John Amaechi, in all likelihood, wasn’t the first gay player in the NBA. And Jason Collins, in truth, isn’t the first known homosexual in the league. Such matters are never simple. There are, as there always is, varying degrees of truth.
Most in British basketball circles knew of Amaechi’s preferences, long before he write a best-selling book that brought the news to middle America. Just, as many in the NBA will surely have known intuitively about Collins before he wrote an honest and brave exposé in Sports Illustrated earlier this week.
How could they not have known, suggests the Briton, who was one of Collins’ confidantes in recent weeks as he prepares for his public outing? “You can’t spend that much time around people without them understanding something about you,” he declares in an exclusive interview with MVP247.com.
“In Utah, it was an open secret. I’ve spoken to people (who I knew me) in college – and I didn’t do a lot in college – and they knew I was gay at that point.”
Rumours frequently circulated when the now 42-year-old was plying his trade in the USA. While with the Magic, there were hints from Tracy McGracy in a magazine article that he had played (shock!) along side someone gay. However no-one truly blew the Mancunian’s cover. The locker room code, in a way, remained true. There were unspoken acknowledgements, an acceptance of sorts.
“I remember when the confirmation conversation happened with my team in Orlando,” Amaechi recalls. “I was studying, and it wasn’t unusual for me for people to huddle around different tables because I’d usually be working on my computer with the headphones on.
“But on one long east-to-west coast trip, Monty Williams (now coach of the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans) comes wandering back and says to me: ‘Meech, you don’t talk about women a lot.’ And I said: ‘Indeed.’ And he put his hand on my shoulder, went: ‘cool’ and then walked off back to the group. And that was it.”
Yet, he says, the world inhabited now by Collins bears little comparison to the one which was to be found in Cleveland when he first came into the NBA 17 years ago. It would have been “inconceivable” for him to have shaken the hands of his new colleagues, and casually mentioned: ‘I’m gay’.
“It was 1995,” he recounts. “The laws criminalising gay people were multiplied by ten. I would have lost my job instantly. Most of the owners I played for were still, not just historically but to this day, donating to anti-gay causes regularly.”
People, he alleges, “like (Magic owner) Rich DeVos. (Jazz owner) Larry Miller’s now dead but that group still does donate to the Mormon Church and to organisations which have put in legislation to discriminate against gay people. It’s not a kind of passing, or going: ‘I don’t approve’. It’s an active bigotry, that’s going on.”
Back then, to be out and proud would have been simply too difficult for anyone whose high-earning prime lay ahead and whose next contract was far from guaranteed.
“Now, the league is unequivocal,” he states. “I spoke to David Stern just a couple of days ago, not about Jason but about another player. His support has been without reservation. He’s not a warm fuzzy guy. It’s not like he wants a nice picture to put on the back of his annual report.
“He’s about profit. And he believes, like most corporations these days, that creating an atmosphere where a player can play at their best without having to worry or be particularly concerned about their safety, is a positive.”
Collins is not a lone exception, Amaechi confirms. Just as he has met players in the British Basketball League who have confided in him about their homosexuality, there is a circle of trust among those who are, or have been, on an NBA court.
“Some of them are friends. But not because they’re gay. Some of them I just know because we’re a very small fraternity so there are very few people who you can talk to who have had similar experiences or who can lend you advice.
“Jason, I’ve been talking to for the last month. He hasn’t needed my advice. He just wanted to throw his thoughts off someone who’s had a similar experience. That’s all he’s done. All of this is his own doing, his own plan.”
Whether Collins, who spent this past season between the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics, ever plays again in the league is to be decided. Team executives in recent days have spoken of his fine character, of his work ethic, but also of diminishing skills and a long career which, at age 34, is nearing its home straight.
The potential downside of his revelation has been diminished, simply, by having less to lose. Even if there had been the most negative of reactions, Collins can sit back on the millions he has already earned and, with a Stanford degree, simply opt for another career.
The NBA may welcome him back. That, alone, does not make America a perfect society. And, Amaechi insists, it will not mean that others will be persuaded to emerge into the open in his wake.
“I don’t understand this floodgates question I keep hearing asked, that this will open the floodgates,” he affirms. “That requires some logistical adjustments by the powers that be. In the NBA, there’s been some of those adjustments. But within America, there’s not.
“Is a mid-career guy going to come out, a guy who has one or two years to go under the pension level? Are they really going to take the shot that they’ll end up with Mark Cuban? Or are they going to wait and see. Because as much as NBA Central is behind this, and they’re a 1000 times more enlightened than football in this country, there are still some problematic organisations.
“The NFL is overtly homophobic with coaches who make statements that are just reprehensible. There are coaches who make statements about women that are reprehensible. There’s a lot of work to do there.”
It is a work in progress. But with Amaechi first, and now Collins, there are steps taken forward. From tolerance to quiet acceptance, to an ending of segregation, society can only listen and learn.
In basketball and in the world outside, change is – and always will be – a never-ending process.
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