Retired NBA player Jason Collins was recently a guest on The HoopsHype Podcast. In 2013, the 13-year NBA veteran made headlines when he announced that he is gay, making him the first active male athlete of any major North American pro sports league to come out. HoopsHype talked with Collins about his decision to come out, the worldwide reaction, the evolution of NBA centers and more. Listen to the interview above or read the transcribed Q&A below.
You have a twin brother, Jarron. Is there really a “twin connection” like we see it depicted in the movies or is that total BS?
Jason Collins: There’s a little bit of that actually! Only because you’re playing with somebody who you’ve played with your whole life, so you know each other’s moves and you can anticipate where they’ll be on the floor and things like that. So you could call it a “twin connection” kind of thing, but it’s more of a familiarity and just anticipating where your sibling is going to be on the court.
The center position is evolving and we’ve seen that some teams, like the Houston Rockets, are going away from the position altogether. What do you make of the game’s evolution and how it’s changed for big men?
JC: I played in an era and grew up watching an era where you had these dominant centers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and Yao Ming, so I’m always going to be looking for where the big man is on the court. It’s interesting to see the evolution of the sport. I get why people are doing that – to try to space the floor more – but you just hope that it doesn’t sacrifice things like rebounding, being able to get a defensive stop and playing a possession without a foul and then getting that defensive rebound so that you can go into your offense (which is huge). You don’t want to give up multiple offensive rebounding possessions. As long as it doesn’t sacrifice rebounding, it’s okay. (laughs)
You came out as gay after the 2012-13 NBA season. Prior to that, how long were you considering making that announcement and what was that period like for you?
JC: Coming out publicly? It took a few months to make that decision. The ball really started rolling when I got traded from the Boston Celtics to the Washington Wizards. I told my agent, Arn Tellem, who’s now running the Detroit Pistons, that I was gay and I wanted to come out publicly and I wanted to still play in the NBA. I asked, “How do we make that happen?” So Arn was the quarterback and he was the one who came up with the idea of waiting until after the season was over, after playing with the Washington Wizards, and making the announcement then.
My last push and “let’s-do-this” [moment] came when I was traded in February and then in March, the Supreme Court cases DOMA and Prop 8 were being argued [regarding same-sex marriage]. For me to stay silent during that time, it really killed me because those court cases had a direct impact on my happiness in life. For me to not use my voice, I was like, “This is going to be the last time that I stay silent when it comes to issues like this.” I’m so thankful for athletes and people in the sports world who did use their voice like Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King and our allies like Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings and Brendon Ayanbadejo of the Baltimore Ravens (at the time). Those people, whether they were members of the community or allies, were speaking up for what’s right and what’s fair.
After you came out, there was a huge response. I know a lot of people thanked you for your bravery and courage, and I’m sure it helped so many people. What was it like to go through that since it became such a big story?
JC: I was flying all over the country. Within a few weeks of making my announcement, I was introducing First Lady Michelle Obama at a DNC fundraising event. That was a really cool honor. (laughs) I was also asked the following January to come to Washington D.C. to sit in the First Lady’s viewing box for the State of the Union. Also, I was asked to attend a state dinner. There were a lot of really cool and surreal moments! With that being said, I didn’t make the announcement to be able to do all of that. Those were sort of no-brainers. If President Obama and the First Lady ask you to do something, you’re just like, “Yeah, I’ll do it!” (laughs) But it was more so to live in my life, especially in this day and age (as I’m being filmed right now) when everybody has a camera. I wanted to be the one to out myself, rather than going on a date at a movie or a restaurant and having someone film it and then having to react to that information. Another cool thing… Oh, I see Tim Hardaway. I just gotta say hello to him really quick. One moment.
Jason walks up to Tim; they hug and exchange pleasantries.
JC: Sorry! Seeing Tim is really cool because it touches upon something that I [wanted to discuss]. When John Amaechi came out, Tim had some comments that were very homophobic. However, he looked himself in the mirror and said, “Is there something that I need to change about myself? Do I need to educate myself?” And after I came out, one of the calls that I wasn’t expecting to get was from a 305 number and it was Tim with words of support. I didn’t know that Tim had undergone this transformation as a human being. It’s sort of the power of the coming out story; Tim started on one end of the spectrum and is now such an ally and I’m so proud of him. All of us as human beings evolve over time and Tim has made a positive evolution. For the past four or five years, the NBA has been marching in New York City’s gay-pride parade; we were the first of the big sports leagues to participate in the New York City Pride Parade. Over the years, we’ve had more and more people – more and more allies – join us on the float. Last summer, I was so proud that Tim and his family were there on the float with us, participating in the New York City Pride Parade. It’s so cool to see how he has changed as a human being and how he’s become such a huge ally and supporter. I really appreciate that.
Absolutely. I talked to Tim about that last year and it is really cool to see. That kind of shows how big an impact your story can have on people. Have you heard from a lot of people who were impacted by your journey?
JC: Yeah, I’ve heard from a lot of people. Whether they’re from the LGBTQ community or allies, I’ve heard from so many different people. I didn’t know what to expect when I made my announcement. I just knew I was going to do it. To see the love and support that I got… Again, another person who went on that evolution is the late Kobe Bryant. Early on in his career, he was fined for making homophobic comments but, again, he underwent an evolution and when I came out, he had great words of support for me. He tweeted out a great tweet. Also, my interactions with him [were great]. My first game back in the NBA was against the Lakers in February 2014 and it was odd because even though I was on a 10-day contract and it was my first game back, my teammates made me one of the co-captains to go to halfcourt. (laughs) I think it was me, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams and on the other side it was Kobe and Pau Gasol. Just how welcome all of those guys made me feel, it’s truly a brotherhood of support. When you do step forward and speak your authentic truth, it gives people an opportunity to show you who they are – who they truly are. You see whether they’ll support you or turn their back on you. Overwhelmingly, I’ve had incredible support from my NBA family.
What advice would you give to somebody who’s still in the closet and isn’t sure what to do next? If there’s a kid out there who is struggling with this, what would you tell them?
JC: Continue to try to get a support system. I couldn’t have done what I did without having the support of my family, my friends and my agent Arn Tellem (who is like an uncle to me). But I also know that sometimes, there’s the family that you have and the family that you choose. Sometimes, you have to find that family and maybe they aren’t necessarily blood, but they are close to you and support you. Another thing, and this is first and foremost: Stay safe. There are a lot of resources and, nowadays, you can just go online and go to GLAD or OutSports.com if you’re in the world of sports (they are a great resource) or Athlete Ally or You Can Play. There are resources online and they’re available to help you connect. And through friends of friends, I’ve been in contact with some closeted athletes and I’m sort of helping to build that support system for them. I’m a resource and there are other people out there who are resources and who want to lift you up.
You mentioned your conversations with other athletes. Are you surprised we haven’t seen another NBA player come out since your announcement?
JC: I am. But, also, I’m proud to see that, again, women are leading the way. I was inspired by Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, and now you see Sue Bird and Elena Delle Donne and Diana Taurasi and the list goes on and on of strong women who are stepping forward and speaking their truth. And it’s great to see the reaction they’re getting. When Elena came out before the Rio Olympics and people were like, “Cool! Now go win a gold medal.” (laughs) That’s the reaction that we need to get to in the male sport, where it’s like, “Okay, cool. Go win some games.” And that’s what it was when I did come out and play with the Nets. There was that big scrum of reporters and that whole thing, but then after a while it was like, “What’s their record? Wait, they’re 10-2 since he’s joined the team?!” You try to dispel that myth that it’s a distraction; if anything, it brought our team closer together and we were able to make it to the playoffs and have a great win against the Toronto Raptors in Game 7 in Toronto. Unfortunately, we lost to that guy LeBron James.
Yeah, he’s pretty good.
JC: He is pretty good! (laughs) But yeah, it was a great run. And it’s so great that we’re having these conversations. It’s so great that we’re having conversations about mental health too. The other day, I saw in the news that Derrick Rose is doing something where he’s talking about mental health. We’re dispelling all of those mantras of like the “strong guy” who can’t say anything and can’t react emotionally. No! We’re human beings and we have to talk and support each other and be there for each other and accept each other for who we are.