Depending on how you look at it, in the weeks he seriously contemplated the personal revelation that would earn him a place in sports history, Jason Collins was either an efficient and busy tourist or he managed to cram a lifetime of D.C. living into a short period of time.
In Washington last year, when he was briefly a member of the Wizards and weighing his decision to come out as the first openly gay player on a major U.S. professional sports team, Collins visited the Newseum and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He saw John F. Kennedy’s grave and the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He visited the monuments for past presidents and took in the Monets, Rothkos and Warhols at the museums. The most inspiring stop, though, was the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
“He did so much for our society,” Collins said in a recent interview. “He ended up giving his life — his life was taken from us — but his commitment to equality and everything that he stood for really resonated with me.”
Collins, 35, returned to Washington on Saturday as a member of the Brooklyn Nets, his first time in D.C. since telling the world he’s gay and since returning to the NBA last month. For Collins, the decision to come out was an evolution that required a series of baby steps. He was in Washington for just two months, but it was a period of intense reflection, and he says the gravity of his decision was reinforced and validated many times over.
The seeds were actually planted during the NBA lockout in 2011, a time of year when Collins normally would lose himself in basketball. He instead had an extra time to think. He told a friend first. Then that December, as the lockout was winding down, Collins told his aunt. Slowly over the next year, he shared the news with more family and friends, inching his way toward telling the world.
He was traded from Boston to the Wizards in February 2013. He’d been in Washington just a few days when he came out to his agent, Arn Tellem. The two began plotting the best course of action, and in late March, Tellem connected with a journalist, Franz Lidz, saying he had an unnamed client ready to publicly come out at season’s end.
Collins spent almost the entirety of his tenure in Washington knowing he was on the verge of making history, and he carried that knowledge into every walk to work, every trip around the city. All the while, he kept his pending bombshell secret.
In March, the Supreme Court held hearings over the Defense of Marriage Act. Collins lived in Judiciary Square, barely a mile from the court, and followed the hearings — and rallies and chatter — intently. “That was an extremely tough time last spring,” he said, “with the hearings and everything going on.”
If living in Washington had an impact on Collins before his announcement, Wizards players and team officials say the 7-footer with the booming voice similarly had a positive effect on the locker room during his brief time there.
“A true professional,” General Manager Ernie Grunfeld called him. “He did everything the right way. A real team player. He was very respected because of the way he carried himself and because of his professionalism.”
As the Wizards’ 12th man, Collins appeared in just six games and averaged 0.7 points and 1.3 rebounds. The Wizards’ season ended on April 17; Collins scored two points and picked up a pair of fouls in a season-ending loss to Chicago. Five days later, he was sharing his story with Lidz.
He waited until the day his first-person story was published on Sports Illustrated’s Web site before telling a select few in the organization, including Grunfeld and teammate Emeka Okafor. But by that time, he was already back at his Los Angeles home.
Collins said he heard words of support from several other Wizards players in the days that followed and says he still has good relationships with many of them today. Over the summer, at the behest of Martell Webster, Collins agreed to speak at a fundraising gala in Seattle for a charitable youth organization that Webster is heavily involved in.
“He’s just a great guy,” Webster said.
While Collins was still technically a Wizard when he came out, he was on the verge of entering free agency. Fan and media speculation through much of the offseason centered on what impact he’d have on a roster — on the entire league, really — when a team eventually signed him. But since the Nets offered an initial 10-day contract last month, and after a flurry of attention, Collins has largely become just another contributor off the bench. His sexuality largely feels like a non-issue.
“It shouldn’t be,” Webster said. “I don’t understand. Somebody comes out and says he’s gay — I don’t see why that would be a big problem. Who cares? It’s not a problem for me. I guess I can say I’m proud of him, but it shouldn’t even be a big deal. If he’s happy, I’m happy.”
After his second 10-day contract expired, the Nets signed Collins for the remainder of the season before their 101-94 loss to the Wizards on Saturday. Through eight games this season, Collins is averaging nearly 10 minutes an outing, 0.6 points, 0.8 rebounds and 2.3 fouls. He did not play Saturday night.
For a defense-minded reserve whose impact is difficult to cull from stat sheets, Collins still faces a disproportionate amount of questions from out-of-town reporters. But before a recent home game, there were no cameras or recorders surrounding his locker. When they do come, Collins talks about living “honestly” and “genuinely” but is adept at pivoting discussion away from his sexuality and toward basketball.
“It’s about focusing on the task at hand and not thinking about history or anything along those lines,” he said.
As he did with the Wizards, Collins is wearing No. 98 with the Nets, a personal tribute to Matthew Shepard, whose 1998 murder resulted in stronger hate crime legislation. It’s the top-selling jersey in the league’s online store, and the NBA is donating proceeds from sales to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
In Washington, he kept the No. 98 tribute a secret. One year later he’s happy to share it with the world.
“Life is so much better for me. I don’t have to hide who I am. I can just be my normal self,” he said during an introductory news conference after signing with the Nets. “The past 10 months has been incredible.”