Monday afternoon was a quiet one at the Cousins Center. There were no whistles, no squeaks of rubber on hardwood, no clanging of basketballs off a ball rack on the way to the showers or treatment.
The 2012-13 season was officially over for the Milwaukee Bucks, ended Sunday afternoon by the Miami Heat in the first round of the NBA Eastern Conference playoffs. Monday marked the beginning of the offseason, with players heading in for final physicals and exit interviews with members of the player personnel department.
Several members of the media camped out near the elliptical machines, sitting on chairs and on the floor, talking, half-watching a muted ESPN broadcast between interviews.
The sports world, especially the part of it which the NBA operates in, made a giant revolution at about 11 a.m. in that quiet. There was no shaking of the earth, or clarion calls in the distance. Instead, word exploded via social media and then on television with the news that 12-year NBA veteran Jason Collins had come out to Sports Illustrated.
Collins, who spent parts of this past season with the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards, became the first active, male athlete in one of America’s "big four" sports leagues (Major League Baseball, National Football League and National Hockey League) to do so.
The announcement was historic, and Collins’ basketball colleagues that filtered in and out of the Cousins Center expressed nothing but support for a player who hopes to continue his NBA career in 2013-14.
"I’m proud of him. I’m proud of him," J.J. Redick said. "I know it’s not an easy thing to do, obviously. He obviously showed a lot of courage to come out in the sporting world. In this environment it’s a very difficult thing. So, props to him. It doesn’t change in any way how I view him or feel about him. If anything it’s a really good thing for our culture."
Added veteran Mike Dunleavy: "I thought it was great for the LGBT community. Having known Jason in passing, playing against him and stuff like that, I just don’t think of guys in terms of sexual preference or who they like, who they date. So, it’s something to me that I don’t’ want to say is not a big deal because people are making a big deal out of it, but if that’s what makes him more happy, more comfortable, good for him. Hopefully it encourages other people, if they want to do that, to come out and say it. Hopefully it’s a step in the right direction for professional sports and our society."
The NBA has long been a forerunner in American professional male athletics in promoting inclusion within its league.
OnMilwaukee.com spoke with NBA commissioner David Stern about inclusion in male pro sports as a whole when the Milwaukee Wave hired Sue Black to be the first openly gay female chief executive in a male pro sports league.
"As a league – and I do mean the WNBA and the NBA – we consider ourselves to be progressive and inclusive," Stern said. "And that means that all are welcome – if they’ve got game. And if their game is on the court, that’s one thing. And if their game is in the front office, that’s another. But if you’ve got the right game, come one, come all. It gives us an advantage in recruiting."
Golden State Warriors President and CEO Rick Welts also spoke with OnMilwaukee.com about Black’s hiring, as he was the first chief executive in one of the "big four" sports leagues to come out. He said while his decision to disclose his sexuality was an important move forward for himself, the NBA and male pro sports in general – the biggest leap would come when an active player chose to do the same.
"I think by definition you’re talking about 20-somethings, so they’re much younger in their life experience," Welts said. "They have a very short period of time to earn a living at the one thing they’ve been preparing to earn a living at their entire lives. I think both in how you evolve as a person and the reality and concern about potentially jeopardizing your livelihood … and I think, the culture of the male team sport is such that … I think there are more …. I think it’s going to be more courageous when a player actually takes that step. It’s important that administrators do, and significant, but I would not place that at the same level of an active player who would do the same thing."
Mbah a Moute did wonder if this announcement would affect Collins’ own free agency, however.
"That’s going to be interesting, too, if no one brings him in," Mbah a Moute asked. "It might be a positive. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out for him. If a team chooses him that’s something you’re going to have to deal with, not just for the negative point of view, but just to deal with it – the attention. It’s the first time a player comes out, an active player, and says that he’s gay, so you’re going to have a lot of attention. You’re going to have people always watching that. You’ll have that going to linger in your locker room so do you want that or not? It’s going to be interesting to see. "
He then said if an organization decided Collins was a good fit for that team, it would be no issue in the locker room.
"Gay people are part of this society – we live with them, they’re our friends, our co-workers and now they are our teammate," Mbah a Moute said. "It was going to happen some day or another. It just happened to be (Monday)."
It was a sentiment echoed by Henson, Redick and Dunleavy.
"I don’t think so," Dunleavy said. "I mean, golly, the good guys outweigh any of the guys that would have issues or be immature or question it. I just really can’t see, even in the worst of locker rooms, it being an issue. Nowadays, in this society, in 2013, people are aware and I’d be shocked if it presented any type of issue."
Before Collins came out on Monday, and in speaking about the relative shoulder shrug such news as Black’s hiring and the disclosure of many other gay athletes in other sports or countries often receive, Welts said he wasn’t surprised by that mindset – even in pro sports.
"Our society has moved dramatically on this issue," he said. "I think the reason, in many ways, is the fact that there are more and more people who have a personal experience with or a personal connection with who have come out or made their sexual preference public. To me you’re only really scared of things you don’t understand and I think a lot of people as they realize who in their lives is in that situation become a lot less, I should just say a lot more comfortable with the fat that it’s no different than the color of your skin or how you worship or your national origin in terms of the characteristics that define a person."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.