Commentary

Collins keeps spirit of Shepard alive

Dennis Shepard sees late son, murdered in gay-hate crime, in Jason Collins' No. 98

Updated: February 25, 2014, 4:29 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

Dennis Shepard caught some of the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers on TV Sunday night, which means he caught the most meaningful 10 minutes, 37 seconds of February basketball ever played by an NBA reserve who did not make a single shot. Jason Collins did get his money's worth with five fouls, however, and he sure did set a mean pick.

"It hurt just to watch," Shepard said.

The 65-year-old fan from Casper, Wyo., loved every precious second of it. He did wonder why Collins wasn't wearing jersey No. 98 for the Nets, the one the 7-footer wore with the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards to honor the memory of Shepard's son, Matthew, murdered in 1998 for the "crime" of being gay. Dennis Shepard figured that Collins might've been honoring someone else with No. 46 or that the Nets might've retired his first preference.

He didn't know that Brooklyn had only its spare jersey (46) available Sunday and that Collins is scheduled to be wearing 98 again in Portland on Wednesday night, not that Shepard was sweating the small stuff. He was just happy to see the first openly gay man in major American team sports out there doing what he loves to do, and inspiring kids everywhere to be unafraid of who they are.

"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," Shepard said by phone Monday. "Some kids are still living hidden lives, living in fear, and the more you see Jason and Michael Sam and others encouraging them to be themselves, they'll understand they can get to the top of whatever ladder they're climbing."

[+] EnlargeJason Collins
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillJason Collins must wait until Wednesday to don a No. 98 jersey for the Nets in honor of Matthew Shepard, whose legacy he continued to carry on Sunday night.

At 5-foot-2 and barely clearing 100 pounds, Matthew Shepard was a climber, too, before and after he decided to come out to his parents. He was a world traveler schooled in Switzerland who could speak five languages and was learning a sixth, French, at the time of his death at age 21. He adored people, and politics, and could give you chapter and verse on all the relevant issues in his community.

"I think Matt would've loved Jason," Dennis Shepard said. "But I think he'd sit down and Jason would probably start running away from him because Matt wouldn't stop talking to him."

Shepard allowed himself a laugh over the memory of his precocious son, then he was back to discussing the beauty of watching Jason Collins fouling and screening the Lakers as often as he could.

"Matt would see this as a great day," his father said.

The kid was 19 when he told his mother, Judy, that he was gay and asked her not to tell Dennis until he had the chance to do it himself. That was one promise Judy couldn't keep, so when Matthew saw a family reunion as an opportunity to hold a summit meeting with his old man, Dennis had an idea what was coming.

Everyone else had gone to bed when the boy ushered his father into the kitchen. "It's really important," Matthew told him, "so you might want to sit down."

Dennis sat down.

"Dad," Matthew said, "I'm gay."

"That's fine," Dennis said, "but it's late and I want to go to bed. What's so important that you had to tell me?"

The father could almost hear the tension slowly leaving his son's body, like air hissing out of a slightly pricked balloon. "He thought I was going to yell and scream and throw him out the door," Dennis said.

He showed his son love and common decency instead.

"I was only disappointed in that I wanted grandkids," Dennis said. "My father was a big outdoorsman, and he taught Matt and his brother, Logan, how to hunt and fish and ride horses, and I wanted to build the same memories with my grandkids and tell stories about it.

[+] EnlargeObama
AP Photo/Manuel Balce CenetaDennis Shepard, left, and Judy Shepard, middle, continue their fight for gay rights in America.

"And then I thought, 'Well darn, how selfish is that? You could lose your son in a war, or in a car accident, or through some kind of disease. You still have your son. You can still have grandkids, and if he does get married you can attend two bachelor parties. You can still make memories with him.'"

Dennis still holds those memories tight; the murderers might've taken his son, but they didn't take those. On an October night in 1998, near Laramie, Wyo., Matthew was abducted by two men, tied to a prairie fence, brutally beaten and left for dead before a bicyclist came upon him, at first mistaking him for a scarecrow. He died in the hospital five days later.

While Dennis returned to his job with an oil company in Saudi Arabia, his wife remained in the U.S. and became a tireless public advocate for anti-hate-crime legislation and for LGBT rights. "Judy has had so many people come up to her after her speeches and say, 'Thank you for saving my life,'" her husband said. "People tell her, 'I was ready to give up, to commit suicide, and now we discuss things and I feel part of my family, along with my partner.' That keeps Judy going."

Dennis, too. Back in the States now, Matthew Shepard's father is involved with the foundation and websites in his son's name (Matthewshepard.org and Matthewsplace.com) and is supporting the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit businesses from discriminating in their hiring decisions on the basis of sexual orientation. "In 39 states," Dennis said, "you can still be fired for being gay. Matt's gone and I can't do anything about it, but I have to do something. There are a lot of Matts out there who need help and encouragement."

The Shepards are comforted by the sights and sounds of Jason Collins doing his part, too. The Nets would've rather acquired Glen Davis, who signed with the Los Angeles Clippers, but they had Collins ahead of Ivan Johnson and some D-Leaguers on their list of available alternatives for a reason. Nets assistant Eric Hughes liked what he saw in the big man's conditioning in a workout, and Jason Kidd, the Nets' coach, liked what he remembered about his time playing with Collins in New Jersey.

Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Joe Johnson also saw in Collins a former teammate who knew his role and who carried himself as a pro's pro. Mikhail Prokhorov had already established himself as a right-minded voice on gay rights in Russia and as an NBA owner who wouldn't let Collins' coming out in Sports Illustrated last spring affect his decision to hire Collins to a 10-day contract.

"I was watching Jason and his brother [Jarron] back when they played at Stanford," Dennis Shepard said, "and I remember Judy having a big smile on her face when Jason came out and said why he was wearing 98. By bringing out Matt's story again, Jason is encouraging others to view people who are different in a new light. He's also giving a lot of kids out there hope, something to live for."

Judy has had a private conversation or two with Collins, but the Shepards don't want to draw any attention away from what their favorite NBA backup is doing on the court. Dennis said that he and his family are planning to make the three-and-a-half-hour drive to Denver for Thursday night's Nets-Nuggets game but that he will try to keep their attendance low-key.

Either way, in person or on TV, he'll watch Jason Collins play basketball in honor of his son and the noble Trevor Project, an organization founded in 1998 to help prevent suicide among LGBT youth. Dennis Shepard said he will keep praying that his boy "is up there grinning" over the sight of Collins on the court, wearing jersey No. 98.

Matthew was a runner and a swimmer, a kid who shied away from team sports because he didn't want his lack of size and athleticism to let down his teammates. But as long as 7-foot Collins stays in the NBA, 5-2 Shepard stays in the NBA, too.

"And Matt goes on helping more kids than he'll ever know he helped," his old man said. "We can't ask for anything more than that."

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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