One of the last barriers in professional sports was knocked down Monday, when veteran NBA centre Jason Collins told the world he was gay in an exclusive Sports Illustrated cover story.
Collins, who has played nearly 500 games, is the first active North American male professional athlete to come out.
Others, like former NBA centre John Amaechi and Major League Soccer star Robbie Rogers, have done so after retiring, but Collins is a free agent who hopes to continue playing.
“I’m a 34-year-old NBA centre. I’m black. And I’m gay,” Collins wrote in the magazine.
“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.’ If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
Collins, a defensive specialist, spent more than six seasons with the New Jersey Nets — starting games in the NBA Final and helping to shut down Raptors star Chris Bosh in a 2007 playoff series — and has suited up for five other clubs, being heralded as a model teammate at every spot.
In the SI story, he joked that Shaquille O’Neal couldn’t blame his flopping on defence on his being gay and revealed that he wore jersey No. 98 this past season to honour Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who was tortured and killed in 1998.
Support for Collins and this watershed moment for sports as a whole was swift.
Baron Davis was the first player to chime in, tweeting: “I am so proud of my bro @jasoncollins34 for being real. #FTheHaters.”
Many others followed, including former league MVPs Kobe Bryant and Canadian Steve Nash, one of the most progressive athletes in pro sports, as well as Oklahoma City standout Kevin Durant, Miami’s Dwyane Wade and Raptors starters Rudy Gay and Kyle Lowry.
“The time has come. Maximum respect,” tweeted Nash. “A true American. home of the free because of the brave,” tweeted Gay.
“Proud of @jasoncollins34. Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others #courage#support,” read Bryant’s tweet.
Only two years earlier, Bryant had been reprimanded when a live mic picked up a homophobic slur he uttered.
Trailblazer Martina Navratilova, the tennis legend who came out decades ago, couldn’t help but toot her own horn while praising Collins.
“Well done Jason Collins — you are a brave man. And a big man at that: 1981 was the year for me — 2013 is the year for you,” she tweeted.
Athletes in other sports also chimed in. CFL wide receiver Geroy Simon said he and his ilk are “more open and forward thinking than we get credit for #hischoice” while Kansas City Royals pitcher Aaron Crow said he’d be proud to call Collins a teammate.
Collins’ twin brother, Jarron, now retired from the NBA, said he had no idea his brother was gay when he was told last summer.
“We talked, he answered my questions. I hugged him and I digested what he had told me. At the end of the day, this is what matters: He’s my brother, he’s a great guy, and I want him to be happy. I’ll love him and I’ll support him and, if necessary, I’ll protect him.”
Amaechi, who wrote a book in 2007 about being a closeted NBA player, also tweeted his opinion:
”Congratulations to Jason — society couldn’t hope for a more eloquent and positive role model.”
NBA Commissioner David Stern’s statement read: “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.”
Washington Wizards teammate Emeka Okafor was happy for Collins and said he obliterated the common perception of gay athletes.
“My first reaction was I felt for him. I was like, ‘Wow, you’ve had to carry this around you for so long,’” Okafor told the Washington Post.
“Times are changing. I think that people are more accepting. How accepting, time will tell.
“The stereotype of how a gay person is supposed to be and act, that’s just shattered. Jason is one of the toughest guys out there.”
Collins isn’t sure what will come next, but is ready for it.
“At the end of the day I don’t know what’s going to happen after I open this door,” he told SI.