Yesterday, Jason Collins made history when he became the first openly gay athlete to play a game in one of the country's four major sports. After the NBA's Brooklyn Nets signed the 35-year-old center to a 10-day contract earlier in the day, Collins checked into the game against the Los Angeles Lakers during the second quarter, and was greeted with a chorus of cheers from the crowd.
After the ovation, the focus quickly turned to the game at hand. Collins' play was unspectacular, which is exactly what we'd expect from a back-up journeyman playing his first NBA game in over a year. During a post-game presser, Collins refused to acknowledge the enormity of the moment, preferring instead to focus on basketball. But, despite his obvious efforts to avoid sentimentality last night, Collins is very aware of the historical significance of his new position, and will not run from the moment. In fact, from here on in, Collins will wear the number 98 on his jersey, in honor of Matthew Shepard.
Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming, where he was tortured and murdered in 1998 for being gay. The crime served as the impetus for some very vital anti-hate crime legislation, which has helped make Shepard into something of an icon. Collins has previously worn the number 98 as a member of the Boston Celtics, but that was before he came out. Now, the tribute takes on new meaning, as it comes from one gay rights trailblazer to another.
Photo: Courtesy of Youtube.