Former Wolverine court star and NBA player Jason Collins ’97 came out on Monday, becoming the first openly gay male athlete in a major professional sport and creating a media frenzy.
The story dominated the news on Monday and on the Tuesday morning talk shows, with other NBA players being interviewed and tweeting their support of what many called Collins’ bravery in speaking out.
Collins, a 12-year veteran of the NBA who most recently played for the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics, wrote an account of his coming to terms with his sexual orientation in the May 6 issue of Sports Illustrated.
“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay,” Collins states in the magazine’s cover story.
Jason and his twin brother Jarron Collins ’97 played as the star players on a Wolverine basketball squad, dubbed “The Best Team Ever,” that went on to win two state championships and for the first time, landed Wolverines athletics on lead sports headlines of local newspapers.
Collins came out to a few relatives over the years but only came out to his twin last year, he wrote in the magazine article. Besides his brother, Collins did not reveal his sexual orientation to any other NBA player.
“He was raised right, educated right, and now he’s done right,” President Tom Hudnut said to a NBC4 film crew that arrived on campus Monday afternoon.
Head Basketball Coach Greg Hilliard, who coached both brothers while they played on the nation’s top-ranked high school team, remembers Collins as a player who “dominated high school” as well as seeing Collins visiting with his girlfriend up until his 30s.
“Sexual orientation was never an issue to any of us,” Hilliard said. “I’m just proud that he at this point decided it’s the right time to talk about it.”
Though hiding his sexual orientation became “almost unbearable” when the Supreme Court began considering the case that would decide the future of gay marriage in March, Collins said he waited until the end of the season out of “loyalty” to his team to prevent his personal life from becoming a distraction.
“Less than three miles from my apartment, nine jurists argued about my happiness and my future,” Collins writes. “Here was my chance to be heard, and I couldn’t say a thing. I didn’t want to answer questions and draw attention to myself. Not while I was still playing.”
However, during his seasons with the Celtics and Wizards, Collins wore jersey number 98, as a “statement” referring to a hate crime committed in 1998 against gay college student Matthew Shepard who was tortured to death near Laramie, Wyoming. Shepard’s horrific death brought national attention to the state of gay rights and spurred federal hate crime legislation.
“I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different,’” Collins said. “If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
“It’s ludicrous to me that it’s still a story that sexual orientation matters,” Hilliard added. “I’ve been an athlete all my life and if it came out when I was younger, then athletes would make a big deal of it in the locker room. But now it does seem like a media story—but to me [sexual orientation] is a non-issue and it changes nothing.”
Additional reporting by Michael Aronson and Luke Holthouse.