It happened a minute and a half into the second quarter, with the Brooklyn Nets nursing a nine-point lead over the hometown Los Angeles Lakers. Jason Collins, a 7-foot tall veteran of six NBA teams with career averages of 3.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 2.8 fouls per game entered the game for the visiting team and became the first openly gay player to play in one of America’s four major professional sports leagues. A warm and moving ovation rippled through the Staples Center crowd and then subsided almost as soon as it began, the sound of thousands of Angelenos forgetting and then remembering the color of Collins’ jersey. It was almost as though, for as long as so many of us have waited for this moment, no one could quite decide whether this was a totally huge deal, or not really a big deal at all.
It soon became clear that the answer was, thankfully, both. Collins’ return to the NBA after a 10-month hiatus was almost literally uneventful (11 minutes, zero points, 2 rebounds, 5 fouls), and yet the entire evening had the quietly sustained, sometimes awkward and finally wonderful buzz of the singularly eventful. The Nets’ announcing team of Ryan Ruocco and Mike Fratello handled their duties respectably, if at times a bit overzealously. “Collins’ plus-minus right now is off the charts!” declared Ruocco, after Collins had been in the game for four minutes. At one point Mike Fratello excitedly pointed out that “his teammates run to him right away when he’s on the ground!” Come marvel at the open-mindedness of these athletes, touching a man who has touched other men, as if this is not how all of them in fact make their living.
On the plus side, the myopic focus on Collins on Sunday night made for some unexpectedly excellent basketball analysis. Collins’ career has been defined by the type of plays announcers don’t usually bother to mention. But on this night, Fratello drew careful attention to a cagey pull-the-chair defensive maneuver by Collins in the post that resulted in a Deron Williams steal, the type of subtle, workaday gambit that would normally go undiscussed on an NBA broadcast. Ruocco went out of his way to point out a somewhat lackadaisical high screen by Collins that resulted in a terrible Williams 3-point attempt, but still: A play-by-play guy mentioned a high screen! These are the things Jason Collins does.
And then Collins became the first openly gay player in NBA history to be called for an offensive foul, at which point some needed reality began to seep into things. He turned the ball over twice. He picked up another foul and returned to the bench. In the fourth quarter he missed a jumper, badly, the only shot he took all night. These are things that Jason Collins does, too.
Years from now memories and box scores will attest that Collins entered that game and was the best thing anyone could hope for: He was himself. He was himself without any hint of incident, turmoil, or gawky spectacle. In the aftermath of his coming out last spring, the vast majority of NBA players voiced strong support for their friend and co-worker, but that landmark Sports Illustrated cover also provoked its share of ugliness. Certain members of the media howled about how they could care less about Collins’ sexuality, and shame on all of us for turning Collins into a “hero” since sexual preference (suddenly) mattered so little to them (that is, straight dudes). As we’ve seen repeated in the wake of Michael Sam’s announcement, there were passive-aggressive grumblings about “distraction”: Hey, I’m not saying it’d bother me, just the guys who work with me, even though they’re saying the opposite. There were no “distractions” last night—Brooklyn came away with a victory—and no one was unduly concerned with sexuality, outside of the energized anticipation of seeing a brave and important person make history.
That history has now been made, even if it’s only a first step and even if the past is really nowhere near past. Michael Sam’s case will be different and probably more complex, partly because the NFL is the NFL but mostly because Sam is young and has an undiscovered career before him. People will tune in to Sam’s first game (and probably his 10th and 20th) to see how well he plays; no one tuned in to last night’s game to see if Jason Collins was going to be good, because let’s face it, we already know the answer. In the hours before last night’s game the right-minded party line was that this was a big story that wouldn’t and shouldn’t be one for much more than an evening, that once Jason Collins had broken this historic barrier we should just leave him be, let him go back to doing what he used to best, playing professional basketball not all that well.
And I get all that. But watching that game, seeing that familiar 7-foot frame scurry onto the floor with what seemed like just a touch of nerves, hearing that crowd break into that brief ovation that pulsed with a nervous energy of its own—it was impossible not to wonder if this was bigger than we’d even thought. Deron Williams poured in 30 points for the Nets, Pau Gasol scored 22 for the Lakers, and Matthew Shepard’s name was mentioned, reverently and unflinchingly, on an NBA broadcast. People who watched this game will tell their kids about it, today or someday in the future, and all those kids’ lives will be better for it. Last night the Nets outscored the Lakers, Jason Collins didn’t score a point, and absolutely everyone won.