Paul Pierce says Nets have embraced Jason Collins

Jason Collins, right, yells out from the bench

Jason Collins, right, yells out from the bench next to teammate Paul Pierce in the first half of a game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on Feb. 23, 2014. (Credit: Getty Images / Jeff Gross)

LOS ANGELES - He may not consider himself a crusader, someone blazing a mostly untraveled path so other openly gay athletes can follow suit.

But there are others who say that Jason Collins' return to the NBA will help open a dialogue they believe is long overdue, taking the conversation beyond sports and looking at the situation on a societal scale.

Paul Pierce is among them. He thinks people in Collins' situation shouldn't be subjected to more scrutiny than anyone else.

"He is a regular person," Pierce said after Collins logged 10:37 in the Nets' 108-102 win over the Lakers on Sunday. "You have people who make their choices. I think along our society, we tend to look at each other and make rules and say what's right and wrong, and you know, that's not fair to say what's right and what's wrong. Everybody has a choice. As long as it's not against the law or something where you are violating people's rights, then so be it."

Pierce wasn't done.

"It's America," he said. "You have freedom of speech, you have freedom to do a lot of things here. We welcome him here with open arms, and I'm happy that he's the one that I know and has the courage to be able to come out and say it. And the good thing about this team is we have embraced him and I think the NBA has embraced him. I think the sports world has embraced him, and that's going to be good moving forward."

The 7-foot Collins made it clear that a huge weight has been lifted off him since he revealed his sexuality in April, even if some suggest that it kept him from getting signed until he inked a 10-day deal with the Nets on Sunday.

Collins, 35, no longer feels as if he's keeping a major secret, creating a whole different vibe as he goes about daily activities.

"Life is so much better for me," he said. "I don't have to hide who I am. I can just be my normal self. The past 10 months have been incredible. A lot of really cool experiences. Meeting new friends. Hearing different people's stories. Sharing experiences. It was just really overall positive."

Kobe Bryant told Yahoo that Collins' impact is bigger than people think, indicating that it's going to have a domino effect on a much greater level than just a playing surface.

In a sense, this is why Warriors president Rick Welts, who communicated with Collins on Sunday after the news of his signing broke, decided to reveal his sexuality in 2011.

In becoming the NBA's first openly gay executive, Welts was trying to do his part to break down the imaginary barriers that exist in professional sports leagues known for championing their masculine nature.

"It was a journey for me like it is for anyone else who goes through this," Welts told Newsday on Sunday. "I really felt I would be in a position if I chose to do it the way I did it where I could contribute to some intelligent dialogue on the subject in team sports that some have a difficult time discussing."

"And to see what's happened in the subsequent three years, both in our society and now even in sports, in men's team sports, I think it's quite remarkable. And it's quite humbling and quite gratifying to see this unfold. I think men's team sports historically typically have lagged in this area, but we played a little bit of catch-up [Sunday]."

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