Let's start with the simple fact: If an openly gay player playing for an NBA team were a mundane event, it would have happened well before now.
We know this from the words of Jason Collins himself, around an hour before he became the first openly gay basketball player in the NBA Sunday night in Los Angeles, breaking that barrier at the Staples Center with 10:28 left in the second quarter. Collins was asked what has changed for him as a person since coming out last year.
"Wow," Collins said. "Changed as a person? Just so much better for me. I mean, I don't have to hide who I am. I can just be my normal self, and the past, what is it, ten months, has been incredible."
And so, before dismissing Collins as a role player signed to play a few minutes a game for a middling Eastern Conference team and nothing more, consider this: Every single gay player in NBA history had the chance to experience what Collins just described. Every single gay player in the NBA, for decades, chose instead to hide who they were to fans, to teammates, to coaches.
And Collins will forever change the calculations in this decision for every pro athlete, simply by making this brave decision to prove that here in 2014, being openly gay and playing professional basketball are not incompatible.
Collins was all business in his Sunday night presser, seemingly nervous. He repeatedly circled back to the basketball end of things, a far cry from his words in last year's Sports Illustrated: "I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore. I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, 'Me too.'"
But to be a success story for the gay community -- and make no mistake, how Collins succeeds or fails will be viewed as a referendum on the viability of the gay athlete in 2014, in a variety of ways and by a variety of people, as with Michael Sam -- Collins needs to do well as a player first. And that's challenge enough for anybody.
So less than an hour before the game, Collins wasn't willing to take on the role of crusader, as one reporter posed it to him.
"No," Collins said, chuckling at the question, "I need to be a solid basketball player. Again, it's about focusing on the task at hand, and not thinking about history or anything along those lines."
It's useful to consider both the similarities and the differences between Collins' post-announcement debut Sunday night and Jackie Robinson's breaking the color barrier on April 15, 1947.
The differences are not trivial. Social progress has been enormous between 1947 and 2014. It was acceptable for some of Robinson's own teammates, along with no shortage of his opponents, to publicly oppose him on the basis of skin color. The recent progress on equality issues in this country has made the United States of 2014 far different on LGBT issues than even the United States of 2004, let alone Robinson's time.
And in Robinson's case, the progress by Major League Baseball actually predated much of the legal and legislative gains made on questions of race. Robison debuted seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, eighteen years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Collins made his debut less than a year after the Supreme Court of the United States repudiated California's attempt to ban gay marriage, and in the context of massive expansion of both marriage and other workplace rights around the country.
Still, let's not be naive about this. There's the kind of legal success and social stigmatism attached to opposing Collins that silences those who have something to lose by speaking out, and then there's the kind of ugliness that remains, leading to this protest from the Westboro Baptist Church last year, or the current effort in the Arizona legislature to allow businesses to discriminate against gay and lesbian customers, which passed on Friday.
Moreover, the difference between Collins and Robinson as players is enormous. A big reason Branch Rickey chose Jackie Robinson, and could ask Robinson not to answer back in the face of opposition taunting, was because Robinson's play could be his answer. And Robinson, a future Hall of Famer at his peak, began proving that to the baseball world every game, starting the moment he took the field on that Brooklyn afternoon.
Collins is very much a specialist: Certainly no scorer, and less a rebounder than a defender capable of neutralizing opposing centers. He succeeds by getting to places offensive players want to go first, and his immovable body serves as the kind of impediment other players try to be with waving arms and moving torsos -- and the resulting fouls and mistakes that Collins, throughout his career, has usually avoided. Think of Collins, at his best, like the fundamental straight-up version of Roy Hibbert described here, but on the ground instead of high up in the air.
Still, Collins is 35. He hasn't played since last April. He's both a representative of something larger, the hopes of a community, and a player desperately trying to fight off the ravages of age. If the arc of history is long, but bends toward justice, that inevitability pales in comparison to the success rate age has on the human body.
Collins' signing proved a point. An NBA team determined that the addition of a gay player was a net positive, and did so despite the arguably limited upside his game itself provides the Nets. His tenure with the Nets can prove another. But he'll have to do it in short bursts, in few-minute increments. And thanks to the timing of this signing and the Ringling Brothers Circus residence at Barclays Center, he won't get to do it in front of the home fans until early next month, near the end of his just-signed ten-day contract.
So no, Collins wasn't being disingenuous when he talked about his need to stick to basketball. He's trying, over the next ten days, to prolong his career, just as he is simultaneously emblematic of what America is and can be in 2014.
Those who would dismiss what Collins did, and what it meant on Sunday night, are either unable to see, beyond their own self-identity, what it means for a sizable portion of the American community to know they can enter a profession without sacrificing the ability to honestly present themselves to co-workers and the public, or are simply disappointed about this public victory for equality for more sinister reasons.
So no, Jason Collins couldn't be thinking about them on Sunday night, just as he couldn't, right at that moment, think about those for whom he'd acknowledged he started this conversation.
"Yes, to a certain extent," Collins said of the latter group, one rightly emboldened and advanced by his bravery and success. "But that can't be my focus."
But Collins knows it will be ours. And it will be fascinating to see him battle those expectations, a few minutes at a time, so that every gay player who comes after him can make a different choice than every gay player who came before him.