HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Jason Collins displayed his courage routinely as a big man whose specialty was fighting for space under the rim against the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard. So the journeyman center, who played for both the Celtics and Wizards this season, had nothing to prove to me, you or anyone else when it comes to courageousness.
Yet Monday, he showed an entirely different type of bravery when he came out as the first openly gay athlete in a major American sport.
“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”
Those 12 words he wrote in a piece for Sports Illustrated will not only change the course his life but the lives of his friends, family, teammates and coaches (past, current and perhaps future). They will change everyone else involved with the NBA. Now that this barrier has been broken, Collins will forever be linked to this groundbreaking moment and what comes after.
I cannot think of a man better equipped to deal with this new reality. Collins always has been regarded as the ultimate professional, one of the smartest players of his generation and a teammate willing to give it all up for his team. No one spends 12 years getting cracked in the face by the sharp elbows of some of the best big men in NBA history without being willing and able to withstand some pressure.
Collins always has been one of my favorite players to talk to about basketball and beyond. Catch him in the locker room before a game and bring up almost any topic and he could educate you on a thing or two.
So for every person who has an issue with Collins coming out — and there are sure to be plenty of them — there will be just as many who support him and have his back, folks who commend him for his courage and his refusal to fear the foolish reactions of some.
When you have as many friends in high places as Collins does …
… support should not be a problem.
“As Adam Silver and I said to Jason, we have known the Collins family since Jason and Jarron joined the NBA in 2001 and they have been exemplary members of the NBA family,” NBA Commissioner David Stern said in a statement. “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.”
Collins is a wealthy Stanford graduate with options galore and seemingly no need to share his truth with the judging masses. Yet he does, unflinchingly. Collins explaining himself is refreshingly honest:
Why am I coming out now? Well, I started thinking about this in 2011 during the NBA player lockout. I’m a creature of routine. When the regular season ends I immediately dedicate myself to getting game ready for the opener of the next campaign in the fall. But the lockout wreaked havoc on my habits and forced me to confront who I really am and what I really want. With the season delayed, I trained and worked out. But I lacked the distraction that basketball had always provided.
The first relative I came out to was my aunt Teri, a superior court judge in San Francisco. Her reaction surprised me. “I’ve known you were gay for years,” she said. From that moment on I was comfortable in my own skin. In her presence I ignored my censor button for the first time. She gave me support. The relief I felt was a sweet release. Imagine you’re in the oven, baking. 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.
When I was younger I dated women. I even got engaged. I thought I had to live a certain way. 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.
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. 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.”
It takes a brilliant mind to articulate thoughts as meticulously and honestly as Collins has here. It takes an understanding of who and what you are, at your core, to do this knowing that there are so many people still willing to give into the prejudice that is sure to come.
It takes true courage to do this without worrying about the repercussions. And courage is something Collins has in surplus, both as a basketball player and as a man.
He wants to march for tolerance and acceptance and understanding. He wants to take a stand.
I’d march with him any time. I’d stand with him.