Michael Lee has been talking with some of Jason Collins’s teammates on the Wizards, and with head coach Randy Wittman, who said he spoke with Collins on the phone Monday morning. They expressed both surprise — and support — for his decision to announce publicly that he is gay. Forward Emeka Okafor said Collins called him about an hour before his first-person story was published on the Sports Illustrated website.
Here’s what Okafor, Wittman, Bradley Beal and Garrett Temple had to say:
He called me and told me that an article was coming and said that he was going to be the first athlete who’s still playing that’s gay. I congratulated him and told him that I think it’s wonderful that he’s choosing to come out. I think it says a lot about him and a lot about what he’s trying to do. He called literally an hour or two before the article came out.
Q: What was your reaction?
A: I didn’t expect it. When he told me, my first reaction was I felt for him. I was like, ‘Wow, you’ve had to carry this around you for so long.’ I can only imagine the emotional toil that it must take and also the strength it must take to come out, because you don’t know how people are going to react. This world isn’t the most rational and you know how it is. All the thoughts that went through my head. You always hear about people that are gay in the locker room and I’ve never had a problem with it. So when he told me, I automatically went back and I felt for him. That was my first immediate. You can’t imagine being put in that position where you’re putting up a façade by force and it got to the point where enough is enough and he decided to be brave, which a lot of people wouldn’t do. Maybe more people will do now. Maybe this could be the spark where other people feel comfortable.
Q: How will this be accepted?
A: I think times are changing. All and all, I think people are more progressive than they used to be. And it’s not the same climate that it might’ve been in the past and I think that people are more accepting. How accepting, time will tell. We’ll see. But when he told me, I didn’t have a clue. But as far as him breaking the stereotype of how a gay person is supposed to be and act, that’s just shattered. Jason is one of the toughest guys out there. He’s just a regular dude. A great guy. A great teammate and a great professional.
Q: You guys used to always joke with him in the locker room.
A: Everybody has something. Everybody has a key attribute where he gets fun of. Feet. People make fun of feet. They make fun of facial features. It’s just one day Martell [Webster] happened to mimick JC’s voice and the way he did it, it just became a running joke. JC would shoot back at Martell and it was a friendly back and forth.
Q: Ever a concern to have a gay teammate?
A: To me, it was something I was never concerned with. To me, it’s how are you as a person? If you are good person and a good teammate, you have those boxes crossed off, I’m cool. All the other stuff is just whatever.
My thoughts and everything are the same, whether this came out today or didn’t come out today. He’s a quality individual as well as a quality player. One that, there was a reason his name was behind being included when we talked about the deal and what he can bring. Not only here as a player and a veteran, but his presence in the locker room and what he did was as vital in the short period of time, and probably from a standpoint of him not playing a lot, was still a vital part, of our locker room and our team. This doesn’t change any of that. I’m proud of him. I had the opportunity to speak with him this morning and the courage that he’s showing is wonderful and I’m happy for him, in terms of, I think this is something that he’s been waiting for the right time to do it and today was it. I’m happy for him. In terms of that. How I think of him doesn’t change. I still would love to have Jason part of our team.
Q: Was going to ask if you would have a problem with him being back
A: No. Absolutely not. This is no different. Black, white, Jewish or Christian, religion, sex. It’s all the same. I don’t look at it any differently than that. Who gives anybody the right to judge anybody. And I look at him the same way. What he brought to this organization hasn’t changed and won’t change because of this announcement.
Q: His contributions to the team
A: His presence of being a veteran was his greatest strength for our team and when talking about adding veteran type of people to our roster and he was one of those type of guys when we talked about doing this deal, about what he would bring. Because I knew him Minnesota and I knew he’d be great influence on our younger players here and he was. That’s why I singled him out in my exit press conference because I thought even though he did not play a lot on the floor, I thought he was really instrumental in helping our young guys and giving us another guy that does the right thing both on and off the floor. I think you’ll continually hear throughout that it’s not only the basketball player but the person. Who he is and the quality of the human being we’re talking about.
I found out when I read it. It’s a shock. To me and probably to everybody else as well, because you would never think that, that him being the guy he is, that he would be that way. But it’s really not up to us to judge him. That’s his decision. I only see him as a great player first, and a great asset to our a team and guy who really helped us out. Hopefully, somebody gives him an opportunity to play the game. because that’s what we’re all here for. We all love to play the game. We’re all doing something we love. And his sexual orientation has nothing do with the game of basketball. I’m supportive of him and I’m happy he’s able to be the first to do it. Hopefully, that’ll encourage other guys to do it as well. It’s very shocking, but at the same time, it’s not up to us to judge him. He’s still a great player. A great mentor to me and he definitely helped our team out a lot.
Q: How did he help the team?
A: He has a huge IQ for the game, especially for a big man. He definitely helped us out a lot. And the way he played when he was on the floor. he was basically a defensive stopper for us. He got rebounds. He fouled guys when they needed to be fouled and he knew his role. He knew what he was capable of doing. He brought his intangibles and he definitely helped us out a lot. He was a big mentor to us and definitely loved the game. You just have to see past the announcement and see the type of person he is and the type of player he is.
Q: Do you think it will affect his future in the league?
A: Hopefully, everybody will be able to see past all of that. Whether he comes back to us is really up to the front office and guys on the team. It’s up in the air, I know how I feel about it and it is what it is.
I saw the article. I can’t remember the website it was on, but I just saw the article, then I turned on Sports Center and I actually read the whole article.
Q: Your immediate reaction:
A: I was shocked, surprised. I had no inclination. I had no idea. Me and Jason, we’re actually neighbors, right next to each other in the locker room. I had no inclination at all, man.
Q: How difficult do you think this was for him?
A: It had to be. He had a lot of courage to come out and do that. To be the first guy actively, you know, that doesn’t want his career to be over. He’s stated many times that he still wants to play. To be the guy in a major sport, to be the first male to come out and say, that’s why I Tweeted it, a lot of respect to that man. He’s going to go through a lot of stuff. A lot of ignorant people are going to say some things, obviously, but to be that guy, to be the player to do it, much respect to him. I’m real proud of him.
Q: Would you be comfortable with him back?
A: I think I’d be comfortable. I don’t mind. I don’t mind somebody being gay. I’m straight. I know what I am as a person, I know my sexuality. So I’m not worried about that. I think the reason it would be a problem is if other players make it a problem. Unless guys continue to harp on it, make jokes on it, try to alienate the guy. Jason is a great teammate. He’s a pros pro, so I don’t think it would be a problem. He’s a professional. He’s going to continue to do what he does in locker rooms. Speak his voice. And when it’s in the locker room, it’s all about basketball. He’s a great veteran leader from the time that he was with us and he would be a great addition to a team that needed veteran leadership. In that context, I don’t think it would have any effect on guys in the locker room unless they want it to. If they want to harp on his sexuality.
He used to always motivate guys. Talk about different scenarios in the game. In the games that he did play, guys would always talk about how vocal he was defensively and how it just helped us on the defensive and how he set such great screens for our team. He set a screen and guys got open. You talk to John, or A.J. or myself, they would say, Jason sets a screen, you’re always going to get open. AJ said he got a lot open shots in that Chicago game, I think he got a career high that game. a guy that can bring something to a team that needs veteran leadership with that defensive mindset.
It just depends on the makeup of the team. Everybody has their own opinion and are entitled to feel how they feel, but if you’re not a fan of it, then just stay away from it. like the old adage, if you don’t have nothing nice to say, don’t say nothing at all. But I definitely think it’s possible for a guy who has come out to be in the locker room, but it’s a matter of if the guys are just focused on basketball. This is our job. We’re trying to win games and it’s all about basketball. It’s all about winning games. And if that’s what you’re focused on, you’re not going to be affected by anything else.