Wolverine basketball alumnus Jason Collins ’97 became the first openly gay male athlete to play in a major American sports league after signing a 10-day contract with the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets and playing 11 minutes for the team in its game against the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday.
The Nets, the team with which Collins began his NBA career, were the first franchise to sign Collins since the former Harvard-Westlake court star came out as gay last April, and Sunday’s matchup against the Lakers marked the first game he played in since coming out. The Nets defeated the Nets 108-102 as Collins made his re-debut for the team in his hometown of Los Angeles at Staples Center.
Collins’s announcement in April sparked a media frenzy and brought to the forefront questions about how openly gay athletes would be accepted in the sports locker room. The seven-foot tall center will find a fairly familiar setting in Nets’ locker room – Collins played alongside current Brooklyn head coach Jason Kidd from 2001-2008 in his first stint with the team, situated then as the New Jersey Nets. The 12-year veteran was also teammates with current Nets Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce on the Boston Celtics in 2012, as well as with Joe Johnson on the Atlanta Hawks in 2009 and 2010.
“I’m still in the mindset that I know I can help an NBA team win basketball games,” Collins told Big Red sports magazine last May after coming out. “It might not necessarily be on the court, it might be as that solid veteran guy in the locker room, showing the guys what it means to be a leader. And when my name and number are called, I’ll be ready to take the court, and go out there and do what I’ve done my entire 12-year career – do the dirty work, do the small things that help the team be successful.”
In joining the Nets, Collins fills the team’s void for a big man and rebounder off the bench after the team traded Reggie Evans, who previously played that role for Brooklyn. Collins’s signing was rumored but uncertain as the Nets also pursued free agent power forward Glen Davis. Following Davis’s reported intent to sign instead with the Los Angeles Clippers upon clearing waivers, Brooklyn pulled the trigger on adding Collins to the roster, though sources say that the Nets strongly considered signing Collins regardless of whether or not they added Davis .
“The decision to sign Jason was a basketball decision,” Nets general manager Billy King said in a statement after adding the Wolverine alum. “We needed to increase our depth inside, and with his experience and size, we felt he was the right choice for a 10-day contract.”