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Collins, Nets bring spotlight to Denver; expected to visit parents of slain Wyoming student Mathew Shepard

By: The Associated Press
February 26, 2014 Updated: February 27, 2014 at 5:10 pm
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Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins talks with reporters during practice on the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. Collins became the first openly gay active athlete in North America's four major professional sports Sunday, Feb. 23, signing a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

PORTLAND, Ore. — Deron Williams took a moment to snap a few photos of Brooklyn teammate Jason Collins at their shootaround in Portland.

He couldn't help it: The NBA's first openly gay player was surrounded by a throng of cameras and microphones, and at least for the next week or so, Collins will be the face of the Nets wherever they go.

The 7-footer was signed to a 10-day contract on Sunday. He played in a 108-102 victory over the Lakers that night, with two rebounds, five fouls and a steal in just under 11 minutes.

Before Wednesday night's game against the Trail Blazers, Collins said accepted the both the interest and scrutiny that has come with his return to the league.

"I'm back playing basketball, so of course I'm enjoying this," he said.

The Nets visit Denver Thursday, where the attention will become even more intense. The family of slain Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard is expected to make the drive for the game Thursday night against the Nuggets.

Shepard was tortured and murdered in 1998 because he was gay. Collins wears his No. 98 jersey in Shepard's honor. He wants to keep the details of any meeting with Judy Shepard to himself.

"Obviously, it's extremely special and I'm very much looking forward to meeting them," he said.

Collins wore the No. 98 with both the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards for Shepard even before coming out.

"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."

The jersey was already the biggest seller of the day Tuesday on NBAStore.com, and the NBA said it was selling well again Wednesday.The league doesn't provide the number of jerseys sold.

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 publicly announced he was gay last May, and he joins 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.

In 2004, voters passed a measure that amended the state constitution to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Campaign organizers hope to make Oregon the first state to overturn a constitutional amendment that bans gay marriage.

Collins said for now, however, he just 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."

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