For those of you who haven’t caught up on sports news lately, the most prominently displayed story in the past few days has been the return of Jason Collins to the Brooklyn Nets and professional basketball, making him the first ever active, openly gay player in any of the four major sports (NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB). While the match between the Nets and Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night was actually pretty exciting, it was largely overshadowed by the historic event that transpired with Collins signing to the Nets and playing in the game. Collins’ stats for the game weren’t too inspiring: 0 points, 2 rebounds, and 5 fouls in 11 minutes, but this game meant more than just about that. The game itself was actually pulled from the national broadcast lineup (someone somewhere must be pounding their head on a desk right now) but there was no lack of media attention.
Growing up in New Jersey, I was and still am a huge Nets fan — even after their move to Brooklyn. I was fortunate enough to have been able to attend multiple Nets games, but even before that, my first encounter with Jason Collins occurred during one of the NBA Summer Leagues in Boston. I was there for a week with a friend’s family and had the opportunity to meet many current and previous NBA players. My friend and I were there to watch the games, but our primary goal was to get autographs from the players. I remember bringing a backpack full of basketball cards, blank sheets of paper, a disposable camera, and even small pieces of hardwood mimicking a basketball court for players to sign (the hardwood was my friend’s idea, he was really into it). Since we were there for the week, we saw players multiple times, even running into one of the players at a grocery store (upon seeing us for the third or fourth time that week, he looked at us, said “Aw hell no, you guys again?”, and quickly went in the opposite direction). I got multiple autographs from Collins that week and each time I asked, he was friendly, polite, and professional. I even have a picture of him that I took with the disposable camera that if you didn’t know the situation or who he was, it would look like I snapped a photo of a friend sitting next to me.
Collins evolved into a more prominent player on the Nets, reaching the NBA finals twice in 2002 and 2003, with the Nets unfortunately losing both times. I never got the chance to see any of the finals games but did attend during the regular seasons and early rounds of playoffs. Even with his increased popularity and role, he still demonstrated the same friendly, polite, and professional characteristics when I’d ask for his autograph. He was known back then for his defense, rebounding, and ability to do the dirty work, the intangibles that might not show up on the stat sheet but still make a huge impact in the game. He was our center, and I supported him.
When I read the news of Collins coming out publicly in 2013, I’ll be honest: my first thought was that I didn’t even know he was still in the league. But thoughts after that drifted back to those interactions in Boston and New Jersey and his performance with the Nets throughout the years. In a league filled with ego-driven superstars, Collins found his niche as a dedicated, supporting player. His biggest contribution to professional sports didn’t occur on the basketball court but by him simply deciding to finally say who he was. How he plays the game hasn’t changed at all, but still, the game has now changed because of him. Hopefully, however slowly, for the better.
When Jason checked in for the first time during the Nets-Lakers game on Sunday night, there was a moderate applause but nothing too overwhelming; most people didn’t seem to either know what was going on or even care.
Once again, Jason Collins is playing for the Nets. And once again, he is our center, and I support him.