LOS ANGELES — Jason Collins tumbled onto his back after being fouled in the second quarter. Andrei Kirilenko, Deron Williams and Alan Anderson quickly raced over to help him up. It's what Brooklyn Nets players do every time a teammate hits the deck and the clock stops.
It's what they did for their newest teammate on a historic Sunday night at Staples Center, showing the world in one small gesture that Jason Collins is no different from any other player who wears a Nets uniform.
"He is a guy that is going to be able to open up the door for athletes around the world," said forward Paul Pierce, who played with Collins for the Boston Celtics last season. "It doesn't matter your race, gender or sexuality because it's about being part of a team and caring for one another."
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Collins signed a 10-day contract and became the first openly gay athlete to play for any of the four major American sports franchises in the Brooklyn's 108-102 win at the Los Angeles Lakers. And while his teammates acknowledged their part in history, they were more concerned with what the 35-year-old center can do to help them win.
"He is a basketball player, and he's been doing this for a long time, so that didn't change," Williams said after the game. "Maybe the outside perception did, but in this locker room it wasn't a big deal and it wasn't a distraction."
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Williams and Kirilenko played several seasons with Collins' twin brother, Jarron Collins, on the Utah Jazz, so there was an element of familiarity when the Nets signed Jason. That Collins has played with Brooklyn coach Jason Kidd and starters Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Joe Johnson also helped ease the transition.
"(The media) all make a big deal about it," Johnson said. "But we as players, I think we've done a pretty good job of keeping our composure and doing what's best for this team and making Jason feel comfortable."
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Kirilenko, too, was wary of the added media scrutiny, especially in the wake of all the attention the team and its newest player received Sunday. The average 10-day contract player doesn't warrant statements of congratulations from the league office, nor is he typically at the center of pre- and post game news conferences before a throng of reporters.
But then again, Collins wasn't a typical 10-day signee.
"I think the media is trying to bring hardness and toughness to the situation, but we don't have any situation in the locker room," Kirilenko said. "We just treat him as a normal player."
The Staples Center fans, however, reacted differently. Collins received a standing ovation when he checked into the game in the second quarter.
"I come off the bench, and I don't get cheered for in the opposing gym," rookie center Mason Plumlee joked.
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Collins played 11 minutes against the Lakers and had two rebounds, a steal and five fouls. This was the type of line Collins has posted many times in his 12 previous seasons and the type Kidd expected when he summoned Collins off the bench.
"I had the trust factor," Kidd said. "I trust Mason and (Kirilenko), but I wanted to see if (Collins) was the same guy I knew when I played with him."
For one night, at least, Kidd was satisfied. Maybe Collins will do enough with Brooklyn — which needs depth in its frontcourt — to stick around after his contract expires. But even if his NBA comeback lasts only the next eight days, he has shown that an athlete can be accepted in the league for who he is.
"My message to other athletes, period, is just be yourself," Collins said before Sunday's game. "Be your true, authentic self. Never be afraid or ashamed or have any fear to be your true, authentic self."
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