Collins feels the love from fans
IT WAS only a few minutes into the game when the fans behind the Brooklyn Nets' bench began chanting Jason Collins' name. The chant was heard periodically, louder each time, late into the night.
The sellout crowd at Barclays Center on Monday was impatient to see Collins, the National Basketball Association's first openly gay player, play his first minutes in his new home arena, but they were made to wait.
The Nets had some strenuous business to handle first, grappling with the Chicago Bulls for four physical quarters before finally pulling away to a 96-80 victory.
Only when the Nets were leading by 17 did coach Jason Kidd summon Collins from the far end of the bench. He played the last 2min 41sec of the game, having little impact on the result but a large influence on the game's emotional tenor.
"The support has been incredible, from the league, friends, obviously, fans - the list goes on and on - LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) groups," Collins said. "It's been really cool to see."
As he has done since signing a 10-day deal on Feb 23, Collins made subtle efforts to shift the conversation back to the basketball court and the Nets' fortunes as a team. In that regard, it was a big night, too.
The Nets ended a four-game winning streak for the Bulls - who were playing in Brooklyn one night after defeating the Knicks, 109-90, in Chicago - and improved their record to 29-29. It was their first time at .500 since mid-November, when they were 2-2.
It seems assured that Collins will be around longer, as the Nets on Monday were planning to sign another 10-day deal with him when his current one expires this week, according to a person in basketball with knowledge of the situation.
It was unclear how much effect Collins had on the night's attendance - it was the Nets' 28th home game and 18th sellout - but he clearly affected the energy in the building.
The sporadic chants turned into a standing ovation when he hopped off his seat and tugged off his warm-up gear.
"Checking in for the Nets for the very first time, please welcome No. 98, Jason Collins," the public address announcer said as the crowd rose to its feet.
Within his first six seconds on the court, in a fitting move for a hard-nosed player, Collins picked up his first defensive foul. The crowd buzzed when he attempted his first shot, a 15-footer with 11.9sec remaining, but groaned when it fell short.
The game's meaning, for many, transcended the basketball court.
Among those in attendance was David Stern, who last month completed his 30-year tenure as the league's commissioner. He said Collins' signing was a significant, positive development for the league, and he praised Collins' character.
Stern lauded sports as a platform to change society, noting that when he first became commissioner, people told him the league had too many black players to be popular.
Still, this was a moment long overdue, he added.
"I hope, some day, we can say to somebody, 'I was there,' and they'll ask, 'What are you talking about?' because this is really sports catching up with America," Stern said.