“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”
With 10 short words, former Stanford basketball star Jason Collins ’01 became the first active male athlete in a major U.S. professional sport to come out, a historic announcement revealed today in a story for Sports Illustrated.
“I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport,” Collins wrote in the first-person article. “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.”
Initial responses to Collins’ announcement were overwhelmingly positive, with NBA star Kobe Bryant tweeting “Proud of
@jasoncollins34. Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others #courage #support #mambaarmystandup #BYOU.” That tweet so far has garnered over 26,000 retweets and was favorited more than 9,000 times in the first two hours after it was posted.
NBA commissioner David Stern was also quick to support the 34-year-old Collins, who is currently a free agent after spending last season with the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards.
“As [deputy commissioner] 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,” 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’ twin brother Jarron ’01 summed up his feelings simply.
“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.”
But the announcement is having an equally large impact outside of the professional basketball bubble. Chelsea Clinton ’01 was a classmate of Collins and tweeted, “Very proud of my friend Jason Collins for having the strength & courage to be the first openly gay player in the NBA.”
Her father, former President Bill Clinton, also voiced his support.
“Jason’s announcement today is an important moment for professional sports and in the history of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] community,” he said in a statement. “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.”
Drafted by the New Jersey Nets with the 18th pick of the 2001 NBA Draft, the seven-foot-tall Collins is a self-described enforcer on the court with career averages of 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds in 11 years in the NBA. But his gritty defense and reputation for doing the dirty work on both ends of the court endeared him to coaches and fans alike. Collins came off the bench as a rookie to help Richard Jefferson and Jason Kidd lead the Nets to the best finish in franchise history and a berth in the NBA Finals. He became the starting center the next season, when the Nets lost in the Finals once again.
It was in his years on the Farm when he really shined on the court, however.
A rash of injuries, including a dislocated wrist and knee surgery, limited Collins in his first years for Stanford. But paired up with 6-foot-11 Jarron and finally healthy, Jason led Stanford to the Elite Eight in 2001. He was named to the All-Pac-10 First Team and was an All-American after leading the Cardinal in rebounding (7.8 rebounds per game) and finishing second on the team in scoring (14.5 points per game).
Jason finished his collegiate career averaging 10.8 ppg and 7.8 rpg, and his career field goal percentage of .608 put him first in the Cardinal record book of those with enough attempts to qualify.
Stanford assistant coach Mark Madsen, a teammate of Jason for three years before heading to the NBA, tweeted a response to the news earlier this morning, writing, “Played NBA +college w/ @Jasoncollins34 -tremendous human being and PHENOMENAL teammate, leader, friend. Look forward 2his continued success!”
“Jason Collins is one of the greatest people you will ever meet in your life,” Madsen said in a press release. “He is one of my all-time favorite teammates, both here at Stanford and for one season together in the NBA with Minnesota. What stands out to me about Jason is his leadership and sense of humor. Even at Stanford, Jason was involved with campus life outside of basketball.
“On NBA teams, he was a guy who kept everything loose and was able to bridge a lot of different gaps, whether it was international players, veterans or rookies. Basketball does not define Jason Collins. His decision to come out publicly doesn’t define Jason Collins. What defines Jason is, he is a first-rate human being who made a huge contribution to this University and every team or community he has been a part of.”
Stanford Athletic Director Bernard Muir similarly gave Collins his support in a written statement released today.”I am proud to hear that Jason, one of our Stanford sons, has taken a leadership role on this topic,” Muir said.
“Now I’m a free agent, literally and figuratively,” Collins wrote. “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.”
Collins’ revelation did not come without some negative backlash. Several posts on Twitter referenced Jason’s penchant for post play with crude references to his sexual orientation. User @DanielG93435786 tweeted, “I know know why Jason Collins liked basketball…bumping with other men in the paint, fag.”
Sports radio personality Mike Francesca drew criticism for saying on air, “It means less than nothing to me that there is a gay player now out in the NBA. SI going to reveal this this week in—I don’t know why—I guess a dramatic attempt to sell a magazine, I guess.”
ESPN basketball analyst Chris Broussard also noted that he has talked to some players in the NBA who “would be a little uncomfortable with [Collins’ sexual orientation], particularly in the shower.”
Those sentiments are likely to be reduced to little more than whispers, however, as few people are “going to come out and say anything publicly because of the climate we live in,” Broussard said.