LOS ANGELES — Through the first quarter of the Lakers game against Brooklyn, newly signed Nets center Jason Collins sat with his elbows on his knees, hands clasped, focused on the plays he would soon be expected to help run and the defensive schemes he needed to learn.
Then with 10:28 left in the second quarter, between a pair of Nick Young free throws, Collins checked into the game. It was Collins' first NBA appearance since last April after signing a 10-day contract Sunday afternoon.
His first statistic was a turnover. A four-minute stint on the court ï¿½ no points, a rebound, two personal fouls ï¿½ could have been easily missed, except for this: On Sunday, in a 108-102 Nets win over the Lakers, Collins became the first openly gay man to appear in a game in any of the four major American professional sports.
When Collins prepared to enter the game, it was all reflexes. He said he wasn't thinking about breaking a cultural barrier or, as many hope, countering the stigma of gays in the locker room.
"I've done this a thousand times," he said.
As he walked from the scorers' table onto the court, faint applause grew louder. Some among the 18,997 fans at Staples Center gave him a standing ovation.
"It was weird," Collins said. "I'm usually one of the background players."
But that changed when Collins came out as gay in a Sports Illustrated cover story last April.
"He has become an icon," Lakers center Pau Gasol said, "and is going to have to carry some responsibility with it. And I think he's fine with that."
Collins was born in Northridge, grew up in the San Fernando Valley and lives in Los Angeles. He said it was a special feeling to return to basketball in his hometown.
'It was pretty easy for me to come to the game tonight," he said. "Drive down the 405, take the 10 and get here in 20 minutes."
He previously spent 12 seasons in the NBA, including eight with the Nets. He went scoreless in 11 minutes, missing his only shot attempt, collecting two rebounds and a steal. Before the game, Collins brushed aside the historic aspect of his return to basketball.
"I need to be a solid basketball player," he said. "It's about focusing on the task at hand and not thinking about history or anything along those lines."
Several months ago, Lakers assistant coach Mark Madsen had dinner with Collins and his twin brother, Jarron, a former NBA center who is now a scout for the Clippers. Madsen played with the brothers for three years at Stanford and said Jason Collins was more focused on continuing his NBA career than carrying a torch for the gay community.
"I never got the sense that he felt any type of pressure or any type of media scrutiny," said Madsen. "To me, he was the same Jason Collins that I've known since our days together at Stanford."
The question of an openly gay professional athlete had been at the forefront of the public consciousness in recent weeks, after University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam, expected to be chosen in a high round in April's NFL draft, came out Feb. 10.
In 2007, former NBA center John Amaechi announced he was gay in a memoir, but had been retired for several years.
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni called the moment "very positive" for the NBA.
"We'll get to the point where you ask me if he's a good addition or not because he can play or not," he said. "That's what we need to get to."
Collins was welcomed back to the NBA by a floor of positive messages. Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that "everyone in the NBA family is excited for him and proud that our league fosters an inclusive and respectful environment."
Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who coached Collins in Boston last season, said he had been in close contact with the center over the past several days.
"I'm very happy for him and really, for the basketball part," Rivers said. "The other stuff is for everything else. But, the basketball part, he's a worker. He's a good guy. And, it's always nice to have good guys in the league."
Staff writer Dan Woike contributed to this report.