NBA center Jason Collins became the first male athlete actively playing in a major pro-sport to come out as gay on Monday.
“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay,” wrote Collins in an editorial posted on Sports Illustrated’s website Monday. “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.”
Collins, who most recently played for the Washington Wizards but was previously with the Boston Celtics, joked about his 12-year-long career in the NBA, which has taken him through six pro-teams and two NBA finals. “Ever heard of a parlor game called ‘Three Degrees of Jason Collins?’” he wrote. “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 is currently a free agent.
Now, Collins said, he’s reached a point in both his career, and life, “in which I can do pretty much what I want. And what I want is to continue to play basketball…At the same time, I want to be genuine and authentic and truthful.”
Collins wrote that a major tipping point in his decision to come out was the 2011 NBA player lockout, which kept him from turning to basketball as, what he called, a “distraction.”
“The lockout wreaked havoc on my habits and forced me to confront who I really am and what I really want,” he said. “I lacked the distraction that basketball had always provided.”
Collins said he realized he needed to go public when he felt jealous that his old Stanford roommate, Mass. Rep. Joe Kennedy, had marched in Boston’s 2012 Gay Pride Parade. He wrote:
“I’m seldom jealous of others, but hearing what Joe had done filled me with envy. I was proud of him for participating but angry that as a closeted gay man I couldn’t even cheer my straight friend on as a spectator. If I’d been questioned, I would have concocted half truths. What a shame to have to lie at a celebration of pride. I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore. I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, ‘Me, too.’”
PRAISE FROM THE CLINTONS
Chelsea Clinton, another classmate of Collins at Stanford, took to Facebook Monday to celebrate her friend’s strength and courage, writing that Collins’ decision marked, “an important moment for professional sports and for our country.”
Her father, former President Bill Clinton, also issued a statement of support:
“I have known Jason Collins since he was Chelsea’s classmate and friend at Stanford. Jason’s announcement today is an important moment for professional sports and in the history of the LGBT community. It is also the straightforward statement of a good man who wants no more than what so many of us seek: to be able to be who we are; to do our work; to build families and to contribute to our communities. For so many members of the LGBT community, these simple goals remain elusive. I hope that everyone, particularly Jason’s colleagues in the NBA, the media and his many fans extend to him their support and the respect he has earned.”
Praise for the basketball player continued to skyrocket throughout the day, as fans applauded Collins’ decision. Even First Lady Michelle Obama voiced her support in a tweet:
So proud of you, Jason Collins! This is a huge step forward for our country. We’ve got your back! -mo
— FLOTUS (@FLOTUS) April 29, 2013
The major force that prevented Collins from coming out publicly, he said, was loyalty to his team. Pro-sports “locker room” culture has traditionally attached itself to anti-gay sentiment, and Collins didn’t want his personal life to become a distraction to his teammates.
The biggest concern seems to be that gay players will behave unprofessionally in the locker room. Believe me, I’ve taken plenty of showers in 12 seasons. My behavior wasn’t an issue before, and it won’t be one now. My conduct won’t change. I still abide by the adage, “What happens in the locker room stays in the locker room.” I’m still a model of discretion.
As public opinion on gay rights began to shift, however, so too has the locker room culture of homophobia steadily begun to crumble. Straight pro-athletes like Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo have spoken out in favor of gay rights, impressing Collins and reassuring to him that 2013 was the right time to come out.
The first person Collins came out to was his aunt Teri, who surprised him when she told him she already knew. Collins wrote that her support gave him “sweet release” and allowed him to ignore his “censor button for the first time.”
“Imagine you’re in the oven, baking,” he said. “Some of us know and accept our sexuality right away and some need more time to cook. I should know–I baked for 33 years.”
His twin brother Jarron, who is straight, was a little more surprised when Collins came out to him: “He was downright astounded…So much for twin telepathy.”
Collins wrote candidly about his younger years spent in the closet. He felt pressure to date women and even asked a girl to marry him at one point. “I thought I had to live a certain way,” said Collins. “I thought I needed to marry a woman and raise kids with her. I kept telling myself the sky was red, but I always knew it was blue.”
The basketball player’s most recent team, the Wizards, praised Collins for “his decision to live his life proudly and openly,” in a statement by President Ernie Grunfeld.