The Sun Sets on a Russian Olympics and New Era Dawns in North American Sports

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Justice has a funny sense of timing. On the same day the Olympic torch left Sochi, Russia and its anti-gay repression, a gay guy played basketball with some old friends half a world away and became the first openly gay athlete to play in one of North America’s biggest four sports leagues.

Dasvidaniya, Russia. All hail the Brooklyn Nets.

As big moments in sports go, Jason Collins’ return to the NBA is groundbreaking, but not very flashy. While fireworks boomed over Sochi following an Olympics of heart-pounding, split-second wins, Collins calmly took his 7’ self to the floor at Staples Center, and played his 714th NBA game, this one against the Los Angeles Lakers. He blocked, he drew fouls and the only heart pounding in the building was probably his own.

He’s playing for a team that represents a new sports culture – a Brooklyn Nets organization driven by the cool youth of one-time owner Jay-Z, his superstar wife, Beyonce, a current owner who back flips on a jet ski, and an organization that thrives on social media in America’s biggest traditional media market. It’s a team that felt like it should welcome the cool kid – gay or straight.

Collins is back in the NBA in the way that we want sports to be. He’s being welcomed by guys who’ve always known he could play. Former teammate Jason Kidd, now a coach, vouched for Collins early on. So did his basketball-playing brother, Los Angeles Lakers scout Jarron Collins. So did Paul Pierce, and athletes who knew Collins professionally and personally or were willing to take a chance after Glen “Big Baby” Davis declined to join the Nets.

Also willing to take a chance on Collins is Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire and one-time Russian presidential candidate who owns the Nets. Prokhorov was a voice against his country’s adoption of anti-gay adoption and “propaganda” laws. His support for a gay player shouldn’t be a surprise, but it’s a reminder of dangers of painting the citizens of one country with the same big anti-gay brush.  It’s acknowledgment that team and league executives are willing to take a chance on the momentary distraction in favor of long-term gain.

And, it’s a reminder that the stereotype of a homophobic athlete is shifting. For every loudmouth hysteric like Jonathan Vilma whimpering about another human being standing next to him in a locker room, there’s a whole team in Brooklyn willing to take a chance on winning. Oh, and in their first game with an openly gay teammate, the Brooklyn Nets beat the Los Angeles Lakers 108-102.