It was the kind of thing that basketball bench players do all the time: checking into a game to replace an injured or weary starter. But this time the Staples Center crowd in LA realized history was in the making at 10:28 in the second quarter in the otherwise meaningless face-off between the Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets.
They stood and cheered for Jason Collins, the journeyman player who had just signed a 10-day contract, and was now taking the floor as the first openly gay NBA player in the league’s 68-year history. He had just become something much more than a basketball player: A trailblazer who broke nearly a century of a de facto prohibition on openly gay athletes in major American team sports, a veritable civil rights icon for equality.
“Sometimes in life something happens and there’s an opportunity,” he said shortly before the game against the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday night. “I’m very thankful for this opportunity. That’s why I work so hard, why I train the way I do so that when I do have an opportunity physically I’m not worried about my conditioning.”
Collins breakthrough was about more than his physical self, 7 feet and 250 pounds of muscle. It was about the courage to declare himself in a profession almost defined by its antipathy to gay players and people.
The Nets, who signed him earlier in the day, did all the right things, making sure the world knew that Collins had been hired exclusively for his ability to help the team and that no one would be allowed to make life difficult for the 35-year-old center, a well regarded veteran of the league.
“The decision to sign Jason was a basketball decision,” Nets general manager Billy King said. “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.”
Congrats, Jason. One small step for a great man, one big step for LGBT America.