As teams prepare for the opening of training camp next month, time is running out on Jason Collins' chance to become the NBA's first openly gay active player.
If this historic milestone is bypassed, there will be no accountability, no villains, just an opportunity shamefully missed.
In May, Collins graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as the first openly gay male player in the four major professional U.S. sports. It was widely assumed he'd land somewhere as an unrestricted free agent to continue his career.
Four months later, the wait drags on. The league faces unflattering introspection and a public-relations disaster if Collins goes unsigned. The gay community will not hide its extreme disappointment. The first step in a highly significant movement will be throttled before takeoff. And the worst of it is we won't know exactly why.
Without question, homophobia will be at the core of some teams' rejection. We're likely not to hear the details, or the individuals responsible, but that's the way of the world in 2013: enlightened, yet with light-years to go. Fear and prejudice remain evil partners in every aspect of American society, leaving Collins as that brave individual who dares become a pioneer.
(To be accurate, Oakland-raised Glenn Burke was openly gay, with a measure of caution, as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland A's of the late 1970s. He never called a news conference or went public in any way, nor did he hide the truth; teammates were well aware of his sexuality and fully accepted him.)
It's possible, however, that NBA teams are making judgments based strictly on talent and/or financial restrictions. The league's increasingly oppressive luxury-tax constraints have become a major issue, and because the 34-year-old Collins is of limited value -- a defense-and-rebounding presence off the very end of the bench -- teams have legitimately addressed their concerns with younger, cheaper, more valuable players.
Before general manager Bob Myers made such dramatically impressive additions to the roster, the Golden State Warriors seemed a reasonably plausible destination for Collins. The Bay Area is a haven for tolerance and understanding, and team president Rick Welts, one of the league's most respected executives, is the highest-ranking openly gay man in American sports.
It's not known how coach Mark Jackson truly felt about adding Collins, given his less-than-jubilant reaction to Collins' announcement: "We live in a country that allows you to be whoever you want to be. As a Christian man, I have beliefs of what's right and what's wrong. That being said, I know Jason Collins. I know his family. And certainly I'm praying for them at this time."
I doubt if Jackson would have blocked the path to progress if it meant improvement on the court. Now, with a fully healthy Andrew Bogut backed by second-year center Festus Ezeli, 6-foot-11 17-year veteran Jermaine O'Neal and a noted tough guy, 6-foot-10 Marreese Speights, the Warriors have the "protect the paint" issue well covered. (Ezeli will be out until midseason in the wake of knee surgery.)
That simply can't be true of every other team in the league. There's an element of blatant desperation on the big-man front, considering that Miami gambled on Greg Oden -- who hasn't played since 2010 in the wake of five major knee surgeries -- and Houston signed 39-year-old Marcus Camby. Assuming Collins is in shape -- he's been working out regularly in Los Angeles, while avoiding interviews -- there's no reason he couldn't help a contending team, and he has long been known as a strong, much-admired presence in the locker room.
Just two years ago, Collins was one of the most influential bench players in the league. A specialist, without question; no need to give him the ball on the offensive end. But as Collins' Atlanta Hawks went up against Orlando in the first round of the 2011 Eastern Conference playoffs, Collins' work on Dwight Howard was a major story line.
''The key was not just that he limited Howard's points and periodically got him out of the game entirely with his penchant for drawing charging fouls," wrote John Hollinger on ESPN.com, "but that his single coverage took away Orlando's three-point game." Stan Van Gundy, the Magic's coach at the time, called it "the best defense on Howard all year. He didn't even get good shots. Collins is big, he's physical, and he doesn't give Dwight anything easy." (Atlanta won the series in six games.)
It seems imperative that Collins sign before the start of the season, as a full-time roster member. Teams signing him to a 10-day, midseason contract would only become vulnerable to nasty speculation if the arrangement didn't work out. And it certainly doesn't help that a couple of teams (Detroit and New Jersey) were interested, according to published reports, only to back off. In this case, there is no dignity in flirtation.
Meanwhile, one can only imagine the exasperation in the commissioner's office. This is David Stern's final season, certain to be all about his legacy and contributions to the game. Employing an openly gay man would mark a signature stroke, never to lose its impact.
Right now, I imagine Mr. Stern has his hands on his hips.
(Contact Bruce Jenkins, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, at email@example.com.)