Jason Collins defends Chris Kaman. (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)
It wasn't quite a standing ovation — well, some people stood, and a lot of people clapped, but one plus one doesn't really equal two here — but when Jason Collins made his debut as a member of the Brooklyn Nets with 10:28 remaining in the second quarter of Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Lakers, the 35-year-old 7-footer received a significantly warmer welcome than most end-of-the-bench big men typically get:
You know why that is, of course — by signing a 10-day contract with the Nets on Sunday, Collins, who announced last April that he is gay, became the first openly gay male athlete in one of America's four major professional sports. Taking the floor on Sunday night made it official.
This wasn't ceremonial, or marketing, or window-dressing. The Nets are fairly thin up front, and even more so when Kevin Garnett sits to rest his aging frame, as he did Sunday; Brooklyn needs big bodies to defend and set screens. Thus, Collins, a career-long role player imported to play a role. Collins becoming the NBA's first out gay player is exceedingly headline-worthy, but Collins' game itself isn't and never really has been ... and as you can begin to see in the clip above, he began playing it almost immediately. Which was great.
Get up the court, set screens, give your guards room to breathe. Get back down the court, body up the other team's biggest guy, make life a little bit more miserable for Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman, and when they beat you, hit them hard enough to prevent an easy bucket. Do it again. And again. And again.
Collins did, getting his customary money's worth during his first in-game NBA action in 313 days, picking up five fouls in 10 minutes and 37 seconds of playing time, to go with two rebounds, two turnovers, one steal and one missed left-elbow jumper. He didn't score a point, but the Nets outscored the Lakers by eight during his floor time in a game that Brooklyn won by six; any major stat dude will tell you that single-game plus-minus is a notoriously noisy and unreliable number, but that still felt like a fitting premiere for the former "plus-minus superstar."
More than that, though, it felt fitting, appropriate and encouraging that, even in the midst of everything else swirling around Sunday's game, Collins' on-court contribution was exactly as uneventful as we remember it being, as TrueHoop's Kevin Arnovitz wrote:
Nets coach Jason Kidd wanted a backup center who talked on defense, and that’s what Collins proceeded to do, calling out directions from the back line like a veteran big man. He fouled like crazy — five in 11 minutes of court time. On the offensive end, he appeared rusty and his timing was off. He missed his only shot and fumbled a pass from Deron Williams while rolling to the bucket.
On the positive side of the ledger, Collins also plastered defenders with screens. After the game, he recounted with a broad smile his favorite moment of the night — witnessing Lakers point guard Jordan Farmar kvetch to the officials that Collins was setting moving picks. For guys like Collins who perform janitorial duties, this is among the highest compliments.
How did it feel for Collins? It felt like I’ve done this thousands of times before. This doesn’t discount an enormous milestone for one of the last realms of American life where a gay man has to think twice about being himself. But if it seemed prosaic, that’s because it was.
It was just about exactly what Collins said he'd hoped for during a pre-game press conference:
Asked whether he felt, given the barrier-breaking nature of his signing, he needs to be a "crusader" during his time in Brooklyn's black-and-white, Collins offered a brief laugh.
"No, I don't need to be — I need to be a solid basketball player," he said. "Again, it's about focusing on the task at hand, and not thinking about history or anything along those lines. [...] My focus is, again, executing the game plan, learning the plays, going through the basketball stuff. I can't really focus on the off-the-court stuff right now."
Collins also spoke of what his new, and supportive, teammates could expect from him ("It's like, 'OK, he's not going to magically have a 40-inch vertical and shoot 3s'" and what he expected from himself ("I'm a defensive player first. That's what I pride myself on. Now it's just getting comfortable with the coverages and assignments"), and what, if anything, he hoped other athletes at all levels of sport would take away from his joining the Nets.
"My message to other athletes is: Just be yourself," he said. "Be your true authentic self. Never be afraid or ashamed or have any fear to be your true authentic self."
For everything that means off the basketball court, when it comes to Jason Collins on the basketball court, that also means setting screens that make guards complain, delivering hard fouls, getting loud on the back line and making a quiet difference in lots of other ways. We saw that Sunday, and it was worth at least the polite smattering of applause it received.
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