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A version of this story originally aired on Nov. 24, 2017.
We do a lot of research before we interview people for Only A Game. So it’s not actually all that unusual for a question we ask to get a response like this:
"Wow, you really have done your homework about me, I love this," former NBA player Jason Collins told me in August. "OK, so ..."
Collins was the first openly gay male in one of this country’s four major sports (assuming that you count hockey and not soccer as No. 4). He was sitting in a studio in LA. We’d been talking for an hour, and Collins was thirsty.
"Let me get a sip of water before I start this one," he says with a laugh. "So, I got asked in January of 2014 to attend the State of the Union and sit as a guest in the first lady's viewing box."
2014: Barack Obama was president. His wife, Michelle, was the first lady.
Collins was allowed to bring one guest. He chose his twin brother, Jarron, who had also played in the NBA for many years.
"And I've been to the White House before, but, you know, you take the tour, you're not allowed to touch anything, really," Jason says. "And I'll never forget being in the Blue Room, which sits directly in line with the Washington Monument, and sitting down in a chair with my brother, having a glass of wine and just looking out, like, 'Wow, this is where we are right now.' "
It’s a beautiful moment of gratitude, when you think about it. Collins was deep into a journeyman’s career — and a free agent when he announced that he was gay in April of 2013. And by January of 2014, he was still without a job. Some predicted that no NBA team would sign an openly gay player who had never been a star and was, frankly, getting old.
But Collins wasn’t thinking about any of that while sipping wine in the Blue Room with his brother.
Nor was he thinking about it later that night when he was watching the State of the Union address with Michelle Obama.
After the speech, protocol requires the guests of the first lady to line up for an official meet and greet with the president.
Jason Collins waited in line, and soon enough, it was his turn.
"We shake hands and then do the picture," he explains. "And then I turned back to the president, and he says, 'You know, just remember, after' — and this is how much ... he knows basketball. He said, 'Just remember, after the trade deadline, that's when a lot of free agents get picked up.' "
The NBA trade deadline was a little more than three weeks away. Collins had been working out — a lot. He says he was in great shape, and he wanted the President to know it.
"I said, 'Yes, Mr. President. I'll be ready, don't you worry.' And I said to him, 'Like, look, I will take off my shirt right now and show you my six-pack.' But the First Lady was, like, five feet away, and also, obviously, the Secret Service guards were all right there. So, I said, 'I don't think it'd be a good idea for me to take my shirt off and show you my six-pack right now.' And then he looked at me and he sorta nodded and says, 'Yeah, that's a good idea. You should keep your shirt on.' "
Jason Collins kept his shirt on. And sure enough, three days after the trade deadline, he was signed to a 10-day contract.
Hours after that happened, reporters crammed into an interview room to question the newest member of the Brooklyn Nets.
Jason Collins didn’t tell them that he figured the call was coming because the leader of the free world had predicted, almost to the day, when it would come.
But he could have.
This segment aired on April 27, 2019.
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