WASHINGTON — With the simplest of sentences, NBA veteran Jason Collins set aside years of worry and silence to become the first active player in one of four major U.S. professional sports leagues to come out as gay.
In a first-person article posted Monday on Sports Illustrated’s website, Collins begins: “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”
Collins has played for six teams in 12 seasons, most recently as a reserve with the Washington Wizards after a midseason trade from the Boston Celtics. He is now a free agent and wants to keep playing in the NBA.
“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. I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different,’” Collins writes. “If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
Saying he had “endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie,” Collins immediately drew support for his announcement from the White House, former President Bill Clinton, the NBA, current and former teammates, and athletes in other sports.
Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant tweeted that he was proud of Collins, writing: “Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others,” followed by the words “courage” and “support.”
“We’ve got to get rid of the shame. That’s the main thing. And Jason’s going to help that. He’s going to help give people courage to come out,” said Billie Jean King, a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame who confirmed she was gay after being outed in the early 1980s.
“I guarantee you he’s going to feel much lighter, much freer. The truth does set you free, there’s no question. It doesn’t mean it’s easy. But it sets you free,” King said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
The Wizards, whose season ended April 17, issued a statement from President Ernie Grunfeld: “We are extremely proud of Jason and support his decision to live his life proudly and openly. He has been a leader on and off the court and an outstanding teammate throughout his NBA career. Those qualities will continue to serve him both as a player and as a positive role model for others of all sexual orientation.”
Collins’ coach with the Celtics, Doc Rivers, drew a comparison between Monday’s announcement and Jackie Robinson’s role when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 as the first black player in Major League Baseball.
“I am extremely happy and proud of Jason Collins. He’s a pro’s pro. He is the consummate professional and he is one of my favorite ‘team’ players I have ever coached,” Rivers said. “If you have learned anything from Jackie Robinson, it is that teammates are always the first to accept. It will be society who has to learn tolerance.”
Collins says he quietly made a statement for gay rights even while keeping his sexual orientation a secret. He wore No. 98 with the Celtics and Wizards — 1998 was year that Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming, was killed, and the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization, was founded.
According to the General Social Survey, the public has grown increasingly accepting of gay relationships since the late 1980s. That survey found in 1987 that 76 percent of Americans thought sexual relations between adults of the same sex was morally wrong. That fell to 43 percent by 2012.
“I’m glad I’m coming out in 2013 rather than 2003. The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted,” Collins writes. “And yet we still have so much farther to go. Everyone is terrified of the unknown, but most of us don’t want to return to a time when minorities were openly discriminated against.”
Momentum has been building toward this sort of announcement from a pro athlete in a top league in the United States. NFL players Brendan Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe were outspoken in support of state gay-marriage amendments during last year’s elections. President Barack Obama spoke about his support for gay marriage during his re-election campaign.
The topic made waves during Super Bowl week when one player, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, said he wouldn’t welcome a gay member of his team. At the time, Ayanbadejo estimated that at least half of the NFL’s players would agree with what Culliver said, at least privately.
On Monday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to teams reiterating the league’s anti-discrimination policy about sexuality. It includes a section on questions teams cannot ask prospective draft picks and free agents. After the NFL combine in February, three players said officials posed questions about sexual orientation.
Earlier this month, the NHL and its players’ union partnered with an advocacy organization fighting homophobia in sports, and Commissioner Gary Bettman said the You Can Play Project underlines that “the official policy of the NHL is one of inclusion on the ice, in our locker rooms and in the stands.”
“I would say the NHL has been a force to kind of obviously embrace and encourage. ... What (Collins) did, I think it’s definitely (good) for basketball, and the same for hockey, too. It’s going to be encouraging for more guys to step up and just be open about themselves,” Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward said.
Living in the nation’s capital last month while the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about same-sex marriage had an effect on Collins, who says “the strain of hiding my sexuality became almost unbearable” at that time.
“Less than three miles from my apartment, nine jurists argued about my happiness and my future. Here was my chance to be heard, and I couldn’t say a thing,” he writes. “I didn’t want to answer questions and draw attention to myself.”
After being a first-round draft pick in 2001, Collins has averaged 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds for the New Jersey Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Hawks, Celtics and Wizards.
In his SI piece, he jokes self-effacingly about his journeyman career and a parlor game known as “Three Degrees of Jason Collins.”
“If you’re in the league, and I haven’t been your teammate, I surely have been one of your teammates’ teammates. Or one of your teammates’ teammates’ teammates,” he writes.
Never a star, he acknowledges, “I take charges and I foul — that’s been my forte. ... I set picks with my 7-foot, 255-pound body to get guys like Jason Kidd, John Wall and Paul Pierce open. I sacrifice myself for other players.”
He continues: “I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay? But I’ve always been an aggressive player, even in high school. Am I so physical to prove that being gay doesn’t make you soft? Who knows? That’s something for a psychologist to unravel.”
As for what response other NBA players will have to his revelation, Collins writes: “The simple answer is, I have no idea.”
“Openness may not completely disarm prejudice, but it’s a good place to start. It all comes down to education. I’ll sit down with any player who’s uneasy about my coming out,” he says in his account, adding: “Still, if I’m up against an intolerant player, I’ll set a pretty hard pick on him. And then move on.”