Jason Collins is a 34-year-old NBA center. He’s black. And he’s gay.

It’s 2013, and this qualifies as major news. Disheartening? A bit (although not nearly as disheartening as the reactions that started flying on social media almost immediately—Sports Illustrated had to disable the comments section on the original article). And while much of the commentary—from players and fans alike—has been positive, there has also been more than enough foul undercurrent to remind us why no athlete in any of the four major sports had come out before yesterday.

Jason Collins was drafted 18th overall from Stanford by the Houston Rockets in 2001. He was sent to the New Jersey Nets in a multi-player deal, joining a team coming off a 26-56 season that would soon enjoy one of the biggest turnarounds in NBA history. Collins was one of many new additions—the most important being point guard Jason Kidd—that led the Nets to a 52-win season and a run to the NBA Finals, where they were swept by the Lakers.

Todd MacCulloch was the Nets starting center, but Collins played in 77 games, started nine, and contributed 18 hard-fought (and often hard-fouling) minutes per. His averages of 4.5 points and 3.9 boards weren’t All-Rookie material, but he was in the rotation. He fit right in.

I don’t know all of this because I was watching games on television, or because I looked up some stats on Basketball Reference. I know this because I was there. I was editor-in-chief of SLAMmagazine at the time, and I—we—made plenty of trips through the tunnel to “the swamp” in the ’90s and ’00s.

 

Hopefully No. 98 is back on the court, and the only thing he’s getting insulted for is his nonexistent footspeed.

 

That ’01-02 team was everything Nets fans needed after decades of heartache, a salve on a wound that seemed as if it would never close. And while Collins would never be mistaken for Wilt Chamberlain, he played hard and made things tough for whoever he faced. This is a guy Dirty Harry would have liked—he knew his limitations.

As for what Collins was like in the locker room: He was like anyone else. He was a good quote—seeing that he went to Stanford, this should have come as no surprise—and he was convivial and polite. In short, he was pretty much everything you’d expect from a smart young kid trying to find his footing in the league. Back then he was just another somewhat anonymous Nets big in a long line of them. He was a great third or fourth source who seemed to fit in just great with his more talented teammates both on and off the floor.

But...but...what does it all mean?

Here’s what it shouldn’t mean. It shouldn’t affect whether Jason Collins is still an active NBA player next year or not. He’ll be 35 in December, and hasn’t played 40 games in a season since ’10-11, when he played in 49 with the Hawks. He hasn’t been an everyday starter since ’06-07, and those days would appear to be long over. But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t give a team quality minutes off the bench next year. Hopefully No. 98 is back on the court, and the only thing he’s getting insulted for is his nonexistent footspeed.

Bigger picture? Collins may be a career journeyman, but he’s almost the perfect guy to come out. It immediately defuses the “what would it be like to play with a gay teammate?” issue. Collins has been in the league for 12 years and played for six teams. In other words, he’s played alongside a lot of guys, none of whom (not even his twin brother) had any idea he was any different than they were. Which should be the entire point. Jason Collins announced he was gay, and got on the cover of Sports Illustrated. This announcement felt big. The next one—and the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that—hopefully won’t.