The most striking thing about Jason Collins's entrance, making him the first openly gay athlete to play in one of the four major sports, was the subdued applause. Not the cheering part; it's 2014 and fans have been ready for this for a long time. But the number of fans who sat on their hands during the brief break in play. This was a little slice of sports history, and thousands of people in the arena didn't even notice. That's pretty cool.
Collins played 11 minutes in the Nets' win over the Lakers, including crunch minutes in a close game in the fourth. The line wasn't pretty: no points, two boards, a steal, and five fouls. But he's obviously not here to score, and is still getting back in the groove on his specialty. "It was a lot of fun to get back out on the court and set screens," he said. "I didn't take any charges tonight, that'll change. I'll get in position next time."
The night had the trappings of a sideshow—the Lakers issued 50 more media credentials that usual—but it turned it into just another game. In a 10-minute postgame press conference, Collins seemed determined to avoid sentimental or triumphant quotes to capture the import of the occasion, instead talking almost exclusively about basketball. About it being good to get back on the court, about the difficulties of picking up the Nets playbook on the fly, about the joy of laying down hard fouls again. In his mind, at least, the story here was a 35-year-old journeyman getting another shot in the league. If his newfound celebrity had anything to do with that—and it'd be naïve to discount it completely—he wasn't going there.
Gay or straight, no one defines themselves by their sexuality. (Your coworkers don't spend every waking minute thinking of themselves as the gay mailroom clerk, or as the lesbian IT professional.) With his job, and his coming-out and return being so public, Collins runs the risk of losing control of his own story. Last night's hardheaded refusal to acknowledge the bigger event seems his way to recapture that. He probably doesn't stand a chance—this is important, even historic. Decades from now when there are gay players everywhere and it's no big thing, everyone will remember that Collins was first. But for now at least, Collins wants to spend his 10-day contract letting his play set the agenda.
It was promising, then, that Collins's peers were similarly unwilling to make this about a gay man. "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," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "That's what we need to get to."
Coaches, teammates, opponents, and fans played it cool, but no less than the NBA commissioner says we shouldn't be patting ourselves on the back. While Jason Collins's coming-out went as smoothly as anyone could have hoped, Adam Silver believes it's a shame that it took until 2014.
"This is an area where no one in sports should be too proud. Sports has led society in so many critical areas … this is one where we fell behind."
It's got to start somewhere.