Jason Collins' No. 98 Nets jersey the top-seller on NBA.com


(CNN) -- Last week, Jason Collins wasn't even on an NBA team. In two weeks, he might not be on one.

But for now, Collins -- the first openly gay, active player in the United States' four big sports leagues -- is, by jersey sales, the NBA's most popular player.

NBA Senior Vice President Vicky Picca said Tuesday that Collins' No. 98 Brooklyn Nets uniform is the top-seller on NBA.com, besting the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin. The interest is coming from the fans Collins has earned since announcing last year, when he was still unemployed, that he was gay.
Brooklyn Nets signs Jason Collins

"Jason Collins' return to the league represents a historic moment, and fans continue to show their support by (buying) Jason's jersey," said Picca.

Not bad for a player who, just last week, inked a 10-day contract with the Nets. And the Stanford graduate hardly dominated in his lone game back on the court, going scoreless while compiling two rebounds and five personal fouls in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers.

In fact, Collins had never been a headline player. A journeyman with stops with New Jersey, Memphis, Minnesota, Atlanta, Boston and Washington, he's known more for his defensive prowess and rebounding than his offensive output, having averaged 3.6 points per game over his 12-year career.

The warm reception he received during and after that game from his teammates, competitors like Kobe Bryant and league officials reflects more on Collins' reputation as a player and person around the league, as well as his historic announcement.

"I know everyone in the NBA family is excited for him and proud that our league fosters an inclusive and respectful environment," said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver after Collins' signing last Sunday.

Whether Collins stays around remains to be seen. At age 35, he's not bringing fresh legs to Brooklyn. And the team has no obligation to keep him on the roster.

Still, whether or not he's a go-to player, Collins has very much become a symbol for the gay rights movement since disclosing his sexuality in an April column in Sports Illustrated magazine.

"I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I'm happy to start the conversation," he wrote.

"I wish I wasn't the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, 'I'm different.' If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand."

There's no escaping the symbolism in his jersey number: He chose 98 in honor of Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student beaten to death in 1998.

The news that the Nets jersey was selling so well (despite the fact that Collins hasn't even worn it yet, having at first donned a No. 46 for the Lakers game) struck a chord online.

Some on Twitter praised the development, like one who wrote, "He's a piece of history, and this is really significant for a lot of people."

Many others, though, were less enthusiastic -- including some who used gay slurs and suggested Collins was profiting because he is gay. (In fact, NBA players don't get more or less money based on how many of their jerseys are sold.) Some questioned why Collins was being held out as an icon while, in their view, athletes who publicly profess their Christianity are criticized.

A few people questioned the jersey sales not because of Collins' sexuality, but because of what they considered his sub-par play.

"Jason Collins' jersey was actually a top-seller?" tweeted one. "Wow...I mean I'm glad he came out and all but #CmonMan."


Nets center Jason Collins presented an autographed No. 98 jersey to the family of Matthew Shepard in Denver on Thursday.

Collins, the first openly gay NBA player, wears the No. 98 in honor of Shepard, a homosexual man who was tortured and murdered in 1998 at the age of 21. The 13-year vet also donned No. 98 while playing with the Celtics and the Wizards during the 2012-13 season, before he came out as gay last April.

“The number has great significance to the gay community,” Collins explained when he announced his sexuality in a Sports Illustrated essay. “One of the most notorious antigay hate crimes occurred in 1998. Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was kidnapped, tortured and lashed to a prairie fence. He died five days after he was finally found.”

The 35-year-old Collins was signed to a 10-day contract by Brooklyn on Sunday and made his debut against the Lakers that night. He scored three points in eight minutes in the Nets’ 112-89 victory over the Nuggets on Thursday. After the game, Collins posted a photo of himself presenting a black Brooklyn jersey to Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis, and his brother, Logan.

“I’m so fortunate to have met Matthew Shepard’s parents and brother tonight after [the Nets'] win tonight in Denver,” Collins wrote on Twitter.

”It was delightful,” Judy Shepard said of the meeting, according to the Associated Press. “We were happy to finally have the opportunity to meet.”

Collins’ No. 98 was the best-selling jersey on the NBA’s online store earlier this week.

”I did not want to give them a sweaty jersey, so this is a backup,” Collins said, according to the AP, adding that his meeting with the Shepards was “one of those cool treats in life.”

In 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded federal hate crime laws to cover victims who were targeted because of their gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

“We must stand against crimes that are meant not only to break break bones but to break spirits. Not only to inflict harm but to instill fear,” Obama said at the time, according to FoxNews.com. “No one in America should ever be afraid to walk down the street holding the hands of the person they love.”

Judy Shepard has been an advocate of anti-hate crime legislation for years and the Shepards established the Matthew Shepard Foundation to pursue civil rights protections for the LGBT community.

“Matt would see this as a great day,” Dennis Shepard told ESPN.com after Collins’ signing. ”Jason helps those kids go ahead and live their lives to the fullest, and take their talent in academics, in sports, wherever it can take them.”

NBA commissioner Adam Silver issued a statement Sunday acknowledging the significance of Collins’ signing, which marked the first time an openly gay athlete has been active in any of the four major North American sports.

“Jason told us that his goal was to earn another contract with an NBA team,” Silver said. “Today, I want to commend him on achieving his goal. I know everyone in the NBA family is excited for him and proud that our league fosters an inclusive and respectful environment.”


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