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Jason Collins becomes first openly gay player active in NBA

JOE RESNICK, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Although Jason Collins played only 10½ minutes in his first game with the Brooklyn Nets, it was a groundbreaking appearance.

Collins became the first openly gay player in the four major U.S. professional sports leagues, and Deron Williams had a season-high 30 points along with seven assists in a 108-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night.

“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.”

Collins signed a 10-day contract Sunday, nearly 10 months after his announcement on April 29 in Sports Illustrated. He had two rebounds and five fouls and didn’t score.

“He’s a basketball player. He’s been doing this for a long time, so that didn’t change,” Williams said. “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.”

The 12-year veteran spent his first six-plus NBA seasons with the Nets and helped them get to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003. This was the 35-year-old center’s first NBA game since April 17, 2013, with the Washington Wizards.

“In the society we live in, you know this was going to happen eventually,” teammate Paul 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.”

Nets general manager Billy King, in need of a post player after losing center Brook Lopez for the season on Dec. 20 with a broken right foot — and failing to acquire another one before last Thursday’s trading deadline — took a chance on the 7-foot, 255-pound Collins.

Collins also has played for Memphis, Minnesota, Atlanta and Boston, where he was a teammate of Pierce and Garnett last season. Sunday was a homecoming, as he was born in Northridge, Calif., and played his high school ball at Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood. Collins’ new coach is an old Nets teammate — Jason Kidd.

“It’s just another step in the right direction. I think it’s the advancements we’ve made as people and will continue to make advancements,” Lakers point guard Kendall Marshall said. “As far as I’m concerned, when I see him, I see him as a great defender — a guy that protects the paint and finishes around the rim. That’s all I see when I’m out there. They needed help inside, and he’s definitely going to be somebody who can help them with that.”

Collins’ scheduled pregame press conference was delayed about 15-20 minutes while he was still getting his physical. He reported into the game with 10:28 left in the second quarter and the Nets leading 35-26 after the Lakers’ Nick Young made the first of his two free throws.

The sellout crowd welcomed Collins with a nice ovation when public address announcer Lawrence Tanter announced his name, and he spent 4 minutes and 15 seconds on the court during his first stint while the Nets increased their lead to 16 points.

“It was very inspiring, how he just came in and was ready. He did the same thing for us last year with Boston,” Pierce said. “You expect nothing but professionalism from Jason. He’s much needed around here with the lack of big men we have, especially with Kevin playing limited games in back-to-back moments. Jason’s going to be big for us.”

-Published by Andrew Thompson

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