Jason Collins, 1st Openly Gay NBA Player, Signs With Nets and Appears in Game

Jason Collins defending Lakers guard MarShon Brooks. Until Sunday night, no NBA game had taken place with an openly gay player on the floor. (Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports, via Reuters)

LOS ANGELES — Jason Collins, a 35-year-old center, signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday afternoon and played against the Lakers hours later, appearing in an NBA uniform for the first time since last spring, when he announced that he was gay.  The signing represents a significant step toward transforming North American professional sports into a more welcoming environment for gay athletes. Until Sunday night, no NBA game had taken place with an openly gay player on the floor. The NFL, Major League Baseball and the NHL — the continent’s other three traditional major sports leagues — have never had a publicly gay participant.

The very act of Collins’s suiting up and stepping onto the court — he entered the game to warm applause in the second quarter — represented a milestone in the effort to change a sports culture that some feel has lagged far behind society at large in acceptance of gay people. Collins played 11 minutes in the Nets’ 108-102 victory, finishing with no points, two rebounds, a steal and five fouls.

Collins said he had little time to process it all. He awoke Sunday morning to text messages from his agent and Nets Coach Jason Kidd alerting him to the move, and hours later he was signing his contract. A few hours after that, he was taking his physical and preparing to play his first game since April 17.  “Right now, I’m focused on trying to learn the plays, the game plan assignment,” Collins, sitting at a lectern, said less than an hour before the game Sunday night. “I don’t have time to really think about history right now.”

The sense of history was inevitable, though. It seemed noteworthy that the first openly gay player in one of America’s major sports leagues would play for a Brooklyn team. In 1947, Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers became the first black player in modern baseball.  It felt significant, too, that the Nets’ owner, Mikhail D. Prokhorov, is from Russia, where President Vladimir V. Putin has come under intense scrutiny for a law that bans gay “propaganda.”

“Today Jason Collins tore open the last remaining closet in America,” said Brian Ellner, a founding member of Athlete Ally, a nonprofit that raises awareness about homophobia in sports. “This is a piece of history, an important point on the continuum toward justice and a moment to celebrate.”  Many felt that such a moment was overdue. Last April, after spending the 2012-13 regular season with the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards, Collins announced in a Sports Illustrated article that he was gay.

He was met with widespread support and earned a measure of celebrity — but not a new contract to play basketball. He was not invited to any team’s training camp and spent the last several months working out at his home in Los Angeles, readying himself in case a team called.  Collins’s arrival with the Nets began to take shape two weeks ago, when he worked out for them in Los Angeles over the All-Star break. The Nets, who need help with interior defense and rebounding, were also interested in Glen Davis, who was bought out of his contract last week by the Orlando Magic. With Davis appearing to be near an agreement with the Los Angeles Clippers, though, the Nets shifted their focus on Sunday to Collins.

Collins, like any NBA player, can sign two consecutive 10-day contracts before the Nets must sign him for the rest of the season or release him. “The decision to sign Jason was a basketball decision,” General Manager Billy King said in a statement.  Collins has never been a standout player as a pro — he has averaged 3.6 points, 3.8 rebounds and 0.5 blocks in his career — but he has consistently earned plaudits for his professionalism and smarts on the court.

As a Net, the 7-foot, 255-pound Collins will be valued for his ability to provide a disciplined application of the coaches’ defensive scheme, to read opponents’ movements and to communicate to teammates what he sees.  Collins will be a familiar face to many in and around the organization. He spent his first six and a half seasons with the Nets, who reached the NBA finals twice in that span. It was during that time, too, that he became good friends with Kidd, who is in his first season as the Nets’ coach.

Collins, who has played for five other NBA teams, played alongside Joe Johnson when the two were with the Atlanta Hawks, and spent part of last season with the Celtics, playing with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Johnson, Garnett and Pierce are now his teammates. “Guys already know what to expect from me,” Collins said. “I’m not going to magically have a 40-inch vertical and shoot 3s. My game has been pretty consistent, you know. I‘m a defensive player first, and that’s what I pride myself on.”

Collins is re-entering an American sports landscape that has changed for gay athletes since he last played.  Robbie Rogers, 26, came out publicly last February while simultaneously announcing that he would retire from professional soccer. But Rogers changed course in May, joining the Los Angeles Galaxy and going on to play 11 games last season.  And this month, Michael Sam, 24, announced that he was gay shortly after completing a four-year college football career at Missouri. Football analysts expect Sam, a highly regarded defensive lineman, to be selected in May at the N.F.L. draft.

Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, commended Collins. “I know everyone in the NBA family is excited for him and proud that our league fosters an inclusive and respectful environment,” he said in a statement.

There was a poignancy to the night, even as Collins tried to play down its significance. He wore a No. 46 jersey because it was the only shirt the Nets had available, but he said he planned to wear No. 98 in his next game, as he did last year. Collins has previously said that 98 is a reference to the year Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, was murdered.

Collins was asked what message he might send to gay athletes who were watching him.  “My message to other athletes, period, is just be yourself,” he said. “Be your true, authentic self and never be afraid or ashamed or have any fear to be your true authentic self.”

Correction: February 23, 2014 
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a founding member of the nonprofit Athlete Ally. He is Brian Ellner, not Ellnor.

article by Andrew Keh via nytimes.com

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