NBA's first openly gay player fits right into Brooklyn's game plan
by John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Signing Jason Collins, the NBA's first openly gay player, to a 10-day contract last Sunday afternoon was about basketball first and making history second for the Brooklyn Nets.
The move quickly accomplished both for our borough's first major pro sports franchise since the Jackie Robinson-led Dodgers left Brooklyn following the 1957 season.
With 10:28 remaining in the second quarter of Sunday night's game against the Lakers at Los Angeles' Staples Center, Collins checked in at the scorer's table and made his way onto the hardwood as an openly gay player for the first time in his 13-year NBA career.
He also became the first-ever professional to do so in any of the four major sports.
The 7-foot center logged just over 10 1/2 minutes of court time during the Nets' 108-102 victory over the Lakers, evening Brooklyn's record to 2-2 on its epic seven-game road trip, which will continue Wednesday night in Portland.
Collins didn't score a single point, grabbed a pair of rebounds, picked up a steal and delivered five hard fouls along the interior before taking a seat next to his new teammates in the fourth quarter.
In other words, he did exactly what the Nets hired him to do.
Afterward, Collins was much more interested in discussing his role as the newest member of the Nets rather than becoming a trail blazer for openly gay players in the world of major pro sports.
"I know that I can play in the NBA and it felt good to be out there tonight," the 35-year-old pivotman noted.
"Right now I'm focusing on trying to learn the plays, learning the coverages and the game plan and the assignments. So I didn't have time to really think about history,"
That history will bear itself out over the weeks, months, years and decades to follow, whenever a gay man or woman feels emboldened and encouraged enough by Collins’ example to come out to his or her teammates, be it at the high school, collegiate or professional level.
But for now, Collins is just trying to re-establish himself as a valued presence on the Nets’ roster, hoping to get an extension on his contract for the remainder of the season as Brooklyn pushes toward its second consecutive playoff appearance.
Nets general manager Billy King, who was unable to swing a deal for a backup big man prior to last week’s NBA trade deadline, insists that the move to sign Collins was made with winning more games in minds, rather than winning over hearts and minds.
"The decision to sign Jason was a basketball decision," King said in a team-issued statement prior to Sunday’s game. "We needed to increase our depth inside, and with his experience and size, we felt he was the right choice for a 10-day contract."
Collins, who had been a Net for his first six seasons in the NBA, playing alongside current head coach Jason Kidd in New Jersey, spent part of last season in Boston.
He teamed with first-year Nets and former Celtic greats Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to employ coach Doc Rivers’ defensive scheme, which is very similar to the one Brooklyn is using now.
Collins is also quite adept at setting the types of physical screens that deadeye shooters like Pierce and All-Star Joe Johnson can use to unleash their long-distance bombs.
The Stanford alum will also provide rejuvenated Nets point guard Deron Williams with enough interference along the perimeter to leave his defenders behind on the way to and around the basket.
From a basketball perspective, Collins’ signing made total sense.
From an historical one, it came at just the right time, with Missouri linebacker Michael Sam poised to be chosen during the NFL Draft in May as pro football’s first openly gay player.
"This is America,” said Pierce. “You have freedom of speech, you have the freedom to do a lot of things you want to do here. We welcome him with open arms, and I'm happy he's the one that I know and has the courage to be able to come out and say it.
"The good thing about this team is that we've embraced him,” Pierce continued. “I think the NBA has embraced him. I think the sports world has embraced him, and that's going to be good moving forward."
Garnett, who had openly campaigned for the Nets to bring in Glen “Big Baby” Davis to fill Brooklyn’s lone remaining roster spot prior to the deadline, echoed Pierce’s statements in support of the Collins signing.
"I think it's important for anybody who has the capabilities and skill level to have a chance to do something he's great at or one of the things he's good at,” Garnett said. “I think it would be biased and, in a sense, racist, if you were to take that opportunity from a person."
The historic move has already drawn instant comparisons to Branch Rickey adding Robinson to the Dodgers’ roster here prior to the 1947 season, a trail-blazing event not only in the history of Major League Baseball but in the ongoing struggle for Civil Rights as a whole.
Those comparisons and contrasts are best left for others to make as far as Collins is concerned.
The only Trail Blazers he’s focused on at the moment are the ones he’ll be trying to keep out of the paint in Portland on Wednesday night.
"The pressure [of being back in the league] is playing in an NBA game tonight and last time I played in an NBA game was last April," Collins insisted. "So I think that's enough pressure right there."
Nothing But Net: Williams, who for the second straight season appears to be hitting his stride following the All-Star break, had arguably his best overall game of the season Sunday. The $98 million point guard scored 30 points, dished out seven assists and set a new career high with six steals. “Deron's playing at a high level right now, and he needs to continue to do that for us to have some success,” Kidd said. … Garnett, as has become his custom during his first season in Brooklyn, sat out Sunday’s game after playing against Golden State on Saturday. Collins figures to see the majority of his playing time in the second half of back-to-backs as Kidd is trying to get Garnett as much rest as possible before Brooklyn makes its final push toward the postseason. … After taking on the Blazers, the Nets will visit Denver on Thursday and Milwaukee on Saturday before returning to Brooklyn from their extended circus trip to host the Chicago Bulls next Monday night at Barclays Center.