Jason Collins Steps Out in Brooklyn

The first openly gay player in pro sports played at the Nets’ home court for the first time Seth Wenig/AP

By the time Jason Collins checked in for the Nets’ game against the Chicago Bulls on Monday night, time was running out and the men from Brooklyn were clearly going to win. Collins tried one shot, a tough jumper from the baseline with 12 seconds left. The sudden paroxysm of cheers couldn’t will the ball through the basket and the shot glanced off the rim. Collins played just under three minutes. He had no points, a single rebound and one steal. He also committed a foul. Thus came and went the Brooklyn debut of the first homosexual player in major North American professional sports.

In the Nets locker room the post-game media scrum around Collins was about seven or eight reporters deep, and the features of his gentle face were refracted through a dozen iPhone screens. “I’m a basketball player first,” Collins said when asked about the significance of his return to the NBA (he was not on any team when he came out, last year, in a Sports Illustrated essay). “The focus right now is basketball.” His voice is nasal, his manner unfailingly polite. Dressed in a neat plaid shirt and lacking visible tattoos, the Stanford graduate could easily pass for a young Goldman Sachs partner.

This is a city where appearance isn’t everything — it’s the only thing. Collins would be the perfect ambassador for any number of reputable causes, but the one he represents happens to be among the most divisive of our time. So far, he has handled the pressure with manifest grace, even if his numbers (Collins played during a Nets road trip before debuting in Brooklyn on Monday night) have been unexceptional: he is averaging 0.6 points per game thus far. And yet his jersey was, as of last week, the top seller in the NBA. (The number on that jersey is 98, for the year in which gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was killed.)

“Collins’s Brooklyn Debut Recalls Robinson’s in 1947,” said a New York Times headline on Monday, suggesting that Collins was the equal of Jackie Robinson, whose signing by the Brooklyn Dodgers represented the shattering of the color barrier in baseball. Dem Bums weren’t terribly good, and neither are these Nets, but maybe it’s the fate of Brooklyn franchises to make history without winning games. The New York Islanders of the National Hockey League arrive in Brooklyn next year. Perhaps, they, too, will shatter some outdated social construct about who can do what where. 3.4_JCollins2 Seth Wenig/AP

Not everyone is ready to celebrate Collins’ arrival. William C. Rhoden, the New York Times sports columnist, blasted his newspaper’s Jackie Robinson-Jason Collins comparison on Twitter: “Jason Collins is NOT Jackie Robinson. Stop it! Collins is Collins demonstrating his right as a human being to exercise a choice.” The apparent suggestion that homosexuality is a choice was quickly met with the puzzlement it deserves.

Far uglier yet were Twitter comments from casual fans, which suggests that winning over Brooklyn isn’t quite the same as winning over America:

N****s gotta say "no homo" when they guard Jason Collins now. - @tanktopjesus

Why does everyone care about Jason Collins so much? He's just a f****t who came out of the closet. That's his only achievement. -@Selvin_Agustin

Collins was born in 1978, just as the first cases of AIDS were coming to afflict gay men in Africa and the United States (a Danish doctor, Grethe Rask, had died of the disease the previous year). By the time Collins was in grade school, neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Castro and Manhattan’s Chelsea had become battlefields where emaciated men wandered like ghosts of the slain. Today, Chelsea remains a gay enclave. It has a gay sports bar, called Gym, at 8th Ave and 18th Street. It would be a gross exaggeration to suggest that a crowd had packed the bar to watch Collins, but patrons did look up whenever his image flickered across the screen.

Like Collins, Tardis Johnson, 43, is black and gay. He has ordered his Collins jersey and thinks the Nets new back-up center will do just fine. “Come as you are, be as you are, just be tough,” says Johnson. “That’s Brooklyn.”

Sylvester Brathwait, 50, was at Gym in a blue beanie with the word FAITH on it. He says that he is not surprised that it was Brooklyn that took a chance on an openly gay player. “I’m not surprised,” he says. “It’s New York. New York is a gay hub. If it’s not going to be accepted here, then where?”

An Italian named Antonio said he did not like professional basketball but admired the seeming acceptance of Collins. He did not think a gay player would be welcome in a major European football league like his native nation’s Serie A. Given the horrific treatment of dark-skinned players by some European fans (and players), Antonio is probably right.

Collins debut comes as the city’s newly-installed mayor, Bill de Blasio (a Brooklyn resident) has said he will not attend the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which does not allow gays and lesbians to march openly. The city’s two tabloids, meanwhile, have hammered the mayor for maligning Irish-Americans’ freedom to keep homosexuals in the closet or at least off the streets when the cops and firemen are marching. Nothing is quite as sacred as our prejudices.

If there was a rainbow flag at the Barclays Center on Monday night, I didn’t see it. Toward the end of the contest, though, some fans were eager to see Collins make his home debut, and chants of “Jaaaaaayson Cooooollins” were clearly audible. The Nets lead was in double digits. It was time.

Asked at a post-game press conference if he’d heard those chants and thus put Collins in, Nets coach Jason Kidd demured. “Sorry,” he sort of mumbled, “I don’t pay attention to what people say. But hopefully they were happy.”

One day soon, Jason Collins will miss a shot at the end of the game, just as he did on Monday night. And instead of cheering, Nets fans will hiss and boo, because a basketball player is paid to make shots, whether he is gay, transgender or straight. And in that moment when he knows fandom’s displeasure over his play has overshadowed fandom’s current concern with his sexual orientation, Jason Collins can inwardly cheer, for he will know he has arrived.

With additional reporting by Zoë Schlanger.