Meet Jason Collins, the NBA's First Openly Gay Active Player

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured ColumnistApril 29, 2013

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 17: Jason Collins #98 of the Washington Wizards rebounds against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on April 17, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the Wizards 95-92. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

On Monday, Jason Collins became not only the first openly gay active player in the NBA, but also the first such male athlete in major American professional sports.

But he's much, much more than that. 

Let's start at the end. On Monday, Sports Illustrated released this week's cover story, in which Collins announced he was gay. Here's the cover:

And here is Collins coming out in that article:

I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay.

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. 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.

My journey of self-discovery and self-acknowledgement began in my hometown of Los Angeles and has taken me through two state high school championships, the NCAA Final Four and the Elite Eight, and nine playoffs in 12 NBA seasons.

I've played for six pro teams and have appeared in two NBA Finals. Ever heard of a parlor game called Three Degrees of Jason Collins? If you're in the league, and I haven't been your teammate, I surely have been one of your teammates' teammates. Or one of your teammates' teammates' teammates.

You have to appreciate his sense of humor. He's smart enough to know that his NBA career—which has lasted for 12 seasons and included stints with the New Jersey Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards—probably wouldn't help the average fan pick him out of a crowd.

But he also knows he's lived a full enough life to not be solely defined by one announcement. 

His basketball career first took shape at Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood, Calif., where he was a McDonald's High School Basketball All American in 1997 and won a pair of state titles alongside his brother, Jarron. 

The highly sought-after pair of recruits would attend Stanford and lead the Cardinal to No. 1 seeds in the 2000 and 2001 NCAA tournaments, reaching the Elite Eight in 2001. They were both members of the 1998 Stanford team that reached the Final Four as well.

While Collins battled with injuries in his first two seasons with the Cardinal, he flourished in the 1999-2000 season, averaging 8.3 points and 6.1 rebounds for the team. He dramatically improved those numbers the following year, averaging 14.5 points and 7.8 rebounds. 

One of his classmates at Stanford was Chelsea Clinton, who tweeted her support for him on Monday:

Collins was selected No. 18 overall by the Houston Rockets in the 2001 NBA draft but traded to the Nets along with Richard Jefferson and Brandon Armstrong for Eddie Griffin.

He would spend the first six-and-a-half seasons of his NBA tenure in New Jersey, reaching the NBA Finals in his first two seasons. He posted his best statistical season in 2004-05, averaging career highs in minutes (31.8), points (6.4), rebounds (6.1) and blocks (0.9) in 80 contests. 

For his career, Collins has averaged 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds in 20.8 minutes per game. 

But Collins is more than just a basketball player. In his article for Sports Illustrated, he reads as a very eloquent and thoughtful man. He opened up about dating girls growing up and even being engaged at one point, but never actually relating to his twin brother's interest in girls.

He talked about how he didn't tell his brother he was gay until last summer, and how surprised Jarron was, joking in the article, "So much for twin telepathy."

His brother, in a separate article for Sports Illustrated, noted, "Today, Jason has taken a huge weight off his shoulders. And I've never been more proud of him."

That seems to jibe with what Collins said about his family—a strong support system that encouraged him with making this decision.

As a player, Collins was aggressive and never shied away from a hard foul. He hopes that will help to dispel the stereotype that gay athletes are "soft."

I'm not afraid to take on any opponent. I love playing against the best. Though Shaquille O'Neal is a Hall of Famer, I never shirked from the challenge of trying to frustrate the heck out of him. (Note to Shaq: My flopping has nothing to do with being gay.) My mouthpiece is in, and my wrists are taped. Go ahead, take a swing—I'll get up. I hate to say it, and I'm not proud of it, but I once fouled a player so hard that he had to leave the arena on a stretcher.

I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay? But I've always been an aggressive player, even in high school. Am I so physical to prove that being gay doesn't make you soft? Who knows? That's something for a psychologist to unravel. My motivations, like my contributions, don't show up in box scores, and frankly I don't care about stats. Winning is what counts. I want to be evaluated as a team player.

Collins talked about how important it was for him to be a team player in the NBA, even noting it was a reason he didn't come out sooner, as he just wanted to focus on the game of basketball. 

By coming out as a gay male professional athlete, Collins has established himself as a prominent figure in the American LGBT community. 

While there has already been an outpouring of support, Collins will surely be the target of hate from some individuals who don't understand homosexuality. It's unfortunate, but it's also inevitable, and it's something that surely weighed on his mind as he wrote his column for Sports Illustrated.

A reminder of that fact is the No. 98 he wore while playing with the Wizards this season, which was a tribute to Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was kidnapped, tortured and killed in 1998. 

There are a lot of ways to define Jason Collins. Call him a pioneer as the first openly gay active player in the NBA. Call him a high school star and successful collegiate athlete. Call him a journeyman center who made a career out of being a high-energy team player. 

Or call him all of the above, because while Jason Collins will become best-known for this monumental announcement, he is much more than just that. 


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