Kobe Bryant And Paul Pierce Understand Why Jason Collins' NBA Return Is A HUGE Deal

02/24/2014 08:56 am ET

Don't tell Kobe Bryant that Jason Collins' return to the NBA isn't a big deal.

The five-time NBA champion hailed the importance of Collins' return not only as a watershed moment for professional sports but also as an inspirational example for young people. After nearly 10 months away from the NBA, Collins became the first openly gay athlete in any of the four major North American professional sports leagues after signing a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets.

"It's fantastic. It sets an incredible precedent," Bryant told Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports before Collins took the floor against the Lakers on Sunday evening. "I think the most important part about it, what I've learned on the issue is that one person coming out is showing this type of courage that gives others that same type of courage."

CLICK HERE for full Bryant interview with Yahoo! Sports

A 35-year-old veteran NBA center, Collins played 12 seasons in the NBA before coming out as gay in April 2013. Collins was a free agent at the time of his announcement in a Sports Illustrated article but had yet to play during the 2013-2014 season until Sunday night when he was in uniform for the Nets. Bryant, who played against Collins in the NBA Finals in 2002, was not on the floor as he continues to recover from a leg injury. Speaking to the media after the Nets' 108-103 win, Collins joked about the absence of Bryant and another former Lakers star from that postseason meeting.

"I thought it was great," Collins said of his return to the court, via the L.A. Times. "Being an L.A. kid, I can't think of a better situation, playing for the Nets and playing here, and getting the win. I'm just glad Kobe and Shaq weren't out there."

While Collins may have been somewhat relieved that he didn't have to contend with him in his first game back, Bryant understood the true impact of the game would also be felt by those who weren't out there on the floor at Staples Center.

"There is a kid out there who … is going to say, 'Jason gave me strength in dark moments to be brave. He gave me courage to step up and accept myself for who I am despite what others might be saying or the public pressures. He gave me strength and bravery to be myself,'" Bryant told Yahoo! of the impact of Collins' first game back.

One of Collins' teammates in Brooklyn, Paul Pierce, struck a similar tone when discussing the importance of Collins' return to the NBA for the first time since coming out.

"In the society we live in, this was going to happen eventually," Pierce told reporters, via The Associated Press. "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."

While the significance of the occasion was not lost on him, Collins tried to keep his focus on basketball rather than history.

"Right now, I'm focused on trying to learn the plays, trying to learn the coverages, the game plan, assignments," Collins told reporters shortly before the game. "I don't have time to really think about history right now. I just have to focus on my job tonight."

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