“When back-to-back calls from Oprah Winfrey and President Obama come in, that was the moment where you go, ‘What is going on?’ ” Collins said. “When you pick up and someone says, ‘Please hold for the president,’ it really sinks in. It’s been a heck of a ride.
“Not even in my wildest dreams could I have imagined all this — the response. You’re always thinking, ‘I’m going to make this happen in my own words, on my own terms, and I’ll deal with the repercussions and consequences.’ And it turns out the country was really ready for something like this. It’s been remarkable.”
It was four days after an anonymous, 12-year journeyman center, a guy even many local media members didn’t know played in six games for the Wizards last season, became the First Male Athlete Currently Playing In a Sport America Really Cares About To Say, “I’m Gay.”
Before that moment, via his first-person Sports Illustrated story, Collins was heading into the usual nondescript offseason of a 7-foot behemoth who, aside from being the consummate professional, averaged four fouls per game in one season and boasted a career 3.8-point scoring average.
For more than 30 minutes over the phone from Los Angeles on Thursday night, he talked about his newfound celebrity — one that includes Sunday night on Oprah’s couch before millions; the lead-up to his decision to come out; how being in Washington had a profound effect on his announcement and, finally, the things a closeted gay man must do over more than a decade to keep his cover while superficially proving to his NBA teammates he’s as hetero as they are.
Yes, to pretend he was a playa, he partook of the hedonistic strip-club scene — albeit, in different ways.
“Sometimes you go and you just, you know, really enjoy the chicken tenders,” Collins said.
Laughing for a good 10 seconds, he eventually grew serious. “I don’t know what to tell you. You get so used to wearing a mask. You get used to telling half-truths, telling lies, telling stories about making up fictitious girlfriends or whatever it is. In the end, it’s all about making this step forward in my life and being completely honest and up front and genuine.
“It just goes back to anybody who tries to keep some secret,” Collins added. “The weight just gets heavier and heavier and heavier. It starts taking its toll on you mentally and physically to the point where you just don’t sleep well.”
When he was traded to Washington from Boston in February, Collins had already come out to several family members and friends. He wore the No. 98 to honor the memory of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man murdered in Wyoming in 1998, and the Trevor Project, a nonprofit founded in 1998 dedicated to suicide prevention for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people and for youth questioning their own sexuality. “Two powerful images in the history of gay culture in America,” he said.
But his process of cementing the decision was helped by the national gay-marriage debate, he said. “My apartment was literally walking distance from the Supreme Court. It was extremely tough not to say anything while the justices are debating something that has a direct impact on my life.”
Restless inside, he said he waited because of obvious distractions to his team, and added that he wouldn’t have told the truth about why he wore No. 98 to anyone in the media.
“I would have given you a coy smile and then I would have said, ‘To mess with the refs.’ Because if I would have told you why I wore the number, the next follow-up question would be, ‘Hmmm, why would you do that?’ ”
As to whether he would be swarmed by endorsement opportunities or that his coming out would in effect help him make him more marketable as a 34-year-old veteran several years past his prime — especially by a league that trumpets its inclusiveness and would hate to be viewed as homophobic for not giving a job to the first player courageous enough to take such a stand — Collins didn’t want to speculate.
He didn’t do this for money; he did it for him.
“I did deal with shame,” he said. “It’s sort of like the whole 12-step thing where you go through denial, shame, anger, praying, pleading, begging that’s it not true. Until you finally get to that acceptance and you get that support and you get that love from your family. It gives you that confidence that it’s okay to take off that mask. And once you do finally take off that mask, it’s like, why do I need to go back into the closet? Why do I need to go put on the mask again when I see how much better I feel just being me?”
Collins’s intensely personal revelation has brought about a dark side. Tweets wishing death on him, for one, and an evangelical Christian backlash affirming their belief, biblically, that homosexuality is a sin. But even that has open doors for conversation, he said.
Chris Broussard, an ESPN NBA analyst and, full disclosure, my longtime friend and former co-worker, called Collins to convey his message better than it came across on “Outside the Lines,” in which Broussard implied that anyone having unrepentant sex out of male-female marriage constituted an “open rebellion toward God.”
“He reached out to me afterward and I said, ‘If you want to, I’ll have the conversation with you.’ ” Collins said. “We spoke and I thought it surprisingly went pretty well.”
Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, and former president Bill Clinton called with some of the best advice. “Judy said, ‘Let the haters hate,’ and President Clinton just told me, ‘You’re about to enter a whirlwind. Just keep your head held high, your chin up and take deep breaths with each step.’ ”
“It’s kind of weird to hear ‘Congratulations’ for something like this,” he added. “But I get it — I acknowledge the fact that I am a role model now. I’m not going to be perfect. But I’m going to try to live my life as honestly as I can.”
The racial component of his opening line — “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay” — was calculated, he said. “I think it’s important. It’s something I identify with. I was very fortunate of having my Uncle Mark as gay. Having a role model that was African American that was also gay — engaged to the same partner he’s been with since I was in high school, you know, that was big.”
He was emboldened further when he heard about former Green Bay Packers player Leroy Butler having a paid speech engagement by a Wisconsin church rescinded after he congratulated Collins on Twitter. Butler explained in a later tweet: “I was told if I removed the tweet, and apologize and ask god forgiveness, I can have the event. I said no, only god can judge.”
“Only God can judge, I like that,” said Collins, who was raised Methodist and identifies as Christian.
He knows the media blitz will happen again when the season starts back up, provided he is signed by an NBA team. Collins isn’t worried, though. “Haven’t had a problem with a single teammate in 12 years and I don’t envision having one in year 13,” he said. “My teammates can vouch for me.”
How tough it must have been to live a lie for so long.
“You keep trying to tell yourself something you know deep down . . . it’s a whole process of coming out and level of acceptance in yourself,” Collins said. “Once you get to that point in yourself in acknowledging and accepting, you go up to that first person and that second person to get support, which is so key in letting you know it’s okay to be genuine. It’s okay to take off the mask. You’re still the same person. It’s just that you don’t have to go around making up stories anymore.”
After the most surreal week of his life, Collins was asked where he would go from here.
“I’m going to work out,” he said. “I’m going to the gym. I’ve already done two hours of cardio. So now I’m going to lift some weights and enjoy family and friends later tonight.”
Just like a normal NBA player, killing time in his offseason.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.