I father, I Brooklyn Dodger them
I Jack, I Rob, I sin
Awww man, I'm Jackie Robinson
Except when I run base, I dodge the pen
Lucky me, lucky we, they didn't get me
Now when I bring the Nets I'm the Black Branch Ricky
The beat and braggadocio of "Brooklyn Go Hard" reverberated through Barclays Center after the home team took the herringbone-patterned floor for its pre-game warm-up on Monday night. Fans were still filing into the arena at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues in downtown Brooklyn as Jay Z and Santigold traded verses on the public address system. With the Nets and visiting Chicago Bulls casually lofting jump shots up toward either rim, the lyrics hinted at the true significance of the night even if the atmosphere did not. On paper, the game was simply a regular-season contest between two teams jockeying for playoff position in the wayward Eastern Conference. In memory, it will be the home debut of the first openly gay player in NBA history.
Jason Collins, who publicly came out as gay in April 2013, had signed a 10-day contract with the Nets just days earlier while the team was on a seven-game road trip. A 7-foot, 255-pound veteran center out of Stanford, the 35-year-old spent his first six full seasons in the NBA playing for the Nets in New Jersey. He then spread six subsequent seasons over six teams. After appearing in games for the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics during the 2012-2013 campaign, Collins announced he was gay. After 12 seasons in professional basketball, he then spent nearly 10 months on the sideline.
When he signed that short-term pact with the Nets, Collins became the first out player in any of the four major North American professional sports leagues. Taking a far humbler view of his contribution to society than Jay Z, who owned a piece of the Nets franchise when it hopped the Hudson and the East Rivers to settle in Kings County, Collins downplayed comparisons to Robinson before his Brooklyn debut.
"I'm just trying to be Jason Collins," Collins said before donning the home whites on Monday. "What Jackie Robinson did for the sport of baseball and our society is tremendous. But I am just trying to be Jason Collins."
On April 15, 1947 at Ebbets Field, Robinson's spot in the Dodgers' starting lineup was a can't-miss signal that a select few in professional sports were not afraid to drive societal change. Not far from the site where that ballpark once stood, Collins' unassuming presence toward the end of the Nets' bench at tip-off on March 3, 2014 was a might-miss sign that professional sports was now playing catch-up with the rest of society.
“I have mixed feelings, because I’m enormously proud that the first openly gay player is playing in the NBA,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told The New York Post before Collins first game with the Nets on Feb. 23 in Los Angeles. “On the other hand, this is so long overdue that I don’t think this should necessarily be on the list of the greatest accomplishments of the NBA.
“This is an area where no one in sports should be too proud. Sports has led society in so many critical areas … this is one where we fell behind.”
The barrier Collins broke when he made his 2013-2014 debut was not one of absence but of silence. Collins, who came out in a moving first-person article in Sports Illustrated, returned to a league in which he had already been a gay player. He returned to a league that presumably included other active gay players.
"I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport," Collins wrote in Sports Illustrated. "But since I am, I'm happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn't the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, 'I'm different.' If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand."
Since returning to the NBA, Collins has not withered under the media glare. With good humor and calm, he has tried to keep the focus on basketball but also acknowledged the historic nature of everything he is doing. Perhaps most importantly, he has provided an example to follow.
"My message to other athletes, period, is just be yourself," he told reporters in his first press conference after joining the Nets. "Be your true authentic self and never be afraid or ashamed or have any fear to be your true authentic self."
Since inking his first 10-day contract with the team, Collins has been able to be his true authentic self -- a 35-year-old NBA center who is black and gay -- but also his true authentic basketball self. Signed to add interior size to a roster that lost its starting center to injury and then traded away one of its more reliable rebounders at the NBA trade deadline, Collins played 34 total minutes and racked up 10 personal fouls while picking up three steals and four rebounds before his first home game.
With just 3:27 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Nets holding a 90-73 lead on Monday, the chant started. As the clock ticked under 3:00 minutes, it spread among the sellout crowd of 17,732. The chant soon blurred into a roar as Collins walked slowly to the scorer's table. He checked in with 2:41 remaining, replacing point guard Deron Williams. Many in the crowd stood and applauded. Six seconds later, he committed a foul. Collins would stay on the court until the final buzzer sounded on the Nets' 96-80 win.
"It was cool," Collins said of the reception. "It was a lot of fun to go into the game. The most important thing was that we got the win."
The win leveled the Nets' record at 29-29, marking the first time the team reached .500 since it was 2-2 in the early days of November. Hours after he signed a second 10-day contract on Wednesday, Collins played 17 minutes as the Nets topped the Memphis Grizzlies 103-94. The 12-year veteran didn't record a point but he did a few of the little things that can keep big men in the league for such a long time.
"I'm a defensive player," he said after the game, reported John Jeansonne of Newsday. "I've been that for my whole career and I feel I can help the team even when I'm not in the game. Just try to be vocal on the bench -- and if I see something out there that I think I can help the team -- I'm going to speak up."