- Associated Press - Monday, March 3, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - Jason Collins has been warmly received in his historic return to the NBA.

Now it’s time for his own fans to welcome him back.

More than a week after becoming the league’s first openly gay player, Collins will finally get to play a home game Monday night when the Brooklyn Nets host the Chicago Bulls.

“It will be a lot of fun,” Collins said. “I have some family and friends coming to the game. I’m looking forward to seeing them and obviously the first home game.”

He has played hundreds in a Nets uniform, though it was a white, red and blue one, and the home games were in New Jersey. Plenty of fans and employees of the organization remain from when Collins played there from 2001-08, so he will likely be greeted by a loud ovation if he gets into the game.

“I’ve always said I’m not worried about the reaction,” said Nets coach Jason Kidd, who played with Collins when the franchise reached consecutive NBA Finals in 2003-03.

“I think they will always support a Net. He’s been a Net before. I think they’ll be excited to have him, but the big thing is him being able to help us defensively.”

Collins and the Nets have kept the focus as much on basketball as possible. They all view him as a big man who will willingly defend and foul - he has racked up 10 of them already in four games - who can help pass along 12 years of NBA experience to younger teammates such as Mason Plumlee and Andray Blatche.

The fact that he’s gay makes him much more than that outside the Nets’ locker room, but he thinks that story line will die down soon enough.

“There’s only so many ways you can write the story, or tell the story, and then it will just be about basketball,” he said during the middle of last week.

Collins thought it had already reached that point, mistakenly believing that Saturday’s victory in Milwaukee would be the first time reporters didn’t want to talk to him after the game.

Not quite yet. Collins may just be a 14th man on the roster to the Nets, but he’s still far more than that to the fans he inspired from the moment he decided to come out in a Sports Illustrated article last April.

“I think it is a big deal. He’s showing a lot of courage. You’re talking to a guy who was around when Jackie Robinson came in. What’s the difference? It’s just as groundbreaking. I just hope he’s judged as a basketball player,” said Butch Pye, 69, of Castle Rock, Colo., who attended the Nets' victory in Denver on Thursday.

Collins‘ debut is currently his only guaranteed home game. He’s nearing the end of the 10-day contract he signed on Feb. 23 before facing the Los Angeles Lakers. NBA rules allow teams to sign players to two 10-day deals, then have to sign them for the rest of the year if they want to keep them.

There are plenty of reasons to retain Collins. He has brought positive attention and is making an impact in the gay and lesbian community, with the NBA pledging to donate all proceeds from sales of his No. 98 jersey - no less than $100,000 - to the Matthew Shepard Foundation and the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.

But those have little to do with basketball, and the Nets stressed in the press release announcing Collins‘ signing that the move was a basketball decision.

He can still do enough to make it a wise one, even with just one basket so far. With Brook Lopez lost for the season and Kevin Garnett’s minutes being monitored, Kidd needs a big man he trusts to fill in for a few minutes.

And a guy like Collins can help even when he’s not in the game. He has defended Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan in the NBA Finals, so knows what it takes to guard even the biggest stars, even if he’s rarely the one doing it.

“When I was a younger guy, I learned from Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning. It’s a cycle,” Collins said. “Now that I’m that old man at the end of the bench, that veteran, even though I may not be playing minutes, there definitely are ways I can help the team win.”

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AP Sports Writer Arnie Stapleton in Denver and freelance writer Joe DiGiovanni in Milwaukee contributed to this report.

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