Collins' new life no different for Nets

LOS ANGELES -- There were never going to be any boos when Jason Collins returned to the court as the first openly gay professional athlete in North America's four major sports. Twitter is one thing.

Hate and prejudice thrive behind the anonymity of social networking. In public, those voices stay silent though.

The real question was whether Collins would be applauded by the masses the first time he played, and it was answered by the fans in Los Angeles Sunday night when Collins checked into the Brooklyn Nets' 108-102 win over the Lakers with 10:28 remaining in the second quarter at Staples Center.

Sure there was applause, and a few folks who stood up to recognize the magnitude of the moment, but if you didn't know what was happening, you really would've had no idea something historic had just happened.

It was as odd as it was normal. As confusing as it was inspiring. But really, it was as it should be.

This is 2014. Most Americans know plenty of gay people. Most Americans have experienced what it's like to learn someone they assumed was straight is actually gay. And most Americans are really accepting of all of that.

It may not have been this way when Collins came into the league in 2001. It may not have been this way last April, before he revealed his sexual orientation in an eloquent essay in Sports Illustrated. But a lot has happened recently to make it feel like not much happened Sunday night outside of a Nets win and a nice return to the court for a well-respected veteran.

Soccer player Robbie Rogers came out and played a full season with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2013. College football player Michael Sam came out and is expected to be chosen in the NFL draft this spring. Collins has been to the White House twice and spoken on the floor of the United Nations.

American sports fans have had 10 months to process and react and admire and reflect so that by the time Collins made his return Sunday, it felt like the climate for gay athletes has been this way for much longer.

Collins started all that of course, but he has long since taken his bows. He will go down as an icon and a leader for gay rights in the sports world and the world at large. Now he just wants to play again.

"I don't really have time to think about history right now," he said before the game. "I just have to focus on my job tonight."

That job is what Collins has always done in the NBA: defend, set thundering screens, rebound and lead on and off the court. It's why the Nets wanted to bring him in after trading Reggie Evans on Wednesday and missing out on forward Glen Davis Sunday morning.

Nets coach Jason Kidd played with Collins from 2001-08 and saw firsthand how his skill set and intangibles could help a basketball team. Team leaders Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce saw the same when Collins played with them in Boston in 2012. Joe Johnson was his teammate for three seasons in Atlanta. Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko played alongside his twin brother Jarron Collins in Utah.

When he came out last April, I'm sure all had their own initial reactions. Maybe a little surprised at first, but very quickly turning into acceptance and happiness for a man they had grown to respect and admire was now able to live his life as an openly gay man.

"Just that he was a good friend of mine," Kidd said, when asked what his initial reaction to Collins' announcement was. "And that he had my full support. It doesn't change my feelings for him as a friend and as a teammate."

Pretty much what most people think when someone they have come to know reveals their sexual orientation. At first it feels like a very big deal, and then, it really doesn't.

"He's played with a lot of guys on this team," said Johnson. "So it's no different, man. We're not here to judge. We're all here to come together to try to get wins. We welcomed him to the Nets family with open arms to help us accomplish something, which is winning ballgames."

Collins has kept himself in good enough shape these past 10 months that he appears to be very much the same basketball player he was last April. Always sturdy, never flashy. Tough, dependable and intelligent, but never exciting. The next play that's run for him, will be his first.

As Collins joked before the game, "Guys know what to expect from me. They're not like, 'He's magically gonna have a 40-inch vertical and shoot 3s.'"

He is not, however, the same man.

"Life is so much better for me," Collins said. "I don't have to hide who I am. I can just be my normal self. The past 10 months have been incredible. A lot of really cool experiences, learning a lot, making new friends and hearing different people's stories, sharing experiences. Overall, it's been really positive."

If there was something to cheer on Sunday night, it was that.