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Extra Pass: Jason Collins speaks loudly for progress

Feb 24, 2014, 7:57 AM EDT

Jason Collins

When Michael Jordan played basketball with an unmatched competiveness, he was the same person who (allegedly) cheated while playing an old lady in cards.

When LeBron James makes a spectacularly unselfish pass on one possession and then preens after dunking on the next, he’s the same person who held a me-first nationally televised “Decision” that also raised money for the Boys & Girls Club.

When Jason Collins had more fouls (5) and turnovers (2) than points (0), rebounds (2), assists (0), steals (1) and blocks (0) in his landmark game Sunday, he was the same person who came out last April as the first active openly gay athlete in North America’s four major team sports.

I firmly believe the player you see on the court is the same person who leaves the arena at the end of the night to live the rest of his life. Some compartmentalize their lives more than others, taking one persona between the lines and another outside them. But that divergence is a choice by a singular human being.

Collins, more than anything, made a decision to stop compartmentalizing. He stopped living one portion of his life as a basketball player and one portion as gay. Everyone should expect the decency to live in a unified state of existence if they choose, and Collins shows why.

In any interview he’s done since coming out in Sports Illustrated, Collins sounds happy and comfortable.

He’s become an advocate for gay rights, an outspoken ambassador for the cause.

Which gets back to why Collins had such a strong performance Sunday.

All game, Collins was noticeably vocal on the court with his teammates.

Collins did that before coming out, and perhaps he’s always had this courage within himself to speak out. He just needed time and thought before channeling it into a new realm.

But on the basketball court? Nothing new at all. Communicating well – along with setting strong screens, physically boxing out and committing hard fouls – always made Collins successful without accumulating impressive box-score numbers.

Even at 35 – an age where many, myself included, wondered whether he could still compete at an NBA level – he was still deploying those same skills Sunday.

The Nets-Lakers game finished without incident, a welcome turn of non-events for those who’d anticipated this milestone for years.

At one point early in the fourth quarter, Collins wasn’t allowed into the game. Turned out, he hadn’t reached the scorers’ table quickly enough. At the next stoppage, he re-entered, and he got right back to talking to his teammates.

Collins cannot be silenced.

The Nets will be better for it. The NBA will be better for it. All professional sports will be better for it. The world will be better for it.

And, most importantly, Collins will be better for it.

Players being the same people they are on and off the court is a summation of how they carry themselves in both realms. The concept isn’t numerology, equating a players’ stats to their value as a human beings.

But on Sunday night, Collins was an exception. He finished +8 in 11 minutes, the best per-minute mark in the game.

This is who Collins is – a big positive.

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