Wizards backup center Jason Collins became the first active professional basketball player to announce that he is gay in Sports Illustrated this week. In a first person cover story written with Franz Lidz, Collins declared, “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. 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.”
A 12-year veteran, Collins was acquired, along with Leandro Barbosa, from Boston at the trade deadline in a deal involving Jordan Crawford. He has also played for New Jersey, Memphis, Minnesota and Atlanta. In six games with the Wizards, Collins averaged just 0.7 points and 1.3 rebounds. Washington went 4-2 in the games Collins played, including wins over Phoenix and the Los Angeles Lakers in his only two starts.
Collins wore the No. 98 for the Wizards and Celtics this season. When asked why he made such an unusual jersey choice in February, Collins said that he wanted to confuse officials when they have to use their fingers to give his jersey number to the scorer’s table after committing fouls. He had a reputation for delivering hard fouls throughout his career.
But in the article, Collins explained the jersey number was done as a show of solidarity for the hate crime against Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was tortured and killed for being gay in 1998.
“The number has great significance to the gay community,” Collins wrote. “That same year the Trevor Project was founded. This amazing organization provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention to kids struggling with their sexual identity. Trust me, I know that struggle. I’ve struggled with some insane logic. When I put on my jersey I was making a statement to myself, my family and my friends.”
Collins will be a free agent this offseason and already expressed a desire to continue his playing career.
“He has been a leader on and off the court and an outstanding teammate throughout his NBA career,” Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld said in a statement issued by the team. “Those qualities will continue to serve him both as a player and as a positive role model for others of all sexual orientation.”
NBA Commissioner David Stern also issued a statement that reads: “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. 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.”
The NBA players’ union also issued a statement in support of Collins’s decision. “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.”
Celtics Coach Doc Rivers enjoyed having Collins on his team this season and hated having to part with him in the Crawford trade. In a statement released by the Celtics, Rivers said, “I am extremely happy and proud of Jason Collins. He’s a pro’s pro. He is the consummate professional and he is one of my favorite “team” players I have ever coached. If you have learned anything from Jackie Robinson, it is that teammates are always the first to accept. It will be society who has to learn tolerance. One of my favorite sayings is, I am who I am, are whom we are, can be what I want to be its not up to you, it’s just me being me.”