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NBA Center Comes Out
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 04/29/13
Last updated on: 04/29/13
 
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Jason Collins, a center for the Washington Wizards of the National Basketball Association, has become the first professional athlete in a major American team sport to come out while still playing. In the cover story of the May 6, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated, Collins, an All-American at Stanford University in 2001, writes, "I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay."

Collins continues, "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."

"My journey of self-discovery and self-acknowledgement began in my hometown of Los Angeles and has taken me through two state high school championships, the NCAA Final Four and the Elite Eight, and nine playoffs in 12 NBA seasons. I've played for six pro teams and have appeared in two NBA Finals. Ever heard of a parlor game called Three Degrees of Jason Collins? 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."

"Now I'm a free agent, literally and figuratively. 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."

In his wide-ranging essay, Collins recalls that the first relative he came out to was his aunt Teri, a judge in San Francisco. She told him, "I've known you were gay for years." Her casual acceptance encouraged him to come out to other relatives, including a gay uncle, and his twin brother Jarron, also an NBA player.

But, he says, "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. 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."

However, he adds, "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."

Collins goes on to explain the pain he felt in the closet, the toll taken by having to live a lie. He reveals that he made a small gesture of solidarity with the gay community by insisting on wearing the number 98 on his jersey in honor of Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in 1998.

The 7-foot tall center, who is known as a particularly aggressive player, prides himself on being known as a "pro's pro." He knows that his announcement will surprise many of his colleagues, and he confronts head on the stereotype of gay men as soft. "I hate to say it, and I'm not proud of it, but I once fouled a player so hard that he had to leave the arena on a stretcher. I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay? But I've always been an aggressive player, even in high school. Am I so physical to prove that being gay doesn't make you soft? Who knows? That's something for a psychologist to unravel."

Collins takes comfort in the knowledge that public opinion has shifted in regard to gay rights. In that regard, he thanks straight pro athletes such as Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo who have spoken out on behalf of equal rights, as well as President Obama's mention of Stonewall during his second inaugural address.

Jason Collins is destined to make a real difference in the perception of gay athletes. It will be interesting to see the reaction his announcement elicits from his colleagues in the NBA.

NBA player John Amaechi came out in 2007, four years after his retirement. During his playing career, Amaechi was aware of speculation about his sexual orientation. He even called his homosexuality "an open secret" among sports writers; nevertheless, he did not make any public declaration about it because of possible negative reaction from other players or coaches. "It would be like an alien dropping down from space," he said. "There'd be fear, then panic. They just wouldn't know how to handle it."

While reaction to Amaechi's coming out was mostly positive, former NBA player Tim Hardaway used the occasion to announce his homophobia. "You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people," he told a Miami radio station, and proceeded to obsess about having gay players in the locker room. In response, superstar players Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley condemned Hardaway's comments. After he was publicly rebuked by NBA commissioner David Stern, Hardaway issued a half-hearted apology.

While sports may still be the final closet for gay men in American society, the closet door opens a little every time athletes of the caliber of Amaechi and Collins come forward.

Upon news of Collins's announcment, President Bill Clinton lauded his courage and issued the following statement: "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."

He added, "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."

Supportive statements were also issued by, among many others, Chelsea Clinton, filmmaker Spike Lee, NBA Hall of Famer Earvin "Magic" Johnson, tennis champions Martina Narvatilova and Billie Jean King, former NBA player John Amaechi, White House press secretary Jay Carney, Presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett, NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, and NBA Commissioner David Stern, as well as by the head of GLAAD's sports program Aaron McQuade and Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin.

Griffin said, "With his brave and honest announcement today, Jason Collins has forever changed the face of sports. No longer will prejudice and fear force gay athletes to remain silent about a fundamental part of their lives. By coming out and living openly while still an active NBA player, Collins has courageously shown the world that one's sexual orientation is no longer an impediment to achieving one's goals, even at the highest levels of professional sports."

The NBA Players Association also joined the chorus praising Collins: "As Jason wrote, pro basketball is a family, and he has and always will be our brother. The NBPA is dedicated to fighting for the best interests of and uniting all players regardless of race, creed, color, age, national origin, or sexual orientation. Today is another example that we are intent on continuing that work."

The NBPA statement concluded, "We congratulate Jason for having the courage to 'raise his hand,' as he wrote in his story, and start the conversation."

In the video below, from a year ago, Collins addresses issues of his health.

 
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