Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Jason Collins: Comfortable in his own identity and skin

Jason Collins in conversation at the Commonwealth Club /
"Now that I have this voice and platform, I want to speak out
for all of the of the gay athletes out there."

At 7-feet tall, Jason Collins easily stands out in a crowded room not only for his height but also for his skin color. Yet, it's his personality and intellect that draws your attention toward him.

Last year, Collins became the first openly gay active male athlete in major American professional sports when he came out in a highly publicized personal essay published in the May 6, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine.

"Depending on the situation," Collins laughs, "I'm not always the gay one. Sometimes, I'm just the tall one, or the black one. When I turn heads, is it because people know I'm gay, or is it because I'm a seven-foot-tall African-American man?"

Last week, speaking in front of an audience of nearly 600 young professionals at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco for the Commonwealth Club's InForumSF conversation series, Collins shared the stage with journalist Jose Antonio Vargas and spoke candidly for 75 minutes about his journey of self-discovery and self-acknowledgement, and how coming out of the closet in a machismo professional sport powered by super stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant has changed his life.

"I just spoke to a group of NBA rookies and I had to explain what LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) stood for." While some in the audience snickered at the ignorance of it all, it prompted Collins to speak up: "It's all about education and exposure. Some guys have had no education and exposure to the LGBT community."

After he came out in April 2013, Collins waited patiently for a phone call from an NBA team who was willing to take a chance on the 255-pound veteran center -- a consummate professional and veteran of six pro teams who's appeared in two NBA finals, and who just happened to be gay. Certainly, there was bound to be one team willing to take a chance on the free agent. Finally, the Brooklyn Nets contacted Collins last February and signed him to a contract for the back end of the 2013-14 season, where he averaged 1.1 points and 0.9 rebounds.

For much of his pro basketball career, Collins has worn number 34, the same number he wore in college. However, after being traded to Boston and later Washington, then signing with Brooklyn, he chose a different number. "I needed a jersey number to go with my new identity," Collins said. "I went with 98 for the year 1998: the year Matthew Shepard died and the year the Trevor Project was founded."

Despite the personal fulfillment he's achieved, Collins believes there's still a stigma of homophobia in the NBA. "I used to hear that kind of talk a lot in the locker room," he said. "Since I came out, I don't hear it at all. Of course, that might have something to do with it being a $25,000 fine now. I tell guys, you don't have to be politically correct -- you just have to find more creative ways of cutting each other down."

Collins says matter-of-factly, at least one unnamed player trash-talked him during a game after he came out. "Yeah, he's a knucklehead. My attitude about that is: I'm going to foul you. Hard."

While some have labeled the Stanford University graduate as the "big brother San Francisco never had," the polite and affable Collins admits that at times he still feels like the new kid in school, still getting comfortable with his new identity and celebrity. He credits a gay uncle for being his personal role model and said that he's garnered moral support from fellow Stanford alums like U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, who was his college roommate, and from Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was his classmate. He also gives props to prominent gay athletes like Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King for being trailblazers as well as sharing their wisdom and advice with him.

Although he can laugh about it now, Collins confessed to the audience: "I didn't kiss a man until I was 34-years-old." On dating for the first time, he said: "Having my heart broken, something that most people go through for the first time in high school, didn't happen to me until I was 34. There was a lot of accelerated learning curve going on there. The Stanford student in me wants to say: 'Okay, we're going to master this.'"

Before he came out publicly, Collins had been in an eight-year relationship with fellow Stanford alumnus and former WNBA center Carolyn Moos. The two were engaged to be married, but Collins called off the wedding in 2009.

Looking back, Collins said coming out to his family was a positive experience filled with love and respect. He recalled his first conversation about being gay with somebody outside of his family circle happened when he told his long-time agent Arn Tellem. "I called my agent. Now, normally, when a player calls an agent after a trade, it's to fire him. But I said 'I've got something to tell you: I'm gay.' He said, 'Well, Jason, you can still play.'"

While there's still a competitive fire in him, Collins told the audience he's undecided about whether to play another season in the NBA. With a lucrative, multi-million dollar endorsement from Nike, Collins realizes he can be as much a positive impact off the court as on it by speaking out on issues like equality and education as well as sustainability and health and fitness. He has a positive story that's worth sharing with others.

"Now that I have this voice and platform, I want to speak out for all of the gay athletes out there," Collins said. Seemingly comfortable in his own identity and skin, Collins is reaching equality both on and off the court by becoming an ambassador for acceptance and peace. In April, Collins was featured on the cover of Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World."

Reflecting on his life as a professional basketball player, Collins said: "Thirteen years is a long career for an athlete. "I used to be able to jump and touch the top of the white square behind the hoop with ease. As the years go by, you watch your hand go lower and lower on that square. Father Time is undefeated against us all.

"I'm really grateful for my Stanford degree now. On the other hand, I can still dunk."

Editor's note: On November 19, Jason Collins announced his retirement from professional basketball after 13 seasons in the NBA.

Photograph of Jason Collins at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco's Castro Theatre by Michael Dickens © 2014.

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