Basketball veteran Jason Collins became the first openly gay active player in North America's major pro sports leagues when he walked onto the court for a game against the Los Angeles Lakers, breaking a barrier in team sports as the continent's acceptance of gay athletes continues to grow.
Collins, once an obscure 7-foot (2.13-meter) journeyman known for his defensive play, had waited nearly a year for the moment. The 35-year-old reserve center revealed at the end of last season he is gay, and seemed poised to become an athletic pioneer. But he was an aging free agent and had remained unsigned until Sunday.
He finally returned to the National Basketball Association with his original team Sunday night just hours after signing a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets, and he told reporters beforehand that his focus was on how he'd do on the court.
"I don't have time to really think about history right now," he said.
After his announcement last year, numerous NBA players insisted he would be welcomed in the locker room.
During his layoff, Collins quickly became a kind of ambassador for gay rights, speaking at the United Nations and attending President Barack Obama's annual State of the Union address last month as a guest of first lady Michelle Obama.
Collins' signing comes shortly after Michael Sam, a star college American football player, revealed he is gay, meaning that the National Football League, by far America's biggest pro sports league, could soon have its first openly gay active player.
Sam is taking part in the NFL showcase for prospects ahead of the league's April draft. Sam's on-field workouts are scheduled for Monday.
Collins was asked if he felt the tide is turning regarding gay players coming out, including Sam.
"I hope so. What Michael said was it was about him being a football player and me being a basketball player, and going out there and trying to help our respective teams win," Collins said.
The Nets are owned by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov of Russia, where a law banning so-called gay "propaganda" was the subject of protests and controversy at the just-concluded Sochi Winter Games.
Collins has played 12 NBA seasons, including his first seven with the Nets, where he ranks third-most in team history with 511 games played. Collins has been a teammate of new coach and former player Jason Kidd, as well as several other current Nets.
Nets teammate and NBA star Paul Pierce said Collins' play was inspiring.
"I had him as a teammate last year and he is much needed around here," Pierce said.
"In the society we live in, this was going to happen eventually," Pierce said. "He is a guy that is going to be able to open up the door for athletes around the world. It doesn't matter your race, gender or sexuality because it's about being part of a team and caring for one another. Every guy in here does their own thing and so be it. In this sport everything is magnified and it's great to have him here to open up the doors for so many athletes."
Collins, speaking at a crowded press conference before his Sunday night game in Los Angeles against the Lakers, said he was aware of the magnitude of his signing, but he said he was most concerned with learning the Nets' plays.
"The pressure is playing in an NBA game tonight, and last time I played in an NBA game was last April," he said. "So I think that's enough pressure right there."
The crowd welcomed him with a nice ovation Sunday night.
Collins played 10 scoreless minutes with two rebounds and five fouls in the Nets' 108-102 victory.
The Nets posted a photo on their Twitter account of Kidd watching Collins sign his contract, encouraging followers to retweet it to welcome Collins to Brooklyn.
"Jason told us that his goal was to earn another contract with an NBA team. Today, I want to commend him on achieving his goal. I know everyone in the NBA family is excited for him and proud that our league fosters an inclusive and respectful environment," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said.
England's John Amaechi became the first openly gay former NBA player in 2007, three years after retiring.
The NHL and Major League Baseball are still awaiting their first openly gay players. Major League Soccer has its first in Robbie Rogers, a former US national team player who played professionally in England. Rogers announced a year ago that he was gay as he said he was retiring. Rogers, now 26, has since joined the Los Angeles Galaxy.
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