With the Words ‘I’m Gay,’ an N.B.A. Center Breaks a Barrier

In 12 seasons as an N.B.A. player, Jason Collins has never been an All-Star or a scoring leader or even a full-time starter, but on Monday he shattered one of the last great barriers in professional sports.

“I’m a 34-year-old N.B.A. center. I’m black and I’m gay,” Collins, who finished this season with the Washington Wizards, writes in the May 6 edition of Sports Illustrated. The magazine published the article online Monday morning.

With that statement, Collins became the first openly gay male athlete who is still active in a major American team sport. Other gay athletes, including the former N.B.A. center John Amaechi, have waited until retirement to divulge their sexuality publicly.

The announcement followed recent decisions by two other athletes — the American soccer player Robbie Rogers and the women’s basketball player Brittney Griner — to acknowledge that they are gay. When Rogers, 25, revealed last month that he was gay, he also said he was retiring from soccer. (He has since indicated he may play again.) Griner, the No. 1 pick in the W.N.B.A. draft, will soon embark on her professional career.

Collins’s announcement was greeted with an outpouring of support from teammates, league executives and major National Basketball Association stars, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade among them.

“Proud of @jasoncollins34,” Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers star, wrote on his Twitter account. “Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others.” Bryant added two hashtags: “courage” and “support.”

Some of the league’s biggest names followed suit, including the Lakers’ Steve Nash, Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, the Knicks’ Jason Kidd and San Antonio’s Tony Parker. Several teams sent out statements of support. Prominent coaches, including Boston’s Doc Rivers, who has worked with Collins, gave support in interviews.

However, one National Football League player, Mike Wallace of the Miami Dolphins, posted a comment on Twitter: “All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys.” He later deleted the comment and issued an apology.

And on ESPN, the N.B.A. analyst Chris Broussard, citing his religious beliefs, said that living openly as a homosexual was a sin and that doing so was “walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ.”

But those comments were greatly outweighed by the supportive ones Collins received, particularly from his N.B.A. peers.

“The overwhelming positive reaction does not surprise me,” N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern said in a telephone interview. “Our players are actually knowledgeable and sophisticated on this issue, and our teams understand it completely. I would have expected them to be supportive, and they are.”

President Obama called Collins “to express his support and said he was impressed by his courage,” according to a Twitter post from the White House. Michelle Obama, on her account, called Collins’s announcement “a huge step forward for our country.”

Collins becomes a free agent July 1 and intends to pursue another contract, which might be viewed as a truer test for how N.B.A. teams deal with a gay athlete. However, complicating that question is the fact that Collins, at 34, is a marginal player with limited skills, more valued for his locker-room presence than his play and not at the top of anyone’s list of players to sign. He appeared in just 38 games this season, which he split between the Boston Celtics and the Wizards, and was used sparingly.

Collins was never among the most skilled centers to begin with, instead relying on his size (7 feet, 255 pounds), intelligence and work ethic to carve out a niche after being drafted 18th over all in 2001.

In his Sports Illustrated essay, Collins alludes to his future in the league: “I’ve reached that enviable state in life in which I can do pretty much what I want. And what I want is to continue to play basketball. I still love the game, and I still have something to offer. My coaches and teammates recognize that. At the same time, I want to be genuine and authentic and truthful.”

One N.B.A. scout estimated that Collins had a 25 percent chance of making an opening-night roster next season, based solely on his basketball skills. But a general manager for another team predicted that Collins would be back in the league because of his reputation as a solid teammate and leader. That general manager said that Collins’s disclosure of his sexuality could even appeal to a forward-thinking owner.

Dave Kopay, who came out as gay in 1975 after a nine-year N.F.L. career, said on Monday he had waited nearly 40 years for this moment. “What he did is not easy,” Kopay said. “And I’m overwhelmed with how he’s done this. I’m so, so happy right now.”

Amaechi, who announced that he was gay after a five-year N.B.A. career, called Collins’s public declaration “undoubtedly groundbreaking.”

“We are unusually blessed to have such an eloquent spokesman,” Amaechi said in a phone interview from England, where he lives. “When I say ‘we,’ I mean society, as opposed to just gay people. Anybody who has ever interviewed Jason knows he is not just your average athlete. He’s cerebral, thoughtful, kind — so many things that many athletes are not enough of. Add this authentic declaration on top of things, it makes him one of the perfect role models for our young people.”

Amaechi was among several gay-rights advocates who said it mattered whether Collins played next season.

“If he’s not on a team, he’s just another guy who did it at the end of his career, and he retired,” said Jim Buzinski, a co-founder of Outsports, a Web site devoted to gays and sports. “Until we see him walking onto a court, in either a starting lineup or in a backup role off the bench, and there’s that anticipation that Jason Collins is going to step on the floor — it’s not going to matter as much until that moment. That’s what everyone is waiting for.”

Until now, Collins’s only public hint of his orientation was a subtle one. He wore No. 98 for the Celtics and the Wizards, in honor of Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who was killed in 1998. “The number has great significance to the gay community,” Collins wrote.

Collins informed his Wizards teammates, as well as Stern, in a series of phone calls Monday morning, before the story was published online. One Wizards teammate, Emeka Okafor, said that if Collins returned to Washington, “we’ll welcome him back with open arms.”

“He’s still the same guy,” Okafor said. “He’s just let us know more about him.”

Collins grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs and played college basketball at Stanford. As a professional, Collins has averaged a modest 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds a game while playing for six teams. He spent most of his first seven seasons with the Nets, helping them reach the finals in 2002 and 2003.

But Collins kept his sexuality deeply hidden. In an accompanying essay in Sports Illustrated, Collins’s twin brother, Jarron — a former N.B.A. center who now scouts for the Los Angeles Clippers — wrote that he “had no idea” that Jason was gay until Jason told him last summer.

Collins’s announcement also surprised his closest friends, including Mark Madsen, who played three years with Collins at Stanford and another season in the N.B.A., with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Madsen was among the people Collins called Monday morning.

“I would say one of Jason’s amazing characteristics is he has always been unafraid to express his opinion,” Madsen said in a telephone interview, adding, “He’s not going to be afraid of anything, really.”

The Nets’ Jerry Stackhouse said that Collins, his teammate for one season in Atlanta, was the perfect individual “to carry the flag for other players.”

“The fact that Jason’s been in the league for 12 years and has had so many different teammates, he’s got people to vouch for him,” Stackhouse said.

All of the major sports leagues have been preparing, to various degrees, for the moment when an active player comes out. The N.F.L., amid speculation that a handful of players were preparing to make the move en masse, has been working with gay advocacy groups to smooth the way for acceptance. The National Hockey League also recently announced a comprehensive program for training and counseling on gay issues for its teams and players. The N.B.A. has long included education in this area in its rookie and its veteran development programs.

In his article, Collins wrote that he considered coming out a couple of years ago. He said he made the decision to do so when Joseph P. Kennedy III, Collins’s roommate at Stanford, marched in Boston’s gay pride parade last year. Collins said he was envious and frustrated.

“I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore,” Collins wrote. “I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, ‘Me, too.’ ”

Zach Schonbrun contributed reporting.

by Howard Beck and John Branch
Source – The New York Times