I can only start this column one way.
I stand with Jason Collins.
I stand with the LGBT community.
Now the question is, will NBA teams?
One of the things that makes sports special is that every so often, the games intersect with reality – the teams are forces of change, good and healing.
We saw that yesterday as the Portland Timbers hosted Atticus Lane-Dupre, an eight-year-old boy with cancer. His one wish was to take his soccer team, the Green Machine, and go to Jeld-Wen Field to play some soccer with the Timbers.
Atticus was coached by Caleb Porter. He wore the captain’s armband, shook hands with Will Johnson before the match, then during the match, nutmeged him. Atticus got ready with his team in the Timbers’ locker room, in a locker with his name on the nameplate, and his jersey in the stall.
Then, he came out of that locker room to the sight of 3,000 Timbers fans, almost filling the entire Timbers Army section of the stadium, chanting his team’s name. Atticus scored four goals, including the game winner in a game his team won 10-9. After the match was over, he traded shirts with Johnson, and raised a victory log handed to him by Timber Joey.
And you tell me sports don’t mean anything? That they’re just a distraction from life, an alternate reality?
I tell you that 3,000 Portlanders came out at 11:00 AM on a Wednesday to watch an eight-year old kid with cancer see his wildest dreams come true. I say that people were given a long lunch by their bosses to go to the stadium and watch the match. Atticus has cancer. For a few hours yesterday, that didn’t matter.
Don’t believe in magic? Go watch the highlights.
It was day that made you insanely proud to be a Portlander, prouder yet to be a Timbers’ fan, and even prouder in humanity’s power for good.
Because Atticus Lane-Dupre’s goals were #1 on SportsCenter’s Top 10 later in the night, and his story was written up by many leading major sports and soccer companies.
The Timbers made a wish Wednesday. And Atticus Lane-Dupre brightened the world of so many people who his day touched.
Sports are powerful. They are so very powerful. Often times, they don’t take full advantage of their power, but sometimes they do.
Seen 42 yet?
Jason Collins is in an interesting position. Technically, he is an active NBA player. Collins hasn’t retired and wishes to keep on playing. But in July, Collins will become a free agent, and it is doubtful that his current team, the Washington Wizards, will decide to re-sign him – Collins only averaged 1.3 rebounds and 0.7 points a game with Washington last year.
At 34 years old, the career journeyman from Stanford was seeing time quickly run out on a successful NBA journey. The announcement on Monday that he is gay changes everything.
Now, some teams won’t want to sign Collins this offseason because while Collins is a serviceable veteran, there are a lot of guys like Collins in the NBA and they haven’t come out as gay. Bringing Collins onto any team would bring tons of unwanted media attention, and it’s not so much that teams wouldn’t be signing Collins because there is homophobia in the ranks, as it is they wouldn’t be signing him because bringing in Collins would be a headache, a hassle.
Collins isn’t Jackie Robinson. Of course, Robinson had a much, much harder, bigger and more difficult task on his hands – desegregating baseball – than Collins does. But part of the reason Robinson was accepted into baseball, and with Robinson, other African-American players, was that Robinson could really play.
Jackie Robinson was a superb baseball player and so people serious about winning wanted Robinson, regardless of the color of his skin. Collins doesn’t have that going for him.
So Collins’ NBA future may come down to this: Who is willing to embrace the challenge? The reward for signing Collins and making him the first player in a major team sport to compete on the field of play as an announced gay athlete isn’t winning games or popularity contests.
It’s changing the world.
The attitude towards LGBT people in our country is changing – for the first time, more people support gay marriage than are against it. But in sports, especially team sports, homophobia still exists.
Signing Collins would send a clear message: No more. Watching Collins play on an NBA team next year, watching him block shots, and dunk would give immeasurable hope and confidence and joy to so many people.
Sports has that power. It would encourage other gay athletes to come out and create a more open environment in the closed-door world of pro sports.
Who will be brave enough to sign Collins?
The person that decides to be a hero.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports