NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — NBA veteran Jason Collins became the first active male player in the four major American professional sports to come out as gay.
The 34-year-old center, who has played for six teams in 12 seasons — his first seven with the Nets — wrote a first-person account posted on Sports Illustrated’s website Monday. Collins finished this past season with the Washington Wizards and is now a free agent. He says he wants to keep playing.
“I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation,” he wrote. “I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, “I’m different.” If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.
Read More: Collins’ SI Article
Collins played in a Final Four for Stanford and reached two NBA Finals. His twin brother, Jarron, was also a longtime NBA center. Collins says he told his brother he was gay last summer.
Sports Illustrated reporter Franz Lidz wrote the article along with Collins.
“He was just tired of hiding. He wasn’t expecting to be the first, but since no one else was coming out he kind of volunteered,” Lidz told WCBS 880’s Wayne Cabot.
“He didn’t want to stay closeted forever, he wanted to show his pride in being gay,” Lidz said. “I think this has been a great relief to him and the public support that’s being shown is kind of overwhelming. It’s been this tremendous moment.”
As CBS 2’s Otis Livingston reported, Collins said he finally realized he needed to public now after he found out his old college roommate at Stanford – Joe Kennedy, a Massachusetts Congressman – marched in the Gay Pride Parade in Boston last year.
“I was proud of him for participating, but angry that as a closeted gay man, I couldn’t even cheer my friend as a spectator,” he wrote.
CBS 2 spoke to one of the Sports Illustrated writers who was in the room when Collins penned his first-person account last week.
“Overnight, his legacy has changed. The way he’s perceived has changed,” said Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated. “He really wants to be a basketball player. He wants to keep playing. He doesn’t want this to be a big deal. He understands the importance. I think the real question is, is this going to trigger more athletes to come out.”
Praise for Collins came quickly, from the NBA Corporate Office to the White House.
“Jason has been a widely respected player and teammate throughout his career and we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue,” NBA commissioner David Stern said in a statement.
White House spokesman Jay Carney called the decision courageous and former President Bill Clinton said it was “an important moment for professional sports and in the history of the LGBT community.”
“I hope that everyone, particularly Jason’s colleagues in the NBA, the media and his many fans extend to him their support and the respect he has earned,” Clinton added.
His daughter Chelsea, who knew the player from Stanford, offered her support on Twitter.
Rep. Kennedy also expressed a message of support.
Mostly a backup in his career, Collins has averaged 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds for the Nets, Grizzlies, Timberwolves, Hawks, Celtics and Wizards. He was traded from Boston to Washington in February. Collins was the 18th pick in the first round of the 2001 NBA draft.
Several NBA players voiced support, including Kobe Bryant, who tweeted that he was proud of Collins.
Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld weighed in saying: “We are extremely proud of Jason and support his decision to live his life proudly and openly. He has been a leader on and off the court and an outstanding teammate throughout his NBA career. Those qualities will continue to serve him both as a player and as a positive role model for others of all sexual orientation.”
Several male athletes have previously come out after they retired, including the NBA’s John Amaechi, the NFL’s Esera Tuaolo and Major League Baseball’s Billy Bean. But Collins is the first to do so while planning to keep playing.
Collins wrote that he quietly made a statement for gay rights even while keeping his sexual orientation a secret. He wore the No. 98 with the Celtics and Wizards — that was the year Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming, was killed, and the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization, was founded.
“‘Courage’ and ‘inspiration’ are words that get thrown around a lot in sports, but Jason Collins has given both ideas a brand new context,” said Aaron McQuade, who heads the sports program for the advocacy group GLAAD, “We hope that his future team will welcome him, and that fans of the NBA and sports in general will applaud him. We know that the NBA will proudly support him, and that countless young LGBT Athletes now have a new hero.”
McQuade told WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell that Collins has made it easier for the next athlete to come out.
“It’s always hardest to be the first and he displayed enormous courage,” he said.
McQuade suspects other closeted athletes will be paying close attention.
“I think they will be very carefully watching the media around this. They’ll be watching the fans. They’ll be watching the reactions from players. They’ll be watching the reaction from the league,” he said.
In February, former U.S. soccer national team player Robbie Rogers said he was gay — and retired at the same time. Rogers is just 25, and others have urged him to resume his career.
He, too, tweeted after the Collins news broke.
Female athletes have found more acceptance in coming out; Brittney Griner, one of the best women’s basketball players in the world, caused little ripple when she acknowledged earlier this month she was a lesbian. Tennis great Martina Navratilova tweeted Monday that Collins is “a brave man.”
Collins averaged 1.1 points, 1.6 rebounds and 0.3 blocks in just six games played for Washington this season.
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(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)