DENVER (AP) — For a guy who waited so long to get his chance to play basketball again, this was one game Jason Collins couldn’t get through fast enough.
The first openly gay athlete in America’s four major sports was set to meet with the family of slain Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard following the Brooklyn Nets’ game against the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night.
Collins, who signed a 10-day contract with the Nets on Sunday, said the chance to meet Dennis and Judy Shepard was “one of those cool treats in life.”
Shepard was tortured and murdered in 1998 because he was gay. Collins wears his No. 98 jersey in Shepard’s honor.
“I was in college at the time and when he was killed and of course it’s a tragedy what happened and I just hope that it inspires others to move forward and again I’m looking forward to meeting his parents,” Collins said about 90 minutes before tipoff. “I had the honor and pleasure of speaking with his mom last spring and she was a cool lady, a cool woman, and so I’m looking forward to meeting with both of them face to face,”
Collins wore the No. 98 with both the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards for Shepard even before coming out last spring. The jersey has been a big seller on NBAStore.com, something Collins said honored Shepard and the Trevor Project, which was established in 1998 and aims to prevent suicide among LGBT youth.
Collins said slipping on that jersey with the significance no longer a closely held secret meant a lot to him.
“Obviously, it started off my friends and family knew why I chose that number and it’s just cool to see that so many people support it as evidenced by so many people buying the jersey,” he said.
Collins was a free agent when he announced at the end of last season that he is gay and the 35-year-old center remained unsigned until the Nets needed another big man.
He said he’s been given no indication from the team that he’ll get another 10-day deal but wants to stay with the Nets the rest of the season: “Oh yeah, definitely. This is a great group of guys.”
Collins played 10 scoreless minutes in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night, then quietly played seven minutes after Nets coach Jason Kidd pulled his starters in the fourth quarter of a 44-point blowout loss at Portland on Wednesday night.
Collins bristled when a reporter asked him before Thursday night’s game if he could prove himself with such little court time over a 10-day deal.
“I don’t think as a 12-year vet, going on my 13th year now, that I have much more to prove as far as I know I can help the team win,” Collins said.
Regardless of how much he does on the court, Nuggets coach Brian Shaw called Collins a pioneer.
“The only thing that people should be concerned with is him as a basketball player and if he does things on the court for his team to win,” Shaw said. “He does those things. And I think it’s great that he’s able to be himself and not have to hide who he really is and be comfortable in his own skin.
“And it’s about time and because of his courage to do that, we’ll start to see more athletes come out. So, he’s a pioneer in terms of that. It’s very courageous of him. It’s great for him and it’s great for the league to have a first and for it to be a class individual like Jason.”
So far, Collins has played in Los Angeles, Portland and Denver, all cities with progressive populations, where he has been greeted with polite applause and no obvious catcalls.
He said he doesn’t ponder how he might be received in more conservative cities.
“I have no clue. I try not to be one of those people who speculate or answer hypothetical questions,” Collins said. “But again, it goes back to conducting yourself in a professional manner on and off the court and control what I can control — and that’s my reaction.”