WASHINGTON – With the simplest of sentences, NBA veteran Jason Collins, who played in 2008-09 with the Minnesota Timberwolves, set aside years of worry and silence to become the first active player in one of the 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 — President Obama called him — along with former President Bill Clinton, the NBA, current and former teammates, a sponsor, and athletes in other sports.
Kevin Love, the only player on the current Wolves team who played with Collins in 2008-09, tweeted: “Happy for @jasoncollins34 in his decision. A great teammate and friend. Thanks for helping me through my rookie season! #classact #courage.” Numerous other NBA players, including Kobe Bryant and several former Washington teammates, expressed similar support.
Collins was reunited with former Stanford teammate Mark Madsen during his season in Minnesota. Collins texted Madsen — now an assistant coach at Stanford — early Monday morning and asked Madsen to call him. During their short conversation, Collins disclosed the news that soon would be sent worldwide via Twitter and other social media.
“I was very surprised, I had no idea,” Madsen said. “I have known him for 15 years, a tremendous person, a great basketball player. He’s a friend of mine. He’ll always be a friend of mine.’’
Madsen said he also considers Collins’ announcement important because it challenges his own presumptions about gay men.
“This is a guy who gets up in people’s faces, commits hard fouls, a man’s man,” Madsen said, “and he’s gay. That’s why I hate stereotypes. … Jason does not fit any stereotypes I might have had about someone who is gay.”
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, breaking the color barrier 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 the year that Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming, was killed, and the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization, was founded.
NBA Commissioner David Stern said in a statement: “Jason has been a widely respected player and teammate throughout his career and we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue.”
While Collin is the first male athlete in a major North American professional league to come out while intending to keep playing, several have previously spoken after they retired about being gay, including the NBA’s John Amaechi, the NFL’s Esera Tuaolo, a former member of the Minnesota Vikings, and Major League Baseball’s Billy Bean.
Female athletes have found more acceptance in coming out; Brittney Griner, a top college basketball player now headed to the WNBA, caused few ripples when she said this month she is a lesbian. Tennis great Martina Navratilova, who came out decades ago, tweeted Monday that Collins is “a brave man.”
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.”
Staff Writer Jerry Zgoda contributed to this report