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Former NBA Player Jason Collins' Path To An Authentic Life

In 2013, Jason Collins became the first openly gay male athlete to play in the United States' four major professional sports leagues. (Kathy Kmonicek/AP)
In 2013, Jason Collins became the first openly gay male athlete to play in one of the U.S.'s four major pro sports leagues. (Kathy Kmonicek/AP)
This article is more than 5 years old.

Jason Collins knew the exact moment when everything in his life was going to change. It was 11:30 EST/8:30 PST on Monday morning, April 29, 2013.

A Media Storm

"I got to my agent’s house around 6:30, and it was sort of, like, that was like the war room," Collins says.

Collins had spent the weekend calling friends and letting them know what was about to happen. One of those calls was to his Stanford classmate, Chelsea Clinton. She put him on the phone with her dad.

"We knew that we were going to enter into a media storm, and he has a little bit of experience dealing with that," Collins says. "Some advice that he gave me was, 'In that moment when it feels overwhelming, close your eyes, take a deep breath ... and then just keep moving forward.'"

Collins says he wasn’t nervous. But they kept the TV on, so they’d know when the story broke. Soon, it was the top story on SportsCenter.

"Alright now, recently some news. Jason Collins, veteran in the NBA, announced that he is gay, making him the first active male basketball player, or just male player in the four pro sports, to announce that he is gay."

Life In The Closet

Until 2011, Collins hadn’t told a single person — not a teammate, a friend, not even his twin brother, Jarron, who also played in the NBA. He says he lived in fear that someone would discover his secret. And he wasn’t just afraid some of the time…

"Every moment," Collins says. "Just about every moment of my life. And especially when the conversation in the locker room turned to girls. When guys would start talking, even at a young age, when I was in junior high school, I would get real quiet because I didn’t want them to start asking me a bunch of questions.

"I was sitting on my couch with my dog, watching TV and thinking, 'Is this going to be it for the rest of my life?'"

Jason Collins

"You have this pain in your stomach. And you have to try to prove that you’re straight. Just overwhelming weight and stress."

For a while, Collins dated women. But later, he’d just tell his teammates that he had a girlfriend who lived in another city.

Collins says keeping his secret even affected how he played basketball.

"So, my role on an NBA basketball team was the defensive stopper, was to be the most physical player on the team. I love that role. I love contact. I love hitting," Collins says. "And I guess, I took all of my emotion, all of that stress, all of that anger for not being able to live my authentic life at that point and just used it on the court as fuel. To fire me."

But during the NBA lockout of 2011, Collins was suddenly facing a life without basketball. And that’s the moment when everything started to change.

"I was sitting on my couch with my dog, watching TV and thinking, 'Is this going to be it for the rest of my life?'"

So, Collins started coming out to those closest to him. That fall, he ended up in Boston with the Celtics and decided to take a risk. Looking back, it could have been a big one.

He chose jersey No. 98 to acknowledge the year 1998, when a gay college student named Matthew Shepard was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming.

"I wanted to acknowledge this new identity that I was becoming more and more comfortable with," Collins says. "So each time that I put on my jersey, whether it be a practice or a game, I was wearing jersey No. 98."

It’s rare for any basketball player to wear a number higher than 55. It’s discouraged because referees have to use their fingers to signal the jersey number of a player being called for a foul. So, when Collins asked for No. 98, the Celtics equipment manager asked why. And Collins, as he had done for so many years, came up with a lie.

"I remember saying that it’s because I like to foul a lot — which is true — and I wanted to mess with the referees," Collins says. "So I started hiding in plain sight."

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Collins says he was happy in Boston. But in February of 2013, he was traded to the Washington Wizards.

"Every time you go to a new team, every time, it’s like going to a new job. You have to go to your coworkers and tell them your story. 'Hey, are you married? Do you have kids?' I got tired of telling a lie. I really got tired of that.

We Need To Talk

"So I called my agent, Arn Tellem, and told him that we need to talk. And sometimes when agents get a call from their athletes saying that, 'We need to talk,' they think they’re about to get fired," Collins says with a laugh.

Collins assured his agent that he wasn’t being fired. Arn Tellem had represented hundreds of basketball and baseball players.

"And I assumed that one of those athletes had come out to him," Collins says.

But Collins was the first.

He wanted to go public. But there was still a month and a half to go in the regular season. They decided that the announcement should wait.

"I wanted to acknowledge this new identity that I was becoming more and more comfortable with."

Jason Collins

While he waited, Collins called John Amaechi. Amaechi retired from the NBA in 2003 and came out as gay in 2007. He told Collins that once he came out, his identity would change.

"My identity as a basketball player before that was always, the good teammate, the consummate professional, a pro’s pro," Collins says. "And I liked that.

"John said, 'You have that, but they’re going to call you the gay athlete. Mentally are you ready for that?'

"It took me a couple days, and then I was, like, 'Yeah. I celebrate all that makes me who I am. Whether it be 7 feet tall, whether it be being African American. Being gay is another part of it. Another part of me.'"

Meanwhile, Tellem had reached out to a childhood friend named Franz Lidz, who wrote for Sports Illustrated.

The Big Reveal

"So, Arn came to me and said, 'OK, we could do a TV special. We could do print. And if we do print, we could do The New York Times or Sports Illustrated.' But the cool thing about Sports Illustrated was that it was going to be first-person narrative. It was going to be my words on the paper, and I’d never seen an article like that before."

Collins decided to go with Sports Illustrated. So as soon as the season was over, he flew home to Los Angeles for an interview.

"My parents were also there and then also Arn. And for the next three hours and 45 minutes, an interview just very similar to this where [they] asked me just one question and then allowed me to talk," Collins says. "Arn had to leave halfway through, so I walked him out. And as he started walking out, he just started crying. And he was just so happy for me."

After a few days, Sports Illustrated gave Collins a draft of the story.

And so, for the first time, Jason Collins read something written about himself — his true self.

"I was just so thankful for Franz. For his ability to shape my words. He added a couple, he added that first line."

That’s the line everyone quoted afterward: "I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay."

"So that’s Franz, and then from there it’s me," Collins says with a laugh.

Collins made some changes to the draft and the Sports Illustrated team told him it would be posted online on Monday morning at 11:30 EST/8:30 PST.

The next step was to show the article to his parents.

"'Cause, they were very apprehensive. They were very nervous about what was going to happen. And I remember meeting them at the dog park and reading the article to them. And I could just see the relief come off their face. They were just like, 'OK, this is going to be good. This is going to be good.'"

And it was. Sure, some said Collins' "lifestyle" was immoral. But many more supported his decision to come out — said they were inspired by it.

Collins got back-to-back congratulatory calls from Oprah Winfrey and then-President Barack Obama.

And the next day...

"I'll say something about Jason Collins," Obama said in a White House press conference. "I had a chance to talk to him yesterday. He seems like a terrific young man and I told him I couldn’t be prouder."

But despite all the public support he was getting, there was a problem. Collins was a free agent. Would any team take a chance on a player who was approaching the end of his career and at the center of a media storm?

Collins started dating, but he didn’t talk about it much.

The 2013-2014 season began, and Collins still didn’t have a job. He attended the State of the Union address as Michelle Obama’s personal guest, but he still didn’t have a job. The trade deadline passed, and still... no job. But then one night in February of 2014, he was hanging out at his brother’s house and stayed out a little late.

"And I remember going back home with my boyfriend and then waking up Sunday morning to a bunch of missed calls and some text messages from my agent," Collins says.

Jason Collins (98) takes the court in his third game as a Brooklyn Net on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Jason Collins (98) takes the court in his third game as a Brooklyn Net on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Back On The Court

The Brooklyn Nets wanted to sign Collins to a 10-day contract. They told him to be at the team hotel in an hour.

Once again, Collins had to introduce himself to a new set of teammates. But this time, he didn’t have to lie.

On his way to that night’s game, Collins called Robbie Rogers. Rogers plays in Major League Soccer, and he came out as gay around the same time as Collins.

"I wanted to know, what was it like for him?" Collins says. "That first day, that first day back. And he said, 'At the end of the day, it’s going to be just like any other day.'"

Collins says there was a lot of media at the game. But the important thing was, his team won. Then, Collins hit the road with the rest of his teammates.

"Kevin Garnett, he sat across from me on the team plane," Collins says. "And I remember having my headphones on, and Kevin tapped me on the arm. He’s, like, 'Hey, I just want you to know how proud I am and how big this moment is for you but also for a lot of people.'"

The Nets signed Collins for the rest of the season. That’s when he finally had time to appreciate his new NBA reality.

"After a game is over, having my boyfriend wait for me in the family room, just like everyone else’s loved one and not having to hide that. That feeling is so awesome," Collins says. "Incredible feeling. Absolutely incredible feeling."

Collins retired after the end of that season. He says his body just couldn’t do it anymore. Now he works as an ambassador for NBA Cares. And that feeling in the pit of his stomach? It’s finally gone.

"You know, I mentor a few younger athletes," Collins says, "and I tell them, 'You can’t underestimate that feeling of not having that stress. Letting that go, it will change your life. It will. And when you are ready to step forward, know that it will be OK. There is a whole group of people who are waiting to support you and accept you and cheer you on just for who you are.'"

More than four years after Jason Collins made his announcement, he’s still the only out gay male athlete to play a game in one of this country’s four major sports. He sometimes makes coming out sound easy. But, he assures me, it wasn’t.

This segment aired on August 5, 2017.


Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



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