LOS ANGELES – New Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins took part in a postgame interview and walked off to rousing applause as the last player to leave the floor. Such adulation isn't normal for a journeyman center that was scoreless with five hard fouls in 10 minutes of play.
But this wasn't a normal night. Rather, a historical one in which Collins became the first openly gay male athlete to play in one of America's four major sports when he debuted with the Nets during a 108-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
"It was weird because I'm usually one of the background players," Collins said. "It's weird obviously, this [the media attention]. But at the same time, it is what it is. It's part of life."
Collins, who signed a 10-day contract earlier in the day, announced last April 29 that he was gay. No NBA team signed the now 13-year veteran as a free agent entering the season or even invited him to training camp. There was a growing perception that Collins being gay wasn't as big of a concern as the media circus that could come with signing him.
Collins, however, refused to retire or pursue playing overseas. The Los Angeles native did such things to keep in shape as running five miles on a trail locally, sprinted on a treadmill with a weighted vest and worked on individual basketball drills. Former NBA player Jarron Collins had said his brother was in the best shape of his life.
[Related: Why Collins' return to NBA matters]
"I always stayed positive," Jason Collins said. "That's one of the things I pride myself in is being a professional. Part of being professional is always being ready, always training."
The Nets had two roster spots open and were first interested in signing free agent forward Glen "Big Baby" Davis. Davis' agent John Hamilton gave the Nets word very early Sunday morning Eastern time that Davis was likely signing with the Los Angeles Clippers, which he later did. With Davis going elsewhere, the Nets offered the biggest 10-day contract in NBA history to Collins, which he immediately accepted.
Once the word got out, the response was big and meaningful to Collins.
"I got a lot of calls, a lot of texts, a lot of e-mails from people I look up to and admire who helped me along the way and were keeping me focused," Collins said.
Jason Kidd, a teammate of his with the New Jersey Nets earlier in his career, sitting by his side. Afterward, Collins went to the team breakfast where he was first greeted warmly by new teammate Deron Williams and his wife, Amy. The topic wasn't the impact Collins would make in the gay community. Rather, golf.Living in the San Fernando Valley made it easy for Collins to get to the Nets' hotel in Beverly Hills quickly. He signed his deal with new coach
Collins was eventually introduced to his new teammates at the breakfast. The reaction of the Nets players?
"It was normal. Not any different," Nets guard Joe Johnson said.
Perhaps that toughest challenge of the day was Collins dealing with the media.
Local, national and international media filled an interview room to capacity typically reserved for Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni pressers or big news from Kobe Bryant. One Nets writer said the media horde reminded him of a press conference for troubled New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez. And this was for a 7-footer who is 35-years old who entered the game averaging 3.6 points for his career. But this was also for history.
Collins figures the media fascination will die down quick.
"It's not going to be like this every single day," Collins said. "The news cycle that we have, this story, there are only so many questions [the media] can ask."
When Collins entered the game with the Nets leading 35-28 at the 10:28 mark in the second quarter to replace Miles Plumlee, he said it felt like he had done this "a thousand times before." While it wasn't a cheer that Bryant would get, the Staples Center crowd gave Collins a warm round of applause when he entered the game.
"It was great," Collins said. "Being an L.A. kid, I can't think of a better situation playing for the Nets and playing here and getting the win. I was just glad that Kobe [Bryant] and Shaq [O'Neal] weren't out there."
Collins didn't score, but he was in the game late in the fourth quarter. He proudly bragged that Lakers guard Jordan Farmar complained to a referee for him setting hard screens and felt he proved he could still play in the NBA.
"It felt fun. Conditioning-wise it felt good," Collins said. "I don't think I got tired. As far as basketball timing, it's going to take at least a couple practices. But it was a lot of fun to get back on the court and set screens, hard fouls. I didn't take any charges [Sunday night]. That will change."
The Nets' locker room after the game was no different than any other NBA locker room. Forward Paul Pierce, a Los Angeles native, loudly expressed humor in reciting comedian Mike Epps' impression of Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman's controversial media interview in North Korea. Collins' locker was in-between Pierce and young guard Marquis Teague – not in another room. And Collins took a shower at the same time his teammates did just like any NBA player would after a game.
To Johnson, Collins was just a teammate.
"We are not here to judge anybody," Johnson said. "We're all here to come together and try to get wins. We welcome him to the Nets family with open arms to help us accomplish something, that's winning ballgames."
Said Williams: "In this locker room it wasn't a big deal and wasn't a distraction. It was just another game for us [Sunday night]."
Collins opened up more a little more after the game about the impact that his historical moment could have. Little did he know on his departure from the floor, he slapped the hand of a fan from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina named Dean Zolich who was already impacted.
"It's a great moment for sports and a great moment for America," said Zolich, a photographer who attended the game with his girlfriend. "Being from Bosnia where [expletive] is not as free as it in America, I've been waiting for the moment where everyone is cool. It doesn't matter if you're black or white. We can play sports, we can do amazing things and we can be proud of that.
"I was proud to give a high-five to Jason Collins [Sunday], the first openly gay player in the NBA. He was so happy after the game. I was the first person he high-fived."
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