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Column: Dwight Howard, yes, but how about Jason Collins?

AP national writer Tim Dahlberg. (AP Photo)

AP national writer Tim Dahlberg. (AP Photo)

The Los Angeles Lakers want Dwight Howard so badly they put up billboards urging him to stay in town, then got Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash to get on bended knee before him.

The Houston Rockets want Howard pretty badly themselves, promising the free agent everything but a Texas oil well and bringing in Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler to try to seal the deal.

Around the NBA there’s a rush to lock up talent just a few days into the free agency period. Indiana will keep power forward David West for another three years, Martell Webster agreed to a four-year deal to stay with Washington, and Minnesota filled a key need by agreeing to a deal with shooting guard Kevin Martin.

Interestingly enough, no one is talking much about Jason Collins, whose signing could be very important to the NBA for reasons that have nothing to do with basketball. The veteran center would be the first openly gay player to share a locker room in the league, should a team come forward with a free agent offer.

But for now Collins goes to the back of the line because of what he is, not who he is: a backup center just hoping to get a job.

“It’s strictly basketball,” said TNT analyst and former Phoenix general manager Steve Kerr. “A team will sign a guy like him for basketball reasons, but it will more than likely happen late because you can always sign a guy at the league minimum.”

The good news for Collins is that he’s a 7-footer known as a smart and physical center who can play defense. His numbers last year for Boston and Washington were minuscule – averages of 1.1 points, 1.6 rebounds and 10.1 minutes per game in 38 games – but he’s a role player who can fill a final position on a team that has specific needs. And at the veteran minimum of $1.4 million, he comes relatively cheap.

Kerr believes a team in the Eastern Conference may sign Collins just to have him on the roster in the playoffs to guard someone like Indiana’s Roy Hibbert on the inside. He said the Suns did the same thing when he was running the team by signing Collins’s brother, Jarron, on the theory they needed someone to guard San Antonio’s Tim Duncan in the playoffs.

“I think Jason probably fits in that mold somewhere,” Kerr said. “He’s well regarded around the league and I think he still has some life left in his legs. You can sign a guy for one game, one matchup, and it becomes worth it if it works.”

The question then becomes whether it’s worth it for a team to pursue Collins when factors other than basketball come into play. Though his announcement in April that he was gay was widely acclaimed throughout the league, there’s a lot of attention that will come to any team he plays for simply because of the fanfare it received.

And there still is a question on how a gay player will be accepted by teammates in the locker room, no matter how publicly supportive they are. There is still plenty of homophobia in the NBA, as evidenced in the playoffs when Hibbert uttered a gay slur – though he later reached out to Collins on Twitter to apologize.

Kerr believes that Collins would not only fit into a locker room, but thrive in his role as a senior statesman in what would be his 13th year in the league.

“The key with Jason is you have a guy who’s a pro and who adds to the fabric of your team,” Kerr said. “I know that in talking with Doc Rivers last season that he was raving about Jason’s preparation and work ethic and effect on the younger guys. That’s the key with a guy like Jason. You might be getting him for just one play but also to help fortify the character of the team.”

A representative for Collins said he wasn’t available to talk about his chances of signing, in contrast to the media blitz he went on when he announced he was gay. But others who support him say it’s almost as important that he be signed by a team as it was for him to come out as a gay athlete.

“It’s very significant because it’s a big obstacle to overcome,” said Hudson Taylor, a former college wrestler and founder of Athlete Ally, an organization working to end homophobia in sports. “It would make it clear that a player’s sexual orientation doesn’t affect their viability as an athlete.”

That’s already the case in the WNBA, where Brittney Griner’s sexuality didn’t stop her from becoming the first pick of the Phoenix Mercury in this year’s draft. But while attitudes in society may be changing rapidly, there’s still a big difference in how gay female athletes are viewed as compared to gay male athletes.

That Jason Collins is a trailblazer is undeniable. That he is a man of great courage is undisputed.

But he waited until his season was over before announcing he was gay. He did it knowing there was a real possibility there would not be a job available and he wouldn’t be the gay player who finally broke down the locker room barrier.

He might not be. But you have to think there’s a team willing to take a chance on a player who has already taken a big chance himself.

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