Collins made a mark Sunday night; now the real work begins

Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins comes into the game for the first time during the first half of an NBA basketball against the Los Angeles Lakers, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

WASHINGTON — Jason Collins played 11 minutes for the Brooklyn Nets and didn’t record a single point.

Yet he still managed to score big.

Sunday night, Jason Collins made his NBA return, making him the first openly gay active player in one of the four major North American professional sports leagues. It also marked his first game since making a living as a reserve center for the Wizards in 2013.

It’s somewhat ironic that this landmark night occurred in his native Los Angeles, on the home court of Kobe Bryant – who was fined six figures for shouting a gay slur at a referee just 3 years ago. Bryant was among those who applauded Collins’ return to the court, helping the 35-year-old center bring it full circle.

While his return is notable, Collins doesn’t want his sexuality to be at the forefront of his presence in the NBA. He’s a man on a 10-day contract trying to continue playing the game he loves at its highest level. He’s not necessarily trying to be a trailblazer; he’s just trying to keep a job.

Yet and still, Collins is well aware of what’s at stake here. His choice of the number 98 (he only wore 46 Sunday night so he could suit up for the game quickly) is in honor of a college student who died in a notorious anti-gay hate crime in 1998. So he knows by simultaneously being true to himself and playing well for a playoff contender, he can open doors for Michael Sam and other gay athletes looking to play pro ball.

That said, I’m not sure whether Collins’ return is actually the start of a revolution. As I mentioned after Sam’s announcement, I believe a much higher-profile player needs to be at the forefront of this movement for it to really take hold. But it is the first step in the process. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said it best: “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.”

That’s why it seemed so odd to see Collins as the focus of press conferences before and after Sunday night’s game. He’s been a role player in the NBA for more than a dozen years. He wasn’t getting this attention because he could help the Nets out of a lackluster 26-28 record and start fulfilling their preseason promise. The media crush was in place because of Collins’ sexuality, nothing more.

For one night, it’s understandable because of the historic nature of the Collins signing. However, more 0-point, 2-rebound, 1-steal performances will likely put an end to the desire to stick a mic in his face. Of course, the good news there is that this would ensure we’re closing in on a day when having a gay player in pro sports is no longer considered a big deal.

Let’s hope that day is Wednesday in Portland – the Nets’ next game.

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