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On 5th anniversary of Jason Collins return, reflections on the Nets’ historic decision

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Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

When the Brooklyn Nets 2013-14 season is viewed from a historical perspective, the disappointment of the Boston trade will surely be part of the story. But the bigger story may be what happened on February 23 ... when the Nets signed Jason Collins, the first openly gay athlete in the four major sports.

Collins had come out the year before in a Sports Illustrated cover story entitled, “The Gay Athlete.” The 7-footer known for his defense and smarts was without a job from the time that article appeared until he signed with the Nets and was part of their 16-6 playoff run.

Michael Scotto, in a lengthy timeline published Thursday in The Athletic, takes us through the process that changed pro sports forever, from Jason Kidd suggesting the idea to the workout to the signing to the debut on the court in his hometown of Los Angeles.

The story, as detailed, began with Kidd, Collins’ teammate for six and a half years in New Jersey. Kidd, as Irina Pavlova recalls, considered signing Collins not to reward Collins for his courage or to gain a marketing edge. He needed another big man.

“Brook was out. Kevin (Garnett) couldn’t play big minutes. Mason (Plumlee) had to step up big time in his rookie year. I was talking to Jason (Kidd) before a game once and he said, ‘We need another big” and then asked what I thought of Jason Collins. I said, “I don’t know … You tell me! Is he good? Can he help us? Is he a good guy?’

“Kidd said, ‘Yes, I think he can. And yes, he’s a really good guy.’ I asked, ‘Do you think it’ll be an issue with the locker room?’ Kidd said, ‘If we had a bunch of really young guys, I’d be worried, but I know with KG and Paul (Pierce) here, it’ll be OK and they won’t let anyone get out of line.’ I don’t know if Kidd had discussed it with them or not but probably. And that was it.“

There were discussions inside the Nets. Mikhail Prokhorov (who the year before had hired an openly gay man to run his presidential campaign in Russia) signed off. Billy King did as well. Bobby Marks recalls that the Nets looked at Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Jordan Hill, but Davis signed with the Clippers. Jordan Hill was another possibility and even though ownership was willing to pay out another $20 million in luxury taxes, Kidd was not willing to play him.

Meanwhile, another team looked at Collins and passed, claiming that he was out of shape. Collins knew that wasn’t the reason, that he was in the best shape of his life. The Nets interest was a blessing. He recalled to Scott how it went down.

“Everything happened so quickly. Getting the calls, speaking to my agent and Arn saying, ‘Congratulations, you’re going to get signed with the Nets.’ Then, when I spoke with J. Kidd, him saying, ‘Congrats. We’re in town. We play the Lakers tonight, and we need you to actually play. We’re not just signing you to sign you.’ It’s like, we need you to play because of all the injuries they had.

“Everything happens for a reason, and I couldn’t have asked to be with a better organization, better teammates, better coaches. They really welcomed me back into the NBA.”

Little things became historic. Collins’ boyfriend joined the players’ wives and significant others on the road.

Bobby Marks talked about how he understood the importance of the moment Collins signed.

“I remember — because I was the one who drew up the contracts and I’ve drawn up a lot — and this one had extra meaning to it. I remember we were out in LA when we signed him and I remember Billy (King) calling me, I think it was on a Sunday, and basically saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to sign Jason Collins.’

“It was a good feeling, you know? Not because he was gay or anything like that, but here’s a guy that nobody knew if anyone would sign him that we knew could come in and help, if not the locker room having another veteran in the locker room. I remember telling my wife, ‘I’m going to keep this contract.’ I never do that. I wanted to keep a copy of it because I know it meant a lot to a lot of different people and everything like that.“

Then, there was the debut at Staples Center, with his family and friends in the stands. A moment. One that was both unique and just another basketball game. He played more than 700 for seven teams, including both New Jersey and Brooklyn.

“I remember checking in and being really nervous walking up to the scorer’s table and then having my name announced and walking and checking into the game. I remember the fans in Staples cheering for me when I went into the game. It’s rare when you’re on the road or the opposing crowd is cheering for the opposing team or an opposing player. I just remember the fans at Staples cheering for me.

“Then, you go up and down a couple of times and then it was just basketball (laughs). It’s like, OK, I’ve done this my whole life. It’s funny, even now if I were in the situation — I haven’t played in a basketball game in God knows how long — but if I were to go up and down a couple of times, it’s like that muscle memory will come back and it’s like, OK, this is what I used to do. This is what I do. It comes back to you.”

He also remembered how he helped the team win, 106-102, part of the team’s playoff push.

“I remember that I had a good play to help the team in the fourth quarter. I think Paul Pierce or somebody was shooting a free throw and I did the old Tyson Chandler routine, which Tyson has become so good at, which is you back tap it if you can’t get the ball to one of your teammates. I remember not only playing in the game but actually making a play and a couple of plays to help the team win.”

Scotto spoke as well to several of the Nets players and coaches who were on hand that night. Sean Sweeney, the young assistant coach, recalled his thinking about the signing and how well things worked.

“100 percent if he can help us win, we’ve got to have him here. He was great playing-wise, competing in terms of how he helped younger guys. He was off the charts. He was great.”

Scotto writes as well about how Collins continues to work with the NBA and how he sees his career. All well worth the read ... and all of it not possible without the Nets organization —Prokhorov, Pavlova, King, Marks but most of all Kidd— being willing to sign Collins, knowing his value as a player and teammate was paramount.