The most intriguing thing about Jason Collins stepping onto an NBA basketball court and becoming the first openly gay player in one of the four major men’s pro sports is just how quiet important moments like this can be.
Collins, who has been out of the league since last April and announced later that month that he is gay in a Sports Illustrated essay, broke the barrier when he signed a 10-day contract Sunday afternoon with the Brooklyn Nets. Later, history was made when he entered the game against the Los Angeles Lakers with 10 minutes, 28 seconds left in the second quarter. Collins finished with two rebounds, five fouls and no points in 11 minutes — with seven coming in the fourth quarter of the Nets’ 108-102 victory in the Staples Center.
“His impact is greater than what people think,” Kobe Bryant, the Lakers’ star who was punished for yelling a gay slur at a referee in 2011, told Yahoo on Sunday. “You look at it from the context of having the first openly gay player. But they missed the domino effect that it has way beyond sports.”
After Bryant was fined $100,000 back in 2011, he apologized and promised greater awareness. Collins’s return to the NBA “sets an incredible precedent,” Bryant said.
“There is a kid out there who … is going to say, ‘Jason gave me strength in dark moments to be brave,'” he said. “‘He gave me courage to step up and accept myself for who I am despite what others might be saying or the public pressures. He gave me strength and bravery to be myself.'”
For Collins, the setup was perfect. He is with players and a coach he’s played with before. His history-making night happened in his hometown and there was a sense that he was the right person in the right moment, playing for a Brooklyn team the way Jackie Robinson did when he broke the color barrier.
Now, the challenge will be making Collins’s stay last longer than 10 days. And, one day, there may be difficulties. What will happen when a team with a gay player travels to Arizona, where the legislature has approved a bill that would allow business owners to refuse to serve gays? That’s for later, though.
“This is a good day in terms of breaking another barrier, but we gotta get to the point where people stop worrying about this, where we don’t worry about who’s gay in the locker room and who’s not and who might be,” Charles Barkley told Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News. “ I just hope Brooklyn did this for the right reasons, and not to stay relevant in the New York papers.”
The moment drew a back-page “Come Out and Play” headline in the News, with the New York Post shruggingly using “Nets welcome back Collins.” Andrew Keh of the New York Times notes that “Collins is re-entering an American sports landscape that has changed for gay athletes since he last played” — only 10 months ago. Soccer player Robbie Rogers came out publicly last February and played in 11 games for the Los Angeles Galaxy. On Feb. 9, Missouri’s Michael Sam announced that he is gay, raising the possibility that the NFL will have an openly gay player drafted in May.
“We’ve all played with gay guys, and guess what?” Barkley said. “Anybody who ever played with Jason Collins has already played with a gay teammate, too. C’mon. Anybody in the workforce in this country has worked alongside gay people, and don’t feel as if they’re making history by doing that.”
That is no doubt true, but Slate’s Jack Hamilton writes that the return of Collins was a big deal, one that will only grow in importance.
“[W]atching that game, seeing that familiar seven-foot frame scurry onto the floor with what seemed like just a touch of nerves, hearing that crowd break into that brief ovation that pulsed with a nervous energy of its own—it was impossible not to wonder if this was bigger than we’d even thought. Deron Williams poured in 30 points for the Nets, Pau Gasol scored 22 for the Lakers, and Matthew Shepard’s name was mentioned, reverently and unflinchingly, on an NBA broadcast. People who watched this game will tell their kids about it, today or someday in the future, and all those kids’ lives will be better for it. Last night the Nets outscored the Lakers, Jason Collins didn’t score a point, and absolutely everyone won.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver admitted that he had “mixed feelings,” telling the New York Post that “I’m enormously proud that the first openly gay player is playing in the NBA. On the other hand, this is so long overdue that I don’t think this should necessarily be on the list of the greatest accomplishments of the NBA.
“This is an area where no one in sports should be too proud. Sports has led society in so many critical areas … this is one where we fell behind.”