Jason Collins is making a historic return to the NBA.
The 35-year-old NBA veteran is set to become the first openly gay professional athlete to compete in any of the four major North American team sports leagues -- NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA -- after signing a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets. The landmark signing was announced by Nets general manager Billy King on Sunday afternoon and comes 10 months after Collins came out. With the Nets in Los Angeles to face the Lakers, King indicated that Collins will be available to play on Sunday evening.
"Right now, I'm focused on trying to learn the plays, trying to learn the coverages, the game plan, assignments," Collins told reporters during a press conference at Staples Center before the game. "I don't have time to really think about history right now. I just have to focus on my job tonight."
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) February 23, 2014
The 7-foot center brings size to a roster lacking frontcourt depth since trading away forward Reggie Evans at the NBA trade deadline earlier this month. Collins has career averages of 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. He posted career-best averages of 6.4 points and 6.1 rebounds during the 2004-2005 campaign with the Nets. Known as a rugged interior defender, he also led the NBA in personal fouls (322) that season.
"The decision to sign Jason was a basketball decision," King said in a statement announcing Collins' signing. "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."
Collins has not played in the NBA since publicly announcing that he is gay in April 2013. A free agent when he came out in a moving first-person article in Sports Illustrated, Collins was not signed by any NBA team at the start of the 2013-2014 season. The 18th overall selection in the 2001 NBA Draft out of Stanford, Collins spent the first six full seasons of his career with the Nets before being traded to the Memphis Grizzlies during the 2007-2008 season. A role player at age 34, Collins appeared in just 38 games during the 2012-2013 season for the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics.
"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," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. "I know everyone in the NBA family is excited for him and proud that our league fosters an inclusive and respectful environment."
The 12-season veteran joins a Nets roster filled with familiar faces. Not only was Collins a longtime teammate of Nets head coach Jason Kidd but he also previously played with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson. Collins' once and future teammates were expressing their support for signing him before the deal was announced.
"We would accept it greatly and it shouldn't be a problem, man," Johnson told Rod Boone of Newsday when asked about the possibility of signing Collins. "We've got a veteran group and I think everybody is pretty comfortable in their own skin. It's about what he can do to help us out there on that court. That's what it's about."
Collins signed with the Nets one day after All-American defensive lineman Michael Sam faced the media at the annual NFL Combine. Sam, who publicly revealed that he is gay in interviews with ESPN and The New York Times less than two weeks earlier, is poised to become the first openly gay player in NFL history. Not long after Collins came out in April 2013, former U.S. national team soccer player Robbie Rogers became the first openly gay athlete to play in the MLS when he made his debut with the L.A. Galaxy.
"Today, Jason Collins tore open the last remaining closet in America, and became the first openly gay player to be signed by a team in one of the big four sports," Brian Ellner, a member of the Athlete Ally board of directors, said in a statement released to ESPN. "We are especially excited that Jason will be playing in Brooklyn, just like Jackie Robinson, and in a marriage equality state. This is a piece of history, an important point on the continuum toward justice and a moment to celebrate."
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When Collins resumes his NBA career, he will again wear No. 98, reported Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles. In his heartfelt coming out editorial published in Sports Illustrated, Collins revealed the significance of the uniform number.
"My one small gesture of solidarity was to wear jersey number 98 with the Celtics and then the Wizards," Collins wrote. "The number has great significance to the gay community. One of the most notorious antigay hate crimes occurred in 1998. Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was kidnapped, tortured and lashed to a prairie fence. He died five days after he was finally found. That same year the Trevor Project was founded. This amazing organization provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention to kids struggling with their sexual identity. Trust me, I know that struggle. I've struggled with some insane logic. When I put on my jersey I was making a statement to myself, my family and my friends."