Jason Collins has done something no other active NBA basketball player, or player from any other major professional sport, has ever done: he came out of the closet. After over a decade on the court, and even longer hiding his true self, the Washington Wizards center took to Sports Illustrated to finally say, "I'm gay."
"I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay. 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," he writes in his bare, intimate and revealing essay.
Collins also discusses how his former Stanford roommate, Massachusetts Congressman and political scion Joe Kennedy, helped him along, too. "I realized I needed to go public when Joe Kennedy, my old roommate at Stanford and now a Massachusetts congressman, told me he had just marched in Boston's 2012 Gay Pride Parade. I'm seldom jealous of others, but hearing what Joe had done filled me with envy," he writes.
And Collins also cites two other specific events that expedited his inevitable decision. One was the 2011 NBA lockout, which disrupted his training routine and forced him to really confront his own issues with coming out. "…The lockout wreaked havoc on my habits and forced me to confront who I really am and what I really want," he says. "With the season delayed, I trained and worked out. But I lacked the distraction that basketball had always provided."
The second catalyst was the Boston Marathon bombing, "The recent Boston Marathon bombing reinforced the notion that I shouldn't wait for the circumstances of my coming out to be perfect. Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully? When I told Joe a few weeks ago that I was gay, he was grateful that I trusted him. He asked me to join him in 2013. We'll be marching on June 8."
Now that he's out, Collins says he can't be sure how fellow players will react. (Update: Collins twin brother, Jarron, also an NBA player, did offer a statement, included below.) He's pretty sure many will be surprised that a player known for fouling and other aggressive tactics is gay. He also says he's hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. But no matter what happens, Collins is completely confident in both his decision and his ability to overcome any adversity that awaits on the court:
"By its nature, my double life has kept me from getting close to any of my teammates. Early in my career I worked hard at acting straight, but as I got more comfortable in my straight mask it required less effort. In recent days, though, little has separated "mask on, mask off." Personally, I don't like to dwell in someone else's private life, and I hope players and coaches show me the same respect. When I'm with my team I'm all about working hard and winning games. A good teammate supports you no matter what.
"I've been asked how other players will respond to my announcement. The simple answer is, I have no idea. I'm a pragmatist. I hope for the best, but plan for the worst. 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 I write this, I haven't come out to anyone in the NBA. I'm not privy to what other players say about me. Maybe Mike Miller, my old teammate in Memphis, will recall the time I dropped by his house in Florida and say, "'I enjoyed being his teammate, and I sold him a dog.' I hope players swap stories like that. Maybe they'll talk about my character and what kind of person I am.
"As far as the reaction of fans, I don't mind if they heckle me. I've been booed before. There have been times when I've wanted to boo myself. But a lot of ill feelings can be cured by winning."
NBA Commissioner David Stern has already praised Collins, 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 Bill Clinton, whose daughter Chelsea went to school with Collins, had this to say, "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."
The former president went on, "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."
Jarron Collins, Jason's twin brother who played ball for the Jazz and Suns, released a statement celebrating his brother's bravery:
"I won't lie. I had no idea [my brother was gay]. 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.
What does Jason want out of this? He wants to live his life. He wants a relationship, he wants a family, he wants to settle down. He wants to move forward with his personal life while maintaining his life as a professional basketball player. That's all, really.
"This announcement will be surprising to some people. I already anticipate the questions: "Are you the gay twin or the straight one?" This is uncharted territory, and no one can predict how it will play out. It's a big deal -- but it's also not a big deal. When the media crush is over, Jason will have the strength to deal with whatever challenges come from being openly gay.
"As for us, we're still going to give each other grief. (He's still going to be a terrible golfer; he's still the guy who could help more with changing my kids' diapers.) We'll still be competitive in our way. As kids we were always pushing each other, whether it was for good grades or for possession of the remote control. As NBA players we both wanted
to be stronger, so each summer we would have a "liftoff" to see who could put up more weight.
"Today, Jason has taken a huge weight off his shoulders. And I've never been more proud of him."
(Images via Sports Illustrated.)