Jason Collins, the first openly gay athlete in the four major North American professional sports leagues, is playing Thursday in Denver, and the parents of Matthew Shepard will be there to watch.
“We’ve had a lot of nice, positive feedback from the public,” said Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. The organization was founded by Dennis and Judy Shepard in memory of their son, who was murdered in an anti-gay attack in Laramie. “It’s demonstrating that professional sports are another profession that is wide open to anyone.”
Collins, a 7-footer, was signed to a 10-day contract on Sunday with the Brooklyn Nets. He played in a 108-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers that night, with two rebounds, five fouls and a steal in just less than 11 minutes. On Wednesday, he played in Portland against the Trail Blazers before traveling to play the Nuggets.
Shepard was tortured and left to die in 1998. He was 21 and attending the University of Wyoming. Collins wears the No. 98 on his jersey in Shepard's honor. He wants to keep the details of any meeting with the Shepards to himself.
"Obviously, it's extremely special, and I'm very much looking forward to meeting them," he said.
Collins wore No. 98 with both the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards in honor of Shepard even before coming out. His jersey wasn't ready for the game against the Lakers (he wore a spare jersey with his name hastily added), but he was set to wear No. 98 again against the Blazers.
"We were very touched," Judy Shepard told the New York Daily News about the jersey. "For him to make that tribute to Matt was meaningful to us."
Collins had four of the top five selling jersey items Wednesday on NBAStore.com. His home and road replica jerseys, the women's replica road jersey and the men's T-shirt with No. 98 on it were tops in their categories. A LeBron James item led the fifth category.
Collins publicly announced in May that he was gay. He joined several other athletes to come out, including Robbie Roberts of Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy, Brittney Griner of the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury and NFL draft hopeful Michael Sam, a defensive end who played at Missouri.
Since coming out, Collins has become an advocate for LGBT rights. He was in Portland just last week, appearing before a group that's advocating to get a measure on the November ballot that would legalize gay marriage on Oregon.
Marsden, of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, noted Collins will be the first openly gay professional athlete in one of the Big Four of professional sports, which includes the NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League.
“The LGBT community is a lot more visible in entertainment and politics and some of the really high-profile pursuits in America now, so I think it makes it a little bit easier for not just an athlete but an actor, a business executive and other professionals, people who are in the public eye, to come out,” he said.
The advancement of gay civil rights -- such as anti-hate crime, anti-bullying and discrimination laws and same-sex marriage -- have made it easier for gay athletes to be open, too, Marsden said.
“I think that also prompts the questions about how LGBT people are treated in the workplace,” he said.
Professional sports are big business, and the industry realizes LGBT consumers are an important market, Marsden said.
“They want to appeal to the broadest possible range of fans,” he said. “They want to reflect the diversity of their own fans.”
Marsden said fans should expect more gay athletes on their favorite teams.
“I think we’ll probably see over time a pretty steady flow of LGBT athletes openly participating in sports,” he said.
For all the attention he's getting, Collins is not a distraction for the Nets, who are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, inside the playoff cutoff.
"He understands how to play the game the right way, and we saw that in L.A.," coach Jason Kidd said.
Collins, too, said he wants to focus on the Nets.
"There are only so many ways you can write the story or tell the story," he said, "and then it will just be about basketball."