Cinderella males: Jason Collins and California Chrome

Jason Collins, center for the Brooklyn Nets, on March 15. Photograph by Keith Allison

Jason Collins, center for the Brooklyn Nets, on March 15. Photograph by Keith Allison

The greatest story in sports is the Cinderella story, in which the player – perhaps he or she is even of the four-legged kind – comes out of nowhere or overcomes tremendous obstacles to triumph. Indeed, the reason the Cinderella story is a cliché is because we’ve seen it time and again and love it so. 

In my new novel “Water Music,” the Cinderella man is Iraqi tennis prodigy Alí Iskandar, who withstands war, abuse, uncertainty and even a jealous rival to become world No. 1. And though his friends and lovers – Alex, Daniel and Dylan – have more materially to begin with, they, too, face real challenges in the quest to be the best. Maybe that’s why sports feature so many story lines of perseverance.  Sports not only represent a way out for the athlete, but they attract the kind of people who already know what it’s like to be in it for the long haul.

At the moment, we’re being treated to several Cinderella tales, not the least of which features Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez at The Metropolitan Opera. But I’d like to concentrate here on two superb athletes – Brooklyn Nets’ center Jason Collins and Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome.

Collins, just named to Time magazine’s list of 100 Influential People, is the first openly gay athlete in any of the four major alphabet-soup leagues – the NBA, NFL, MLB or NHL. That takes enormous guts. And we saw that courage displayed the other night as he played in pain and helped the Nets move past the Toronto Raptors to face the Miami Heat in the next round of the playoffs.

After a week that saw the worst of humanity in the person of Donald Sterling’s racism, Collins embodied the best.

Mind you, courage is not enough. You have to have the ability. But ability, heart and opportunity are an unbeatable combination. And that’s why I think California Chrome may be the horse to go all the way this year and win the Triple Crown. Sort of reminds you of another horse with an alliterative, geographic name, a pedigree people sniffed at and owners who were not to the manor born – Seattle Slew.

Slew had a high temperament. Chrome’s more like Affirmed in the sense of calmly going about his business. (They differ in that Chrome waits to make his move while Affirmed was more of your classic front-runner.)

Secretariat – who had a shy temperament – won the Belmont by 31 lengths. Nothing shy about that.  Temperament is important. (It’s one of my four Ts, along with talent, training and technique.) Temperament, however, cuts a wide swath.

In the end, you don’t have to be an insider.

It is rather what’s on the inside that counts.