How I Felt When the NBA’s First Openly Gay Player Put on My Borough’s Jersey and Took the Court

SLATE | Feb. 24, 2014 

Although the game was in Los Angeles, it felt unexpectedly near, here in Brooklyn. Maybe I should have known it would be this moving to witness my borough, my city, my country, with apparent effortlessness, send the first openly gay player into a major American team sport. But I was caught off-guard, in part because the Nets signed Jason Collins just hours before the game began, 10 months after he announced he’s gay.

It wasn’t effortless, of course. Getting to this moment was a triumph built on more than 50 years of pitched battles over things that Collins’ towering figure now makes appear small—smaller than they still are, unfortunately. They were battles, sometimes bloody, that the NBA center had quietly honored before he came out by donning jersey No. 98 as a “small gesture of solidarity” to Matthew Shepard, the gay student who in 1998 was beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die.

Well more than 50 years, really—tracing a thread back to Jackie Robinson’s busting through the color line as a Brooklyn Dodger in 1947. Last night, another African-American, with a new connection to fast-changing Brooklyn, showed great poise and focus as he made history, checking into the game to rising applause from fans in LA that transcended team and place. (Los Angeles is Collins' hometown.)

It was, no doubt, a poignant and historic moment for LGBTQ people, sports fans, and anyone invested in the pluralist democratic experiment that is the United States. But what struck me most was the genuine ease with which announcers, commentators, interviewers, players, fans, and Collins himself acknowledged the history and excitement of the day but still kept the focus on the game. “Right now, I’m focused on trying to learn the plays,” Collins told the media before the game, which the Nets won, 108-102. “I don’t have time to really think about history right now.” Teammate Deron Williams said it was historic to welcome the first openly gay player in the NBA but said that, more important than that, “he really helped us out there today.” Andrei Kirilenko, a Russian-born Nets forward, said Collins is “a huge part of our team right now, and we’ll do everything possible to make him feel comfortable.” It was a poignant antidote to an Olympics just finishing up in a Russia plagued by vicious anti-gay scapegoating.

It was buoying to hear the word “gay” bouncing off the lips of so many sports announcers throughout the night, uttered in calm, matter-of-fact tones. There was, in fact, a genuinely upbeat, unforced tone to much of the commentary. It rarely seemed like anyone had been coached or fed talking points about how to handle this big moment.

It’s fun to pick on the media for their awkward fixations and trumped-up drama—and at times they didn’t disappoint. Coach Jason Kidd, a friend and former teammate of Collins’, was asked, “Besides questions from the media, are there any other distractions [or] issues regarding him joining the team?” Not missing a beat, Kidd replied, “No, that’s you guys. We’re basketball players. We’re just here to do one thing, and that’s to find a way to win. You guys are the distraction.”

But mostly the media did just fine. I was glad they made much of the moment, gave Collins the extra camera time the occasion warranted, seemed to understand both the lofty and utterly ordinary quality of having a gay professional athlete play his sport. It was as if anyone who might have thought there’d be a media circus or any other monumental consequence to having an openly gay professional athlete had suddenly recognized the concern lay only with them.

The moment was, of course, far bigger than sports. The most obvious parallel is the decadeslong struggle to allow openly gay troops to serve in the U.S. military, which succeeded when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ended in 2011. For years in that battle, defenders of the ban trotted out a litany of enormous consequences they predicted would result from treating gays equally. “You’re the distraction,” many correctly replied. None of the harms came to pass. Now, here’s one more data point showing that predicting gay disruptions is a rationalization for homophobia.

The mature response to Jason Collins’ first game as an openly gay player raises the following question, which, with only slight exaggeration, I’d answer affirmatively: Has there ever been so enormous a social change to which so many people, in such a short time, have basically responded, “We were all wrong; it was better on the other side of the darkness”?

Of course, not everyone is happy with the triumphs of gay equality. Too many are still wrong on gay rights. But the response to Jason Collins and to Michael Sam, poised to be the first openly gay NFL player, makes the increasingly shrill and desperate actions of anti-gay activists seem, well, shrill and desperate. Recently, discredited researcher Mark Regnerus worried aloud that gay marriage will spread porn, promiscuity, and anal sex across the “American imagination.” We can only hope that Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona saw Jason Collins’ entrance onto the court last night, as she considers whether to sign an odious anti-gay segregation bill in her state.

If the U.S. military, the 17 states that allow gay marriage, the Boy Scouts (sort of), the NFL, and the NBA can survive unscathed while treating gay people equally, maybe that’s enough evidence for those who cling to their doomsday scenarios to relent, though I’m not holding my breath.

Today, though, I’m basking in the progress of human dignity that this moment signals, and donning my Nets hat to express a new level of support for my now-beloved team. As Collins has helped to show, treating gay people like people doesn’t change the things we hold dear. If that’s your family, your church, your state, your country, your battalion, your team—they’ll be fine. Basketball, too, will be fine. “It’s basketball,” said Coach Kidd in response to the “media circus” that never quite materialized. “It doesn’t change.”