The Brooklyn Nets made North American sports history on Sunday night before proceeding to take care of the Los Angeles Lakers – on the road.
Several hours after the Nets signed the first openly-gay player in one of the four professional sports leagues in Jason Collins, Deron Williams capped off a memorable night with 30 points and six steals as Brooklyn ended an 11-game losing streak to LA with a 108-102 victory.
Although Brooklyn took care of business on the West Coast, it was a homecoming of sorts for Collins, who last played with the Nets in the 2002-2003 season and helped them reach the NBA Finals that year against the Lakers while the franchise played in New Jersey. Nearly a year after Collins announced that he was gay in an interview with Sports Illustrated, Collins signed a 10-day contract Sunday and was in the lineup for the evening clash with LA.
In his first NBA game since last April 17, Collins finished with two rebounds and five fouls in over 10 minutes of action. He did have one key play late in the game – a tap out of a missed free throw that Paul Pierce buried a three-pointer off of to help the Nets pull away.
Brooklyn’s victory was overshadowed by the news of Collins and his signing, which came less than two weeks after University of Missouri star football player Michael Sam announced that he was gay and with the intentions of entering the NFL Draft in April.
Collins spoke on his first game afterwards, saying that it will take some time to shake off the dust before resuming his basketball-playing form.
“I know that I can play in the NBA and it felt good to be out there tonight,” Collins said. "Conditioning-wise, I felt good. I don't think I got tired. It was a lot of fun to get back out on the court and set screens, hard fouls. Didn't take any charges tonight - that'll change. I'll get in position next time. As far as basketball timing, it's going to take at least a couple of practices.”
Pierce said he knew that with the way things are viewed in today’s society and how things are perceived, a change was going to come sooner or later.
“You know this was going to happen eventually,” Pierce said. “He is a guy who's going to be able to open the door for so many athletes - not only in America but around the world - to feel comfortable to come out and not feel embarrassed and feel like they're welcomed in the sports world. It isn't about race, gender or sexuality. It's about being a part of a team and caring for one another. That's all that matters at the end of the day.”
Collins spent 12 years spanning a number of teams in the NBA, including Memphis, Minnesota, Atlanta and Boston. His teammates made certain it would be a night he wouldn’t forget. Pierce added 25 points for the Nets, who bounced back from a tough loss at Golden State the previous night.
“He's a basketball player,” Williams said of Collins. “He's been doing this for a long time, so that didn't change. Maybe outside perception did, but inside this locker room it wasn't a big deal or a distraction. It was just another game for us. But he played huge for us. He made big plays on defense and was instrumental in this win tonight. I know he's been sitting around waiting for a job, and we're excited about having Jason.”
Paul Gasol led the Lakers with 22 points and 11 rebounds.
Brooklyn continues their long road trip with a stop in Portland on Wednesday night against the surprising Trailblazers.