As he dressed in the visitor’s locker room after the Washington Wizards’ season-ending loss in Chicago, Jason Collins was pelted with a piece of ice. Glaring over at the direction of the toss, Collins spotted teammate Trevor Booker with an opened ice pack on his right wrist, playfully looking away as if he wasn’t the culprit. Collins continued to stare until he made eye contact with Booker and cracked a knowing smile before both players laughed.
In his short time with the Wizards, Collins didn’t play much but managed to endear himself to his teammates for his hard work, discipline and professionalism — the qualities that Coach Randy Wittman said led the team to acquire him from Boston on Feb. 21 in a trade involving Jordan Crawford. And, according to Wittman and several members of the team, those opinions of Collins remained unchanged on Monday, when the 7-foot journeyman center became the first active male athlete in a major U.S. professional sports league to announce that he is gay.
“To me, it was something I was never concerned with,” Wizards center Emeka Okafor said in a telephone interview. “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.”
Collins made his declaration in a story for Sports Illustrated that was published online Monday. In the article, he explained the difficulty he faced coming to terms with his sexuality and the decision to come out at age 34. In a first-person article written with Franz Lidz, Collins said: “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.”
Before the article hit the Internet, Collins reached out to Wittman, Okafor and Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, among others. The news caught Collins’s teammates by surprise. Wizards guard Garrett Temple, whose locker room stall was next to Collins, found out when he read the story online.
“I had no idea. I had no inclination at all, man,” Temple said. “He had a lot of courage to come out and do that. 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.”
Said rookie guard Bradley Beal: “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. I only see him as a great player first, and a great asset to our team and a guy who really helped us out. Hopefully, somebody gives him an opportunity to play the game. His sexual orientation has nothing to do with the game of basketball.”
Wizards swingman Martell Webster offered his support on Twitter, writing to Collins, “proud of you for being you” and playfullly concluding that Collins’s “jump shot is still weak.”
Collins will be a free agent this summer and has said several times that he wants to continue playing. A 12-year-veteran from Stanford, Collins also played for New Jersey, Memphis, Minnesota and Atlanta and made two trips to the NBA Finals. He has a reputation for being a physical, defensive-minded player and has committed more fouls than he has scored points in seven of his past eight seasons.
Collins appeared in six games for the Wizards, averaging 0.7 points and 1.3 rebounds. His two starts for Washington, games in Phoenix and Los Angeles when Okafor was sidelined by flu-like symptoms, resulted in the team’s only consecutive road victories of the season.
“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,” said Wittman, who also coached Collins in Minnesota. “He’s a quality individual as well as a quality player. How I think of him doesn’t change. I still would love to have Jason [as] part of our team.”
Collins set solid screens, which Temple credited with freeing teammates for open shots, and he wasn’t shy about delivering hard fouls when he stepped on the floor — or in expressing his opinion in the locker room. Before a recent game in Brooklyn, Kevin Seraphin challenged Collins to a game of one-on-one and Collins offered a warning with a little trash talk. “You sure you want to do that to yourself,” Collins asked.
But before Monday, the most startling revelation Collins had made arguably was that Jason Segel, star of the television show “How I Met Your Mother” and movies such as “I Love You, Man,” was his backup on their high school basketball team.
Okafor said that while he would be accepting of a gay teammate, others might not be as open.
“When he told me, my first reaction was I felt for him,” Okafor said. “I was like, ‘Wow, you’ve had to carry this around you for so long.’ I can only imagine the emotional toll 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. . . . 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.”
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