BOSTON (CBS) – Jason Collins made history on Sunday.
After coming out as gay in a Sports Illustrated article last April, the veteran center sat out the first four months of the 2013-14, waiting for an opportunity to come knocking from an NBA team.
An opportunity was not a guarantee for the 35-year-old big man. Collins’ NBA shelf life had been nearing the end of the line last season, even before he made a historic, and potentially distracting, announcement that would follow him to whatever team he played for.
This weekend though, the Brooklyn Nets came calling for help. They were in need of a veteran big man who could be a defensive presence. Collins fit the description, and he was signed to a 10-day contract on Sunday. He made his season debut for the Nets last night and was scoreless in 10 minutes of action. More importantly though, he became the first openly gay athlete to play in one of America’s four major professional sports.
Collins was surrounded by a set of familiar faces Sunday as he broke through a major barrier in professional sports. The former Celtic was reunited with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in Brooklyn, two veterans who had been complimentary of the center for his value to the team both on and off the floor in Boston last year.
Despite the fact that Collins was dealt away to the Washington Wizards last February from Boston, Pierce maintained a strong bond with the center and when Collins came out last April, Pierce was one of his strongest supporters.
“I think to each his own,” Pierce said last April. “I think it’s probably going to open the door to many more. There are so many professional athletes, there are so many human beings that live a dark life. They’re scared to expose it because of the exposure of sports and what people may think about them. But I think what [Collins] did was a great thing just to kind of open the door for a number of athletes who probably now are going to have the courage to come out.”
With a full media circus in attendance Sunday night at the Staples Center as Collins prepared to make history, much of the focus had been on what the reaction will be in an NBA locker room to an openly gay athlete. Would Collins’ Brooklyn teammates welcome him with open arms?
After a 108-102 win over the Lakers, Pierce left no doubt where he stood on the subject when he spoke to reporters postgame.
“It was great,” Pierce said of Collins’ play to Newsday, “It was very inspiring how he comes in and he was ready. He did the same thing for us last year in Boston, and you expect nothing but professionalism from Jason.”
That was a run-of-the-mill response that you are going to get from many players around the league on Collins publicly.
Pierce didn’t stop there, though. Instead, he made a priority of declaring just how much of a watershed moment this was for Collins and the sports world at large.
“In the society we live in, this was going to happen eventually,” Pierce explained to Newsday. “This is the normal. He’s a guy who’s going to be able to open up the door, not only America but around the world welcomed in the sports world, and that’s going to be key. It doesn’t matter your race, your gender, sexuality or any of that. It’s about being part of a team. It’s about caring for one another. That’s all that matters at the end of the day.”
Pierce continued: “Every guy in here goes their own way, does their own things and then so be it. We come in the locker room and this is sports and everything is all magnified. It’s great to just have him here to be able to just open the doors for so many athletes that they can feel comfortable to come out and not feel embarrassed to be a part of something.”
For as much admiration we should hold for Collins for having the courage to come out and be a trailblazer, we should not undervalue this kind of commentary from players like Pierce.
The importance of NBA players speaking out as advocates for players like Collins is pivotal for progression and acceptance in our society for athletes from all walks of life. Pierce’s knowledge and articulateness on the important matter at hand speaks volumes about his true character and will hopefully lead to a similar attitude in all corners of the sports world.
Pierce’s comments inspire confidence, and overshadow anonymous ones made by team executives to Sports Illustrated that wonder whether a gay player can be accepted in a locker room right now.
“This is America,” Pierce said to the New York Daily News. “You have freedom of speech, you have the freedom to do a lot of things you want to do here. We welcome him with open arms, and I’m happy he’s the one that I know and has the courage to be able to come out and say it. The good thing about this team is that we’ve embraced him. I think the NBA has embraced him. I think the sports world has embraced him, and that’s going to be good moving forward.”
Pierce, along with his Nets teammates, have already embraced Collins and will ultimately try to make the focus of Collins’ play on what it should be – helping his team win the games on the floor.
“This is about basketball,” Jason Kidd, a former teammate of Collins and now his head coach, said. “We always will remind ourselves of that. He’s one of our teammates and it’s for us to make this as comfortable as possible, the transition. But for us to get out and to win ballgames, that’s what it’s all about.”
Last time Pierce was in Boston, the Garden crowd gave him a ten-minute standing ovation for his 15 years of service to Boston.
When he returns again to the Garden on March 7th, Boston fans will have yet another reason to celebrate Pierce’s commitment to creating a level playing field for all athletes.
MORE SPORTS COVERAGE FROM CBS BOSTON