To refer to Jason Collins’ past few years as “eventful” would be quite the understatement. In a 2013 Sports Illustrated cover story, he came out and became the first openly gay active athlete in a major team sport in the United States. Then he proceeded to play a season with the Brooklyn Nets, immediately evolving into a figurehead for acceptance and a role model for thousands and thousands of people across the world. And now, following his official retirement from basketball last November, Collins begins a new chapter, starting this week as an analyst for Yahoo! Sports. While in Austin for Dove Men+Care’s #RealStrength panel—a conversation about the true meaning of strength that he headlined with former college stars Alonzo Mourning and Bo Kimble—Collins told us about his new job and some of his favorite hoops memories.
SLAM: Sometimes fans give guys like Charles Barkley crap about the fact that they don’t know much about the NCAA players they’re analyzing on TV. Are you all studied up for your new gig?
Jason Collins: You know, Charles knows what it’s like to be on the court. Charles knows basketball. And that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m not gonna go out there and act like I know every single player and every single team, but I can tell you what it’s like to be on the court, both in college and professionally, playing in the postseason. My freshman year, my team, we went to the Final Four. I wasn’t able to play in the game because I was recovering from two knee surgeries, but I was participating in practices we had in San Antonio, at the Alamo Dome, and talking about what it’s like to shoot the ball with different sightlines because the arenas are so huge, just that adjustment that the players have to make. And also, with my NBA experience, going to the Finals twice. Zo’s walking around with that big-ass ring, which is amazing and I wish I had one of those, but I can talk about what it’s like to be the starting center in the NBA Finals matched up against David Robinson and Tim Duncan. I’ll bring that knowledge. And then my experience being a No. 1 seed and getting knocked out by North Carolina, who was the 8-seed, in the second round. And the disappointment of that. That’s what I’m trying to bring to the viewer, and we have a lot of other guys who can be the talking heads about the different players and that.
SLAM: In that case I won’t ask you for too many super-hot takes, but obviously everybody is curious if anybody can beat Kentucky. What do you think?
JC: We’re actually talking about that today. I don’t know. I’ve watched a lot of college basketball in preparation for this job, and I like that Arizona has two big guys, but will those guys get in foul trouble? Will they be able to stay on the court? You have to have size to go up against these guys. And I talked about this a little bit on today’s panel, but the way that low-post defenders defend now, you have to have your arms straight up. In pro basketball, Jerry Sloan was my brother’s coach, and my brother told me this: He called it surrender defense. When Jerry Sloan would see a low-post player with his hands like that, he called it surrender defense, but in college basketball you have to play that way. It’s like, if you’re a skilled low-post player or have athleticism to jump up and over guys, the advantage is totally with offensive players. So Kentucky being a bigger team with a lot of big guys that can score the basketball, they have an advantage against most teams. The key thing with teams like Arizona is: Can those guys who are guarding them stay on the court and not get in foul trouble? Also, they’re gonna have to hit a lot of threes. A lot of things have to go right. But hey, we were a 2-seed going up against Gonzaga, who was still an unknown in 1999, and we shot horribly from three-point range, and we had all this size inside with my brother and myself and Mark Madsen, and they were still able to win because Richie Frahm got hot. If you’re able to knock down a bunch of threes, the three-point ball can be a great equalizer in college basketball.
SLAM: You’ve spoken and written a bunch about being the guy whose job it was to try to find a way to slow down Shaq—that sounds like it was miserable. But was there anybody that you looked forward to guarding, knowing you could really shut them down?
JC: I love challenges. From a defensive standpoint, I loved going up against the best and shutting them down. I’ll never forget a game when we played against Dwight Howard when I was with the New Jersey Nets, and the two primary low-post defenders guarding him were myself and Cliff Robinson. Between the two of us, we held his butt to 1 point. Can you imagine playing against Dwight Howard, and for the entire game—it wasn’t like he was in big foul trouble, he just wasn’t able to score on us. We took so much pride in that. And granted Dwight has gotten a lot better with his post moves, but with Orlando he was still a dominant beast, and we held him to 1 point. Cliff and I, speaking of Shaq, we were the primary low post defenders, because the other big on the team was Nenad Kristic, a Serbian kid, and Nenad wasn’t necessarily the most physical basketball player, so he always played on the perimeter. Cliff and I, against Shaq, when he did his moves, we would say, OK, this is the “meat cleaver,” when he uses his arm to move past the defender. And then we had another term called the “spine tingler,”when he just puts all his body weight in, and he’s going for the offensive foul, but he’s just doing it so he can hurt your spine [laughs].
SLAM: The NBA big man has evolved a lot over the past decade-plus—if you were entering the League today, do you think you’d be able to have the kind of career you had?
JC: My senior year at college—after my wrist injury—I actually became a better shooter, and I was shooting like 44 percent or something like that from three-point range. Hopefully I would’ve told myself to continue to work and develop my three-point shooting. Even early on in my pro career, I think it was my second or third year, I can’t remember, but I actually went 2 for 5 from three-point range, and it wasn’t like desperation, end-of-shot clock shots. I was actually out there shooting threes. And then I just got to a point where I just didn’t want to be a spot-up shooter. I enjoyed being the defensive player and that just kind of became my role and served me well.
SLAM: Did you realize you could have more longevity being that guy? Because there was always a role for that in the NBA.
JC: Yes. There’s always a role for a player like that, and granted I’ve been very fortunate and have made a lot of money playing basketball, but—and hopefully one day I’ll have kids—my brother has a son, and if my nephew ever gets to this “Which path do I take?” situation, defense will win and you’ll have an offer, but offense will get you a bigger contract [laughs]. So it’s like, which one do you want?
SLAM: How’d you get involved in the Real Strength panel?
JC: I do a lot of work with The Players Tribune [one of the panel’s sponsors]. I’m a contributor to the site and I’ve done a couple articles with them—and now that they’ve expanded their content, we’ll see when it comes out, but I interviewed congressman Joe Kennedy.
SLAM: How was that?
JC: It was funny. It was weird to have to keep the conversation going.
SLAM: Now you appreciate being on this side of the table.
JC: Yeah, it’s not easy. It’s actually easier to be on this side, because you can just ramble and keep talking, but Joe would go in a different direction, and it’d be like, Do I stick to the script of questions? Or do I just go with this train of thought? So yeah, that was my first time doing it.
SLAM: Having spent 13 seasons in the NBA, did you see the concept of strength change at all over the years?
JC: Yeah, because I think strength has turned into acceptance. Like in the past, say I made my announcement a decade ago, I think we would’ve seen a lot of mixed [reactions]—like when John Ameachi came out a few years ago, you saw the comments that were made by Tim Hardaway. To Tim’s credit, when I came out, he actually called me out to congratulate me and support me. That’s how much growth he has done.
SLAM: Did that feel genuine? Or more like something he thought he had to do?
JC: Yeah, because he definitely did not have to do that. I actually did my homework, and after that conversation I went online and saw that he’s actually become a huge supporter of gay rights. It just shows you how much someone is capable of change once A. they know someone and B. once they’re confronted with an opinion and they go out there and say what they said, and he realizes that that’s not being a good teammate, that’s not being a supportive individual for someone who is just living their authentic life. To his credit, I give him a lot of credit to how much he’s grown as a human being. He’s not the only one. I’ve heard former teammates of mine use homophobic language in the past, and then when I came out, they reached out to me, and I wasn’t expecting that, that they’d be so supportive. It just shows that once you know that so and so, or your teammate, is gay, it helps them change. And it’s like, “I don’t know them as gay, I just know them as Jason. The guy who works hard, the guy who’s always there for the team.” And they were so supportive.
Adam Figman is a Senior Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @afigman.