Every time he put on his No. 98 jersey this season in both Boston and Washington, Jason Collins knew he was making a silent but powerful statement to himself, his family and friends. But he also knew that the wasn’t ready to let outsiders in on the secret.
Before this season, Collins wore either 33, 34 or 35 through his college and professional career. So when asked about the unusual basketball number in his 12th NBA season, Collins would crack a self-deprecating joke about its meaning.
“I would also go, ‘Because I foul a lot and to mess with the refs,’ ” Collins said in a wide-ranging, hour-long interview with Grantland’s Bill Simmons.
In becoming the first openly gay athlete in one of the major professional sports, Collins has also revealed that he chose the number to honor Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student who was robbed, tortured and beaten to death in a hate crime for being gay in 1998. Collins knew he couldn’t explain its significance without opening himself up to speculation and rumors. “I couldn’t. I think they would’ve” figured it out, Collins told Simmons. “I had to do it on my own time. I had to wait until the season was over…It’s always about the team’s success and winning ball games and not drawing eyeballs for unnecessary” distractions.
In an interview with HLN’s Evening Express, Shepard’s mother, Judy, said she was deeply touched by the gesture.
“I thought it was such a tribute to Matt, Matt’s story and so many other young people who are struggling in his own private tribute, I was very moved. He sounds like an amazing, brave individual, just really courageous. So proud to be who he is. I think that’s really an amazing thing.”
Current and former teammates and coaches, other NBA players, President Obama and former President Bill Clinton have all offered support since he made his declaration. Jason Kidd, who played with Collins for six seasons in New Jersey, said the announcement “is going to make the world a better place at the end of the day.”
Judy Shepard said, “He’s a perfect example of the gay community existing around us and we don’t know it. The more personal stories that are told, the more real it becomes to everybody else. I seriously doubt there is one living American left that does not have some connection to the gay community. They know somebody, they are related to somebody, they work with somebody who is a part of the community or tied to the community in some way and the more we know that, the more welcoming we are, the less ignorant we become and the [more] accepting and understanding and compassionate we are for what they are going through.”
Collins explained to Simmons that he had no intention on being a pioneer but had to step out once the season concluded. “You know change happens slowly, but I was that person that was waiting. I was ready, but you’re always looking around for people to step up and I’ve always been that lead by example kind of guy, where if something needs to be said, I’m going to do it. I think this is just another example of me walking the tough walk. But it’s cool I’m not doing it alone.”
Near the end of the Simmons podcast, Collins reflected on his time with the Wizards and compared John Wall’s basketball intelligence to that of Celtics all-star guard Rajon Rondo. “He really thinks the game. For a young player to already develop that sense of your awareness on the court, being able to anticipate where different players are going to be; he really impressed me with his court awareness,” Collins said.
Collins also spoke highly of the potential backcourt of Wall and Bradley Beal, while praising the leadership of Emeka Okafor. Okafor was one of several people Collins chose to contact before he made his public announcement in Sports Illustrated. “He’s a great teammate. He’s another guy that isn’t afraid to say what needs to be said in a locker room. And also, lead by example,” Collins said of Okafor.
The Wizards have sold several No. 98 Collins jerseys this week. “I was more than happy last year making that statement to myself, my family and my friends, by putting on jersey 98. That was all I needed to do at that time,” Collins said. “I was making that statement to those people who were most important in my life and my circle is getting bigger with all of the support that I’ve received. So it’s really been humbling.”