On April 29, 2013, NBA center/power forward Jason Collins penned an article for Sports Illustrated in which he made a bold declaration with his opening line.
“I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay.”
With that one statement, Collins became the first player in any major professional sport to publicly declare his homosexuality.
At the time, Collins’ decision to come out publicly was embraced by many NBA players, including superstar Kobe Bryant.
Bryant immediately offered his support of Collins at the time on Twitter.
Many others followed suit as well, but there was still one problem. At the time, Collins was a free agent, and it would only until he signed with a team and appeared on the court again before he would truly be recognized as the first openly gay player to play in one of the four major professional sports.
The 2013-2014 season started, and Collins was still left without a team. No team signed him at the start of the season, so doubts about whether teams would accept him surfaced.
According to Howard Beck of Bleacher Report, there were reports that some teams were leary of signing Collins, knowing that a media circus would accompany Collins and his team wherever they went.
However, faced with mounting injuries, the Brooklyn Nets signed Collins to a 10-day contract on Sunday, and he made his debut last night, playing 11 minutes and grabbing two rebounds in the Nets’ 108-102 win over the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center.
Bryant, currently on the sidelines while he rehabs from a left knee injury, was on hand to witness the historic event, telling Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports that Collins can now pave the way for others.
"It's fantastic. It sets an incredible precedent," Bryant said. "I think the most important part about it, what I've learned on the issue is that one person coming out is showing this type of courage that gives others that same type of courage.
"It's dealing with a lot of issues for kids who are afraid to be themselves. Afraid to be themselves because of the peer pressure that comes with it. A lot of these kids have depression issues or they're being teased from other kids for being different. You wind up seeing a lot of suicides, kids injuring themselves and getting hooked on things that they should not be hooked on.”
Bryant also said that Collins’ appearance on the court gives youngsters the freedom to be themselves.
"There is a kid out there who … is going to say, 'Jason gave me strength in dark moments to be brave,” Bryant said. “He gave me courage to step up and accept myself for who I am despite what others might be saying or the public pressures. He gave me strength and bravery to be myself.'"
Veteran shooting guard Paul Pierce, who played alongside Collins on Sunday night, was especially poignant in his remarks following the game as well.
"In the society we live in, you know this was going to happen eventually," Pierce said. "He is a guy who's going to be able to open the door for so many athletes -- not only in America but around the world -- to feel comfortable to come out and not feel embarrassed and feel like they're welcomed in the sports world. It isn't about race, gender or sexuality. It's about being a part of a team and caring for one another. That's all that matters at the end of the day."
Without question it’s a signature moment for gay athletes, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver was proud that the NBA could be the sport that first embraced gay players.
“I’m excited for Jason,” Silver said. “I’m honored, in so many ways, that the NBA presented to him a comfortable environment in which he both felt comfortable coming out last April, and one in which an NBA team felt comfortable signing him based on his ability, and in no way to make a political statement.”
Collins has indeed broken a huge barrier with his appearance on the court on Sunday. And now, maybe others like him can stop hiding in the shadows and be embraced as well.