And some teams with a soft interest in Collins are probably unwilling to deal with the media attention and the possible -- possible -- risk of some teammates feeling uncomfortable in the locker room.
So Collins waits. And we wait. His announcement took some guts. But in the historical sense anyway, it won't mean much if the closest he gets to a playing surface this season is the pitcher's mound at Dodger Stadium.