Jason Collins was a journeyman NBA center, all but unknown to anyone but the sport’s dedicated followers.
That was before Collins revealed he is gay in a first-person account for Sports Illustrated posted to the magazine’s website Monday. In doing so, Collins instantly entered himself into the world’s consciousness as the first active player in one of America’s four major sports leagues to make such a statement.
Collins began his nearly 3,000-word story, “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”
His revelation, which appears in the magazine’s May 6 issue, triggered a swift and overwhelmingly positive response from nearly all quarters — social media, mainstream news media, politicians and teammates from among the six NBA teams for which Collins has played in his 12-year NBA career.
“I was surprised,” said the Bulls’ Kirk Hinrich, a Collins teammate in Atlanta. “But it’s his business. I don’t like people trying to tell me how to live my life. He was a good teammate, a good guy. It’s really not significant to me. It doesn’t really change what kind of person he is.”
Support for Collins came from President Barack Obama. He also heard from former President Bill Clinton and his daughter, Chelsea, who was Collins’ classmate at Stanford.
Some of the NBA’s best known figures, from superstar Kobe Bryant to Commissioner David Stern, also reached out, as did major league baseball players, celebrated gay athletes such as tennis champion Martina Navratilova and fans.
“It is an honor for me to call Jason Collins a friend,” said the New Jersey Nets’ Brook Lopez, a fellow Stanford alum. “I admire his dignity as well as his courage to come out. I’ll always have his back.”
Navratilova tweeted: “Hey Jason Collins-you are now an activist!!!. And trust me, you will sleep a lot better now- freedom is a sweet feeling indeed!”
Such feelings weren’t unanimous.
ESPN’s Chris Broussard, an NBA analyst, called Collins a sinner. Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace apologized after saying, “All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys SMH” in a tweet removed from his account. Wallace tweeted later: “Never said anything was right or wrong I just said I don’t understand. Deeply sorry for anyone that I offended”
Collins wrote that he had begun thinking about coming out during the 2011 NBA lockout. He said the decision to do it publicly was further motivated by learning his old Stanford roommate, Congressman Joseph Kennedy, had marched in Boston’s 2012 Gay Pride Parade.
The recent Boston marathon tragedy illustrated life’s unpredictability to Collins in a way that led him to decide the time to “live truthfully” had come.
“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.”
Amid the tsunami of reactions to Collins’ revelation came the question of whether the player’s contract status would adversely affect the lasting impact of his words.
Collins played just 38 games for the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards this season, averaging 10.1 minutes, 1.1 points and 1.6 rebounds per game. He will be a free agent when the NBA’s signing period begins July 1. A statistical analysis by the New York Times’ Nate Silver showed about six in every 10 players with statistical, positional and age parameters similar to Collins’ have received contracts for the following season.
His agent, Arn Tellem, wrote in Sports Illustrated that he had asked Collins to delay his announcement until he signed a new deal.
“As long as a guy can play, I don’t think anybody will care,” DePaul men’s basketball coach Oliver Purnell said.
Without a contract to play in the league next season, he won’t be in position to test the consequences of being an openly gay man in a major American professional sport.
“How the rest of the saga plays out will determine whether what Jason did makes it easier for other male pro athletes to step forward,” said Jim Buzinski, co-founder of the website Outsports.com, which covers issues of homosexuality in sports. “If he doesn’t wind up on a team, people will think it’s because nobody wants to touch the gay guy. I know the NBA will be rooting for a team to sign him, but I hope the NBA doesn’t force some team to take him as a charity case.”
Whether or not Collins plays in the NBA next season, his supporters believe he made his mark.
“Regardless of the rest of his career trajectory, the fact that he has had such a successful career will empower all professional athletes to be honest about their lives,” insisted Anna Aagenes, executive director of Go! Athletes, a national organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and queer athletes.
Northwestern psychology professor Eli Finkel agrees.
“”It feels today that a barrier has been broken,” Finkel said. “I will be surprised if we have to wait another year for more athletes to come forward.”
Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, isn’t as sure.
“I don’t think we will suddenly see a cavalcade of announcements,” Swangard said. “I think this is an evolutionary step that reflects the comfort level society is getting with a diversity of population.”
That Collins has played so long and with so many NBA teams partially defuses the issue of whether a gay player, open or not, would fit into a team dynamic.
“He was a great teammate, always a professional,” said the Los Angeles Clippers’ Jamal Crawford, who played two seasons with Collins for Atlanta. “I’m not sure we win the second round without him against Orlando in 2011.
“I think players won’t view him any differently because he’s been in the league a long time and had tons of teammates,” Crawford said. “I’m sure he’s gained everyone’s respect over that time period.”
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban had told the website TMZ he would be honored if the first NBA player who came out publicly were on his team.
Two-time Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir waited years before coming out in his individual sport. Weir knows how much more complicated it must be for an openly gay man in a team sport.
“There may be guys on a team who don’t like gay people, and that friction could throw an entire team off,” Weir said. “Being out as a gay man isn’t like the common schoolyard rivalries or not liking a teammate. You are sharing a locker room, and you are different. The idea a gay guy might hit on you terrifies a lot of straight men.”
Less than two weeks ago, Brittney Griner, the top pick in the WNBA draft, revealed in a matter-of-fact way she is gay. The reaction to her announcement in the news media and on social media was infinitesimal compared with the nonstop discourse about Collins on Twitter and news outlets.
“And this would have been even bigger if we were talking about a No. 1 NBA pick,” Buzinski of Outsports.com said.
It still was a day of immense consequence for LGBTQ activists such as Aagenes.
“I don’t think this is a blip,” she said. “I think it is an indicator of the progress we have made in the sports equality movement during the past two years. The response being so positive is very exciting.”
(Chicago Tribune reporters K.C. Johnson, Shannon Ryan and Vaughn McClure contributed to this report.)
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