Jason Collins had plenty of gifts for Matthew Shepard’s parents: a basket, a blowout, an autographed No. 98 jersey that he wears in honor of their son.
They also shared some laughs.
Collins played the final eight minutes of the Brooklyn Nets’ 112-89 romp over the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night, and although his three points and four fouls weren’t much to look at in the boxscore, rarely has the 35-year-old center been this proud of a performance.
“I got them a bucket,” the center said.
After his cameo in Brooklyn’s recovery from a 44-point loss against the Trail Blazers 24 hours earlier, Collins, the first openly gay athlete in America’s four major sports, met with the parents of the slain Wyoming college student who was tortured and murdered in 1998 because he was gay.
Collins, who signed a 10-day contract with the Nets on Sunday, said the chance to meet Dennis and Judy Shepard was “one of those cool treats in life.”
He gave them a signed black and white jersey – although not a game-worn one.
“I did not want to give them a sweaty jersey, so this is a backup,” he said with a laugh.
More laughter could be heard throughout their meeting in a room between the teams’ locker rooms that lasted about 10 minutes before Collins got on the team bus.
“It was delightful. We were happy to finally have the opportunity to meet,” said Judy Shepard, who had spoken with Collins by phone last year after Collins announced he was gay and wore No. 98 because of her son.
Her husband said he hopes the day quickly comes when someone’s sexuality is a non-issue.
“There should be no publicity over this. It should be just an ordinary every day thing, like the military now,” he said. “That’s what we’re hoping for, soon.”
“His career is the most important thing,” Judy Shepard added as they walked away. “That’s it.”
Collins said Shepard’s death had a deep effect on him.
“I was in college at the time when he was killed and of course it’s a tragedy what happened and I just hope that it inspires others to move forward,” Collins said.
Collins wore No. 98 with both the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards even before coming out last spring. The jersey has been a big seller on NBAStore.com, something Collins said honored Shepard and the Trevor Project, which was established in 1998 and aims to prevent suicide among LGBT youth.
The jersey wasn’t ready for his first game with the Nets – he wore a spare with his name hastily added for the contest against the Lakers on Sunday – but he wore No. 98 against the Blazers on Wednesday night and against the Nuggets on Thursday night.
Collins said slipping on that jersey with the significance no longer a closely held secret meant a lot to him.
“Obviously, it started off my friends and family knew why I chose that number and it’s just cool to see that so many people support it as evidenced by so many people buying the jersey,” he said.
Collins was a free agent when he announced at the end of last season that he is gay. The 35-year-old center remained unsigned until the Nets needed another big man.
“It was fun out there. We got the win,” said Collins, who also had a steal and free throw against the Nuggets. “That’s the most important thing. The team got the win and especially after our performance last night in Portland, it was good to have a bounce-back game like this.”
He said he’s been given no indication from the team whether he’ll get another 10-day deal, but wants to stay with the Nets, whom he began his career with, the rest of the season: “Oh yeah, definitely. This is a great group of guys.”
Collins played 10 scoreless minutes in a win over the Lakers, then quietly played seven minutes after Nets coach Jason Kidd pulled his starters in the fourth quarter of Brooklyn’s big loss at Portland.
Collins bristled when a reporter asked him before Thursday night’s game if he could prove himself with such little court time over a 10-day deal.
“I don’t think as a 12-year vet, going on my 13th year now, that I have much more to prove as far as I know I can help the team win,” Collins said.