WASHINGTON (AP) — Last summer, NBA veteran Jason Collins considered joining an old Stanford college roommate, U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, at Boston's gay pride parade.
Collins eventually decided he shouldn't, because he wanted to keep his secret safe: For more than a decade as a professional athlete, he had remained silent about his sexuality, worried about what teammates, opponents, fans — the world, really — might think.
Then came the Boston Marathon bombings two weeks ago, which Collins says "reinforced the notion that I shouldn't wait for the circumstances of my coming out to be perfect. Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?"
So after having, he explains, "endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie," Collins became the first active player in one of the four major U.S. pro sports leagues to come out as gay. He wrote a first-person article posted Monday on Sports Illustrated's website that begins: "I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay."
Most recently a little-used reserve center for the Washington Wizards after a midseason trade from the Boston Celtics, the 7-foot Collins is a free agent who can sign with any team. He wants to keep playing in the NBA.
And he plans to be in Boston on June 8, marching alongside Kennedy at the city's 2013 gay pride parade.
"I didn't doubt for a second, knowing he was gay, that he would be the one to do it," Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, told The Associated Press. "I've never known him to look for publicity, or to look for the spotlight, but given that no one else would raise their hand, I knew he would do it."
Added Kennedy: "I'm so proud of him. And I'm so proud to call him a friend."
In an interview taped Monday and aired Tuesday morning, Collins told ABC's "Good Morning America": "I think the country is ready for supporting an openly gay basketball player."
His announcement Monday, nearly two weeks after the Wizards' season ended, immediately drew praise and backing not only from pals, current and former teammates and coaches, the NBA itself, and a sponsor, but also from the White House. President Barack Obama called him — "he was incredibly supportive and he was proud of me," Collins told ABC — along with former President Bill Clinton, and athletes in various other sports.
"I certainly appreciate it, as a gay person. Any time you can have someone this high-profile come out, it's just so helpful, particularly to young people. We've reached a tipping point," said Billie Jean King, a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame who won 12 Grand Slam singles titles.
"We've got to get rid of the shame. That's the main thing," King said in a telephone interview. "And Jason's going to help that. He's going to help give people courage to come out."
In texts to the AP, Wizards guard Garrett Temple wrote, "I was surprised. I didn't know and I was right next to him in the locker room. It definitely took a lot of courage for him to come out. He was a great teammate," and rookie Bradley Beal wrote: "I didn't know about it! I don't think anyone did! I am proud of his decision to come out and express the way he feels and I'm supportive of that!!"
Collins' coach with the Celtics, Doc Rivers, drew a comparison between Monday's announcement and Jackie Robinson's role when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
"I am extremely happy and proud of Jason Collins. He's a pro's pro. He is the consummate professional and he is one of my favorite 'team' players I have ever coached," Rivers said. "If you have learned anything from Jackie Robinson, it is that teammates are always the first to accept. It will be society who has to learn tolerance."
Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant tweeted that he was proud of Collins, writing: "Don't suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others," followed by the words "courage" and "support."
Asked if he hoped other athletes will follow his example, Collins told ABC: "I hope that every player makes a decision that leads to their own happiness, whatever happiness that is in life. I know that I, right now, am the happiest that I've ever been in my life."
Collins said in the TV interview that he does not know of any other gay NBA players.
Even while hiding his sexual orientation, Collins says, he quietly made a statement for gay rights by wearing No. 98 with the Celtics and Wizards: 1998 was the year Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming, was killed, and the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization, was founded.
According to the General Social Survey, the public has grown increasingly accepting of gay relationships since the late 1980s. That survey found in 1987 that 76 percent of Americans thought sexual relations between adults of the same sex was morally wrong. That fell to 43 percent by 2012.
"I'm glad I'm coming out in 2013 rather than 2003. The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted," Collins writes in SI. "And yet we still have so much farther to go. Everyone is terrified of the unknown, but most of us don't want to return to a time when minorities were openly discriminated against."
While some gay athletes have expressed concerns about how earning potentials could be hurt by coming out, King said she thinks Collins' openness could have the opposite effect.
"I have a feeling he's got a whole new career," King said. "I have a feeling he's going to make more in endorsements than he's ever made in his life."
On Monday evening, hours after his story appeared on the web, Collins wrote on Twitter: "All the support I have received today is truly inspirational. I knew that I was choosing the road less traveled but I'm not walking it alone."
Momentum has been building toward this sort of announcement from a pro athlete in a top league in the United States. NFL players Brendan Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe were outspoken in support of state gay-marriage amendments during last year's elections. Obama spoke about his support for gay marriage during his campaign.
The topic made waves during Super Bowl week when one player, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, said he wouldn't welcome a gay member of his team. At the time, Ayanbadejo estimated that at least half of the NFL's players would agree with what Culliver said, at least privately.
On Monday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to teams reiterating the league's anti-discrimination policy about sexuality. It includes a section on questions teams cannot ask prospective draft picks and free agents. After the NFL combine in February, three players said officials posed questions about sexual orientation.
Earlier this month, the NHL and its players' union partnered with an advocacy organization fighting homophobia in sports, and Commissioner Gary Bettman said the You Can Play Project underlines that "the official policy of the NHL is one of inclusion on the ice, in our locker rooms and in the stands."
"I would say the NHL has been a force to kind of obviously embrace and encourage. ... What (Collins) did, I think it's definitely (good) for basketball, and the same for hockey, too. It's going to be encouraging for more guys to step up and just be open about themselves," Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward said.
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