“I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay.”
So begins Jason Collins’ cover story in the May 6 issue of Sports Illustrated, in which he became the first player in the four major North American male professional leagues –– the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and the National Hockey League –– to come out as gay while still an active player.
An All-American in his days at Stanford University, Collins, since 2001, has played professional basketball for the Nets, while they were still in New Jersey, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Atlanta Hawks, the Boston Celtics, and the Washington Wizards. He is currently a free agent.
Though media attention has focused on Collins’ pioneering role within the big four US sports, Orlando Cruz, a Puerto Rican boxer who is currently ranked number four among featherweights by the World Boxing Organization, beat the basketball player to the punch. Last fall, Cruz stated, “I have always been and always will be a proud gay man.”
In the Sports Illustrated piece, Collins explained he had not expected to be the trailblazer he undoubtedly will become.
“I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport,” he wrote, “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.’ If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand.”
His professional basketball career, Collins wrote, was a “distraction” that allowed him to avoid the question of being open about his sexuality. The player lockout in the 2011 season, however, “wreaked havoc on my habits and forced me to confront who I really am and what I really want. With the season delayed, I trained and worked out. But I lacked the distraction that basketball had always provided.”
As he began talking to others about coming out, an aunt who is a judge in San Francisco told him she always knew he was gay. Then his former Stanford roommate, Joseph Kennedy III –– elected last year to a US House seat from Massachusetts –– told him that he had marched in Boston’s gay pride parade. Collins was “filled… with envy” –– and “angry that as a closeted gay man I couldn't even cheer my straight friend on as a spectator.” At that point, Collins sought the support of a gay uncle in New York.
When he came out last year to his twin Jarron, who also played in the NBA, Collins’ brother was “astounded,” but quickly adjusted to the news. Jarron wrote in Sports Illustrated, “I've never been more proud of him.”
Collins lauded the support that straight pro football players Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings and Brendon Ayanbadejo of the Baltimore Ravens have offered the LGBT community and gay athletes in particular in recent years. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, he mentioned the inspiration he drew from Martina Navratilova, the out lesbian tennis star, and John Amaechi, a former NBA player who came out in 2007, four years after his retirement.
Collins added that President Barack Obama’s mention of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in his Inaugural Address this year would be a big plus in society’s conversation about gay issues.
Given the number of teams Collins has played with, he is well known by his fellow NBA players.
“If you're in the league, and I haven't been your teammate, I surely have been one of your teammates' teammates,” he wrote. “Or one of your teammates' teammates' teammates.”
The initial reaction in the league has been positive.
In a written release, Ernie Grunfeld, the president of the Wizards, said, "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 orientations.”
Kobe Bryant, a Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard who is one of the league’s biggest stars, tweeted, "Proud of @jasoncollins34. Don't suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others #courage #support #mambaarmystandup #BYOU."
David Stern, the NBA’s commissioner, issued a statement saying, “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.”
And Nike, with whom Collins has an endorsement deal, said, "Jason is a Nike athlete. We are a company committed to diversity and inclusion.”
Even political figures have stepped into the story.
Former President Bill Clinton, whose daughter Chelsea was at Stanford with Collins, tweeted, “I'm proud to call Jason Collins a friend. http://wjc
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said, "I can certainly tell you that here at the White House we view that as another example of the progress that has been made and the evolution that has been taking place in this country and commend him for his courage and support him."
In a Sports Illustrated essay that accompanied the Collins’ piece, Jon Wertheim, one of the SI reporters who sat down with him in his home last week for his coming out interview, addressed one of the hurdles that have inhibited honest discussion of gay athletes.
“Since entering the league upon graduating from Stanford in 2001,” Wertheim wrote, “he's been a bruising player, an enforcer who's laid out players, dispensed his share of trash talk, drawn technicals –– in short, whose style splinters every shabby stereotype of gay men being soft.”
Wertheim said Collins was asked whether his aggressive style of play represented some form of overcompensation.
“He smiles and says that he'll get back to us on that one,” Wertheim wrote.