Jason Collins rose from his seat on the bench and strode slowly toward the scorer’s table.
He stepped on a traction mat, removed the T-shirt covering his jersey top and joined his Brooklyn Nets teammates on the Staples Center court.
It was a routine that was everything like and nothing like one Collins had carried out thousands of times in his NBA career.
With 10 minutes 28 seconds left in the second quarter against the Lakers on Sunday, Collins became the first openly gay player to participate in one of the four major U.S. pro sports.
History was met with gracious applause, a handful of fans in the lower bowl standing to cheer.
Then Collins did what he set out to do after signing a 10-day contract with the Nets earlier in the day: The 7-footer set screens, grabbed rebounds and earned a pat on the head from teammate Alan Anderson after being fouled by the Lakers’ Jordan Hill.
“Once you’re on the court, it’s about basketball,” Collins said after the Nets’ 108-102 victory. “It’s what I’ve been doing for almost three decades.”
Of course, it was about so much more than that.
Collins had the courage to be himself in a way that no athlete had previously in the 404 years of existence of the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL.
No one will remember that he missed his only shot and was scoreless with two rebounds and five fouls in 10 minutes.
Being there was all that mattered.
“He is a guy that is going to be able to open up the door for athletes around the world,” Brooklyn forward Paul Pierce said. “It doesn’t matter your race, gender or sexuality because it’s about being part of a team and caring for one another. That’s all that matters at the end of the day.”
Ten months had passed since Collins, 35, announced he was gay in a Sports Illustrated story after his 12th NBA season. The Northridge native continued to train in Southern California, often wearing a 30-pound vest during five-mile runs, in hopes of signing with a team. He worked out for the Nets last week but did not receive any offers until hearing from his agent and Brooklyn Coach Jason Kidd on Sunday morning.
The Nets needed a big man after trading forward Reggie Evans to Sacramento last week and losing out on Glen “Big Baby” Davis, the forward bought out by the Orlando Magic who said he would sign with the Clippers.
Brooklyn could provide a comfort zone unlike any other team. Collins had previously played with the Nets’ Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett and Pierce as well as Kidd. Collins’ twin brother, Jarron, had played with the Nets’ Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko in his 10-year NBA career.
Williams welcomed Collins to the team Sunday during a breakfast meeting by asking about his notoriously bad golf game.
“The jokes start right away,” Collins said.
Collins wore No. 46 against the Lakers because the No. 98 jersey he intends to wear to honor Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student killed in a hate crime in 1998, was not ready in time.
Collins said he did not view himself as a crusader, but he did have a message for others. “Be your true, authentic self,” he said, “and never be afraid or ashamed or have any fear to be your true, authentic self.”
There was a minor media frenzy for the game, with a Lakers spokesman saying the team issued 40 to 50 extra credentials. Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni suggested that progress will truly be made when a gay player’s sexuality is not among the pregame queries.
“We’ll get to the point where you’ll ask me if he’s a good addition or not because he can play or not,” D’Antoni said. “That’s what we need to get to.”
We’re getting closer. Collins showed himself to be a capable NBA player in the 714th game of his career, one that felt like so many others but didn’t.