April 30, 2013
He is smart. He is a Stanford man.
He is strong and he is aggressive. At 7 feet, 255 pounds, he led the NBA in personal fouls in 2004-2005.
He is a veteran of 12 seasons, six teams, two NBA Finals, a teammate known for his commitment to his group's greater good. No less than Celtics coach Doc Rivers — one of the finest judges of character in basketball — called him "a pro's pro."
Jason Collins also is unsigned.
There is no team next to his name today. No Celtics. No Knicks. No Nets or even Wizards. He is a free agent center. And for this late April day in 2013, Jason Collins also was the free agent center of the athletic world's attention.
When Collins announced that he is gay in an eloquent and powerful piece in Sports Illustrated, he became the first active male player in a major North American team sport to reveal his homosexuality.
In the ensuing hours, Collins was called brave. He was called courageous. The shrinking army of misguided moralists and, worse, homophobes, those who would judge him or wish him harm, of course, would say otherwise.
I would choose to use the word "complete."
For years, Collins has shown us that he is smart, strong and aggressive, a pro's pro. And now at age 34, Jason Collins has helped us complete his mosaic. He also is gay.
"No one wants to live in fear," Collins wrote in Sports Illustrated in a paragraph that could have been written by some of the great authors in American history. "I've always been scared of saying the wrong thing. I don't sleep well. I never have. But each time I tell another person, I feel stronger and sleep a little more soundly. It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret. I've endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time. I still had the same sense of humor, I still had the same mannerisms and my friends still had my back."
I have had conversations with gay athletes over the years, some well known, some not known at all. One was with Martina Navratilova during the weekend of her induction into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 2000. Inevitably, those conversations arrived at this point: Yes, I'm gay, but it does not define my entirety, any more than saying you're heterosexual defines your entirety. I was not surprised to read Collins say that as proud as he is to be an African-American he doesn't want his race to define him any more than he wants his sexual orientation to. "I can't let someone else's label define me," he wrote.
Still, I am happy Collins grabbed control of his story, was able to articulate it so brilliantly on his own terms. As LZ Granderson, the gifted and openly gay writer for ESPN, pointed out, it would have been unfortunate if the first gay team athlete had been "outed" in some salacious way by TMZ or some other gossip entity.
I recall a conversation 12 years ago with Brendan Lemon, former chief editor of Out magazine. Three months earlier, he had written about his relationship with a recognizable major league baseball player and how that boyfriend was agonizing about coming out as gay.
``I have people say to me, `You've created this big expectation. You've given people the first 90 minutes of a movie and then you didn't tell them who did it,'" Lemon said. "They're frustrated. That's a human reaction. But it isn't my story to finish. To finish the story, I have to out somebody. I'm not going to do it."
That player never stepped forward.
On Monday, Jason Collins did.
He isn't the first gay athlete to do so. Not even close. Women in individual and team sports have for several years. Basketball player Brittney Griner revealed she's gay only two weeks ago. Males in individual sports have, too. So have males who had retired from team sports.
Still, don't be fooled into believing this is a non-story.
It is very much a story.
As an active player, Collins must clear the last barrier. The male locker room is the final frontier.
That's why I was disappointed to hear Mike Francesa say on WFAN, "It means less than nothing to me that there is a gay player now out in the NBA. SI going to reveal [that] this week in, I don't know why, I guess a dramatic attempt to sell a magazine."
I've seen similar message posts from a few in the sports media and many more from the anonymous. I want to believe it is because they think the world already is so enlightened that any gay man will be welcomed in every professional locker room. I fear they carry a more callous unspoken message.
No, I don't think Jason Collins is Jackie Robinson. He's already in the NBA. Hundreds of others unjustly excluded won't follow him into major league sports. Yet maybe other humans, especially young, frightened souls, will be made to feel comfortable enough to express themselves and become whole.
The male locker room can be juvenile and cruel. Believe me. I've been in there for 35 years. An NHL player once looked me dead in the eye and said he'd cut the testicles off any gay teammate. That was 25 years ago. Much has changed. Much has evolved. Collins' announcement was greeted by a bunch of supportive tweets, from David Stern to Kobe Bryant to Jason Kidd to Bill Clinton and on and on.
Chris Broussard of ESPN, however, said he spoke to dozens of players, coaches, general managers and the response was a "mixed bag," and because of the politically correct environment some wouldn't express their true feelings. On "Outside the Lines," Broussard also made reference to the Bible on homosexuality and said, "I believe that's living in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ. I would not characterize that person as a Christian."
I already incurred the wrath of one watchdog group after loudly supporting Marcy MacDonald after she came out as a lesbian in 2005 and talked about reciting the rosary as she swam the English Channel. So what the heck. I may burn in hell one day, Mr. Broussard, but it won't be for my open support of gay rights.
Collins wrote that he told his Aunt Teri, a superior court judge in San Francisco, and she said she had figured out he was gay a long time ago. Yet when he told his twin brother, Jarron, also a long-time NBA player, he was shocked. "So much for twin telepathy," Collins wrote. Jarron was totally supportive. The No. 98 Jason wore with the Celtics and Wizards? It makes some sense now. It was a tribute to Matthew Shepard, the gay college student in Wyoming who was tortured and murdered in 1998.
Rivers called Collins one of his favorite team players. Collins has banged heads with the giants from Shaquille O'Neal on. He drove Dwight Howard crazy a few years ago. He's a journeyman but, man, he made the journey tougher for some of the stars.
"I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay?" Collins wrote. 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."
With that, Jason Collins is complete, is whole.
The question that must be asked is, are we?
Collins is near the end of the line as an NBA player. What team will sign the free agent center? Or will it be easier not to sign him and say it had nothing to do with being gay. He was done as a player, third-string, too old. And how would prospective teammates, especially the young and immature ones, receive him? Will some fear growing too close to him for fear of others suspecting something?
Male team sports must clear this final barrier. And now is the time.
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