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Three Short Essays: One About Jason Collins, One About Basketball, And One About Waiting For Bigots To Finally Be Right

1. I Love Jason Collins
Jason Collins played in an NBA game last night and nothing happened. He played third-team big-man minutes, which equated to ten minutes of court time, two rebounds, one steal, and five fouls. For more about Collins’ performance, here’s Ball Don’t Lie’s recap:

This wasn’t ceremonial, or marketing, or window-dressing. The Nets are fairly thin up front, and even more so when Kevin Garnett sits to rest his aging frame, as he did Sunday; Brooklyn needs big bodies to defend and set screens. Thus, Collins, a career-long role player imported to play a role. Collins becoming the NBA’s first out gay player is exceedingly headline-worthy, but Collins’ game itself isn’t and never really has been … and as you can begin to see in the clip above, he began playing it almost immediately. Which was great.

Get up the court, set screens, give your guards room to breathe. Get back down the court, body up the other team’s biggest guy, make life a little bit more miserable for Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman, and when they beat you, hit them hard enough to prevent an easy bucket. Do it again. And again. And again.

This, incidentally, is what that moment looked like:

Jason Collins Makes History | Nets vs Lakers | February 23, 2014 | NBA 2013-2014 Season

Just look at it! Just look at the…the…umm, that was kind of boring, right? Not for the reasons that bigots might trumpet of course, but because it was perfectly formulaic. Collins comes into the game, heads to the low block, fights off a quarter-hearted Chris Kaman attempt at something, then he comes down the floor, throws a vicious elbows-up moving screen, scrums for a rebound that won’t be coming because the Nets shooter made his three, and then he heads back on defense. As I said, it’s boring. It’s the kind of basketball that very few people watch. Hell, it’s the kind of basketball that very few people even know to look for. It’s third-string, traditional big-man basketball.

Bigots were telling us that gay athletes would never fit into professional sports because “Distractions!” or “Locker rooms!” or “Team unity!” or “The other athletes couldn’t handle it!” or whatever other stupid excuse was trotted out, but the reality was that they always assumed their own discomfort was universal. But yesterday, the New York Nets made a point of welcoming Collins back. And then they dominated they beat the hapless Lakers all over the floor, even if the game got close in the end. Everybody’s emphasis was on the real issue with any player: could Collins could still contribute? For at least one night, Collins – out gay man or not – was perfectly capable of playing 10 minutes of professional basketball in precisely the way that his team wanted him too.

That’s what makes Collins lovable. What he did last night is what he’s done his entire career: played rugged basketball. He’s been playing basketball this way for more than a decade and he’s been successful at it, even if his work isn’t the kind that shows up on the stat sheet. He’s found a professional niche and exploited it for a career, essentially committing to be among the best in the world at playing basketball in this particular way.

That basketball functions this way is one of the reasons that claims of a gay player undermining a team proved so ludicrous. If you excel at doing something and a team needs that something? What does it matter if the player doing it is gay? But we’ll get back to that.

I Love Basketball
I’ve never been particularly good at basketball, but I’ve remained enthusiastic about the game. It helps that I’ve been 6’3”ish since I was 12. That’s tall enough to occasionally encounter coaches who wanted me to play. But how they wanted me to play – “You stand here, don’t move, grab rebounds, and pass the ball the better players!” – never seemed to be particularly fun. Playing pickup basketball was always more rewarding than playing on a team so I did that instead. When I was in high-school, the NBA had a Saturday Morning highlights show, and on it, there were occasionally player profiles, including the one I saw: it was about Scottie Pippen shooting bankshots.

I was entranced. The only other thing I had going for me as a player was the ability to put some thought into what I was doing. That sounds good as a 33-year-old, but when you’re 13, standing there thinking while yet another guard blows by you is slightly less rewarding. The bankshot made a sort of sense to me that other shots didn’t, mostly because I would just be aiming at the same general spot every time I played. Hell, there’s even a box on the backboard that does everything short of screaming, “AIM RIGHT HERE!” So I set about teaching myself to shoot bankshots. Over and over and over, mostly from the right. That lead to other revelations, including that most defenders expected me to go down low, and that if I went there, I could pop out to my spot, catch, and shoot very quickly before they had a chance to defend me. When I was younger and quicker, I turned this into a relatively repeatable move. I figured out what I could do to be worth my salt on the floor. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to figure out how to be wilier, but in my heart, I’m happy going down low then cutting back out for the same sort of catch and release that I was shooting ten years ago.

Basketball rewards players who know exactly what they can do and who stick to it. It punishes players who don’t. This is true at the highest levels. It’s true on local courts. The idiots chucking up everything Philip Seymour Hoffman style eventually get frozen out, because they’re not contributing. One of my greatest pleasures in basketball* is seeing players who know exactly what they’re doing proceeding to do exactly what they know how to do. Those are the types of players you can win games with.

Jason Collins is that type of player at the premier level.

When Are Bigots Going To Get Something Right?
Bigots have always been quick to tell anybody willing to listen how divisive a gay player will be. These days, they’ll do it from the behind the veil of anonymity that national reporters offer them, but they’ll still do it.

“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” said an NFL player personnel assistant. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”

These ludicrous claims have always been underpinned by the inability to disprove them, something anonymous cowards have relied upon to assert their own bigotry. “Since we don’t know what will happen,” they seem to be saying, “…you just need to trust our insider information.”

But now that Collins is out – now, in fact, that Collins has played a game in which the earth did not tilt off its axis, in which professional basketball players paid to play basketball somehow found the fortitude necessary to continue doing so – that claim gets more tenuous. Because now the people reading this claptrap can rightfully and indignantly wonder why exactly the bigot’s strongly asserted claims never actually came to be? It’s a fair question, at least in part because the nightmarish futures predicted by the socially conservative seem to have a habit of never bothering to actually come true.

Although socially conservatives repeatedly predicted otherwise, gay marriage in Massachusetts didn’t actually destroy marriage there. In fact, Massachusetts tends to be better at marriage than literally everybody else, but especially many of the states most horrified by the existence of gays, places like Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. Then there’s this study about the state of marriage is more liberal versus more conservative places, and if the findings surprise you, you haven’t been paying attention. Finally, this, in which it is noted that, at worst, gay marriage rates don’t affect marriage where it is legal, other than encouraging a brief increase in the marriage rates as interested gay couples all head to the altar as soon as it is legalized.

At some point, this sort of predictive quackery starts to matter, especially when the promises horrors never actually materialize. That it hasn’t mattered sooner is an issue for consideration** but it has started mattering now. That is the point we’ve reached not only with gay marriage, but with out male athletes in North American sports. As we see more Jason Collinss and Michael Sams – and there will be more – we will see more and more evidence that what matters is on-field performance, not off-field sexuality. And those gutless wonders being given anonymous opportunities to slander gay players? They will end up being disproven, just as those before them who slandered gay marriage have been repeatedly undone by reality.

(Photo from GQ.)

*Quick Tip – if you’re playing pickup and a woman is shooting nearby and she can shoot? Get her on your team. Because the other guys are going to put their worst defender on her. She will carve them up. Many male players will do this repeatedly, mostly out of a chauvinistic confidence coupled with a blinkered stupidity as to what it takes to win basketball games. It takes making baskets. Anybody can make baskets. Some people look the part, but looks aren’t the same as makes.

** Perhaps society is really wedded to the idea that the tu quoque is a fallacy that matters? Even though it doesn’t.

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47 thoughts on “Three Short Essays: One About Jason Collins, One About Basketball, And One About Waiting For Bigots To Finally Be Right

  1. Fantastic piece, Sam.

    On basketball:
    I enjoy the high flying acrobatics of basketball as much as anyone. Those few times where I can see a crease in the defense develop at the same time LeBron does draws me to my feet. When he finishes strong, I’m likely to yell out. Even if I’m watching alone in my basement. I’m one of the few people over 30 who still enjoys the dunk contest. I’m still debating writing an open letter to the league demanding that they stop hosting All-Star weekend on Valentine’s Day weekend so I can more consistently watch it.

    However, I also really, really enjoy the little things you discuss here. One of my favorite players to watch in recent years has been Zach Randolph. Z-Bo can’t jump over the foul line. But he has an amazing array of low post moves. They’re not particularly exciting unless you know what he’s doing. Having been relegated to the post myself (more so because of strength and a complete lack of dribble), I’m well aware of how difficult it is to pull off multiple jab steps. So I’ll sit there. And watch and cheer his jab steps. “ANOTHER JAB STEP!” “You mean that little thing he did with his foot there?” “YEA! HOW EXCITING!”
    I also have spent countless afternoons watching YouTube montages of Hakeem’s footwork and Scottie Pippen’s defense. OHMYGOD is that exciting stuff. I always said that if I could have one dominant basketball skill that wasn’t dunking, it’d be shutdown perimeter defense. Boring to many but good god is it fun.

    Basketball is unique in that roles have to be openly accepted. In baseball, Mark Teixeira isn’t going to ask to play SS, no matter how much he might want to. Jeff Saturday never asked Peyton Manning if he could take a few snaps. These guys accepted their roles, but they didn’t really have a choice. Basketball is different. Ray Allen used to score 25 points a game and could probably still put up 20 per if he was so inclined. But he’s recognized that he contributes best to his team when he spots up in the corner for the game’s most efficient shot. So he does that and his team wins.

    On the other end, you have players like Carmelo and Kevin Love. Both put up absurd numbers, but largely in losing efforts. Because they are playing for numbers, playing a brand of basketball that doesn’t contribute to winning. Melo has scored 35+ in 4 straight games, during which the Knicks are 1-3. All part of arguably the most disappointing season any team has had in recent memory. Love’s numbers are off the charts, but scouts point out he often abandons defensive assignments to position himself for rebounds. Because rebounds get you paid in a way that team defense doesn’t. So Love puts up 26-13 on a 10th place team playing below .500 basketball. I don’t mean to get all curmudgeonly, shaking my fist as kids today. I actually think the NBA is more exciting now than it has been in a long time. But it is because superstars like LeBron, Durant, Chris Paul, and Duncan get it while contemporaries like Melo and Love or predecessors like Iverson and Carter didn’t. And don’t even get me started on Wally Szczerbiak, who actually stole passes intended for his teammates because he couldn’t accept not being the superstar.

    Regarding bigots, what frustrates me is that they often insulate themselves such that they never have to acknowledge they’re wrong. The people who think gays won’t be accepted in NBA locker rooms still think that. Should you point out what happened in the Brooklyn locker room over the weekend, they’ll dismiss it. “People are just being politically correct. It’s the gay agenda!” So they never actually have to reflect on their views in a broader context. FWIW, I do see this happen on the left sometimes, too — it is in large part the result of increasing polarization — but it seems dominant on the extreme ends of the right in a unique way.

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    • Kazzy,

      Some of this I agree with.

      However, lumping Iverson in Melo, Love, and Carter is an injustice. Iverson was a 6′ guard that literally dragged a team of underperforming players into an NBA Finals and then, against one of the best teams in recent history, he actually dragged his team to a win. Iverson was knocked for constantly shooting and for dogging it in practice (“Practice! We’re talking about practice?”) but having the sixth best scoring average ever, and the second best playoff scoring average, suggests an incredible level of scoring acumen. (A Sweet Sixteen and an Elite Eight appearance while in college don’t hurt either.) Iverson was the first pick in his draft, a Rookie of the Year, an MVP winner, a multiple-season scoring champ, and a truly transcendent professional player for somebody of his size. And that’s before we deal with his less-than-suitable teammates, the best of whom were either Dikembe Mutombo (at the end of his career) or Theo Ratliff. What would his career have looked like more competent teammates?

      For his career, he averaged 41 minutes a game, 26.7 points, 6+ assists, more than 3.5 rebounds, and 2.2 steals. Those are fantastic numbers.

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      • Allow me to clarify, as everything you said is right. First, I loved Iverson. I loved his game. I loved his attitude. I loved his fearlessness. But I don’t think he ever “got it”. Which is why his career so quickly fell apart. Once he couldn’t play with the same tenaciousness, he had nothing left. I think Larry Brown was very good for him, but I do wonder how his career would have turned out if he had a viable player-mentor early in his career. Maybe nothing would have changed. I mean, he had John Thompson as a coach and that wasn’t QUITE enough.

        But you’re right… I would take Iverson over any of those other guys. I lumped him in there more because he was a star during a time when many people found the NBA unwatchable. That wasn’t all or even mostly his fault, but he was a part of it. Whether he was a symptom or a cause, it’s hard to say.

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  2. Since I don’t pay attention to most sports, I have to ask this: Is the guy any good at the sport?

    If he is, then I don’t give a damn if he’s gay, in the closet or not, straight, or whatever.

    If he’s not, it’s all political. I’d object to that.

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    • Collins never was an all-star talent. Most guys aren’t. But he was very good at a specific role. And because part of that role requires being gigantic, there is greater demand than supply. Collins is well suited for the role the Nets are seeking to use him in. He’s not perfectly suited… but he’s good enough. In fact, he wasn’t even their first choice. They had originally attempted to sign another place, but that player opted for the Clippers. Collins was a backup choice. And as Mark pointed out on my post, the Nets have a very slim margin for error at this point in the year and it would be foolish for them to take an unnecessary risk for PR reasons.

      There is very little doubt among people paying attention that Collins was signed to play 10-15 minutes a game, play defense, and create space for other players on the offensive end.

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      • Jason Collins is finished. Maybe five years ago he could play the role you are talking about. Lets get back to reality where we have an old player that can’t do anything well anymore at this point. You will see unfortunately. The Nets will find out quickly he has nothing left and he will DNP or a play a couple minutes at most in the vast majority of games. The guy was horrible last year and at his best when he was younger was a very situational player. It makes me very uncomfortable to say this but I will stop lowering the bar for this guy because he is gay. He can’t play.

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    • He remains, even at 35, a very good low-post defender. He also remains a player whose teams rebound better when he is on the floor, often because he effectively seals off the man he’s defending (the biggest of the other team’s players) opening up the area underneath the basket for his teammates to go after missed shots.

      Unfortunately for him, there isn’t as much low-post offense being played these days, not because of anything he did, but because the game is de-emphasizing the bigmen of yesteryear for more fluid, skillful seven-footers. However, owing to injuries and the need for a big, competent body, the Nets put fact aside to sign Collins to a 10-day contract. (NBA players can get two 10-day contracts in a season; then the team has to decide if it wants him for the rest of the season.)

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  3. What amazes me is that someone could play for only 10 minutes and get 5 fouls. Which goes to support my theory that in basketball, everything can be interpreted as a foul.

    (By the way, this isn’t a disagreement with your post. I just don’t understand basketball.)

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    • The question is whether the fouls are good, hard fouls. In other words, are they clean? Do they make the other team’s bigman more skittish in attacking the rim? Do they force a miss and a center/forward to the line to shoot free-throws? If so, the tradeoff can be worth it. See the famous Hack-A-Player defenses that were utilized against players like Shaquille O’Neal and, more recently, Dwight Howard. You’d rather those guys try to get their points making consecutive free-throws than dunking/laying-it-in.

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    • Well, it is also likely that Collins was a half-step (or more) slow, which tends to lead to more fouls. He hasn’t played basketball at NBA speed in about 9 months. When your feet are dragging, you reach more with your arms. I would expect him to do better as he rounds into shape (though he’ll have to do so quickly with only a 10-day). It is also possible, as Sam notes, they wanted him to be a bit of an enforcer back there.

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  4. Great post, Sam. However, you say…

    At some point, this sort of predictive quackery starts to matter, especially when the promised horrors never actually materialize. That it hasn’t mattered sooner is an issue for consideration, but it has started mattering now.

    Sam – could you share why you think it is starting to matter now? We’ve been told for 3 decades at least that the nation’s moral decay was going to bring the End Times at any moment. Yet, the quacks still get asked to share their opinions on national TV all the time. Right now, in AZ, an elected legislature has drafted protection of bigotry into law, because… religious morals. These legislators will continue to be elected. I see no price being paid for always being wrong.

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    • I think we’re witnessing a slow cultural change. The hand-waving extremists painting the nightmare scenarios just aren’t winning the way they used to, and at least part of that is because the underpinning of their claims is being undone by time and experience.

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      • Thank you for the reply, Sam. I agree that the cultural is changing despite the proclamations of the bigots, though I don’t think that’s an indication that the hand-waving extremists have been weakened significantly. I guess I’d just like there to be some consequence in an informational age to what should be seen by all cognitive observers as a loss of credibility for these voices. Even in a children’s fable, Chicken Little gets eaten for her foolishness.

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      • There’s been talk today that Jan Brewer will veto Arizona’s proposed legislation. Even if she’s doing it for the “wrong” reasons – the current claim is that they can’t risk the state’s economic growth – the reality is that she values that economic rationale more than satisfying the demands of the bigots claiming that an oppressive atmosphere exists. The conservatively cultural hold on morality is slipping away.

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      • If this law passed, there is a very good chance the NFL will pull the 2015 Super Bowl. There is actually a precedent for this when Arizona politicians and voters voted against observing Martin Luther King day. The 1993 Super Bowl was moved to Pasadena as a result.

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      • He lives in Flagstaff which is a great place and has a different vibe then the Phoenix area which is the big population center of AZ. Tuscon is less socon then the Phoenix subrubs. It is, mostly, the Phoenix metro area and rural areas that drives most of the wacky stuff. I like AZ a lot, there is far more to it, then the wacka doodle legislature.

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      • – that’s certainly part of it IMO. Older = more socially conservative to begin with, plus oncoming dementia/not giving a fish what anyone else thinks, because they’re old, plus lots of free time to spend on lost causes, because they are retired. And politicians that must pander to that base. Joe Quimby doesn’t get elected without Abe Simpson and Jasper Beardly.

        Plus the heat makes everybody crazy.

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  5. Growing up in KY is seemed like almost everyone had a basketball goal in their backyard. I played thousands of hours of backyard ball but never had any interest in playing on a real team. I was too focused on baseball. I agree with Sam that people don’t practice the bank shot enough. Especially with three pointers. If you aim for the right spot the backboard will funnel the ball right in. We had a crappy goal in our yard with springs that had been rendered useless by too many lowered-rim-dunk-contests. I loved it though because you could heave balls at it and they would just die when they hit the backboard and fall right in the basket. Many a game of horse involved lobbing the ball from insane distances and depending on this effect to make the shot.

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  6. I have never been any good at the athletic parts of basketball.

    When I was really young, I had a lot of ear infections that mucked with my balance. I also grew like a Dane puppy, my body was all gangly. Finally, my feet are weird and I didn’t figure out what the hell people were talking about when they were talking about the “balls of your feet” until I was in college. I can’t shoot very well, and I’m still a terrible dribbler.

    I can, however, read a court pretty well. And therein lies the difference.

    I’ve been coaching an 8-10 team (playoffs on Saturday!) and what I’ve been trying to drill into their heads is that (optimally) only one player on the team is actually going to shoot the ball each time down the court, but all five players *have to play offense*. Spacing is important. Staying between your assigned player and the basket, being conservative about going for steals but really committing when you do go for it. Getting open lanes to the basket are important. Setting picks off the ball. Knowing when to stay out of the paint – to keep your defender out of the paint more than anything else, and knowing when you’re actually supposed to *move* in to crash the boards, so that you optimally get to the space where the ball is going just as the ball gets there. Boxing out. Like Sam says, it’s boring basketball, shooting threes as the buzzer is running out is way more “fun”. It’s fundamental basketball.

    But it’s that fundamental basketball that makes it all the more likely that you won’t *have* to shoot threes at the buzzer to win, because you’ll be up by a comfortable margin and only one or two players will be exhausted from having to run their ass off on defense instead of *everybody*.

    I have two kids on my team who are kinda like Iverson; they want to get the ball at halfcourt and beat the entire other team on the way to a layup. Although they’re both really good and they can make this happen often enough, it’s making them run around a lot more than they need to run around and it’s getting all the other players out of position for the rebounds and for getting back on defense.

    It’s really, really frustrating because fundamentally basketball – really successful team basketball – isn’t half as much about athletic ability as it is about discipline (assuming a reasonable delta between the teams in athletic ability.)

    And discipline is boring.

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  7. Jason Collins is stealing a roster spot from a more deserving player. He was awful last year below replacement level and is another year older and hasn’t played. A random big out of the D-League would do as well or better. Why can’t we get to a point in society where you are just judged on how good you are. People think Jason Collins was hurt by coming out of the closet but really if you look at his play over recent seasons he doesn’t deserve to be in the league. And spare me the veteran leadership nonsense I’ve never believed in that sort of thing moving the needle much with any player. For the most part all of these guys are highly motivated professionals and the few knuckleheads among them good luck with anybody setting them straight.

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  8. Mike Schilling
    “It’s an excellent place for you to put a branch office. We have low taxes, a business-friendly regulatory climate, and we’ll treat a substantial number of your employees as second-class citizens.”

    And in addition, we try to pass laws so that if some of your employees (figuratively) sh*t all over your other employees, or your customers, or your suppliers, and please ‘religious belief’, then you can’t do anything about it. And if your suppliers suddenly decide to screw you over, or not deal with some of your employees whenever they feel like it, you’re also hosed. And if some government officials (this is Arpaio land) decide to f—- you over, and claim religious belief, oh darn.

    And for future planning purposes, we’re the sort of state which tries to do things like that, so maybe you should think of us like that psycho ex you had who torched your car and did those horrible things to your cat.

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