Jason Collins comes out as gay, becomes first openly gay pro American athlete

"I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay," Collins said in Sports Illustrated

Jason Collins, a 34-year-old NBA player who most recently was a member of the Washington Wizards, has come out as gay in an article to be published in Sports Illustrated

With his announcement, Collins became the first openly gay player in a major, professional men's American sport.

In the article, which will run in the May 6 edition of Sports Illustrated, Collins said that he didn't set out to become the first openly gay professional athlete, but that he's now happy to "start the conversation."

"If I had my way, someone else would have already done this," Collins wrote. "Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand."

In a statement released on the league's Twitter feed, NBA Commissioner David Stern said that he and the rest of the league are proud of Collins.

"Jason has been a widely respected player and teammate throughout his career and we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue," Stern said in a series of tweets.

Collins, a 34-year-old center who has spent 12 years in the NBA, most recently played six games for the Wizards during the 2012-13 season. He was acquired from the Boston Celtics in a trade on Feb. 21.

Washington Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld also affirmed his support for Collins after the announcement.

“We are extremely proud of Jason and support his decision to live his life proudly and openly," Grunfeld said in a statement. "He has been a leader on and off the court and an outstanding teammate throughout his NBA career.

"Those qualities will continue to serve him both as a player and as a positive role model for others of all sexual orientation.”

Current and former teammates and athletes in other sports also showed their support following Collins' announcement. 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."

"We've got to get rid of the shame. That's the main thing. And Jason's going to help that. He's going to help give people courage to come out," said Billie Jean King, a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame who confirmed she was gay after being outed in the early 1980s.

Collins says he quietly made a statement for gay rights even while keeping his sexual orientation a secret. He wore No. 98 with the Celtics and Wizards - 1998 was year that Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming, was killed, and the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization, was founded.

After being a first-round draft pick in 2001, Collins has averaged 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds for the New Jersey Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Hawks, Celtics and Wizards. He's now a free agent and is able to sign with any team in the NBA this offseason.

You can read the full article at Collins is the second high-profile American athlete to come out this month. On April 17, Brittany Griner, the standout basketball player from Baylor who was taken #1 overall in this year's WNBA Draft, acknowledged publicly that she is a lesbian.

"Don't worry about what other people are going to say, because they're always going to say something," Griner said. "If you're just true to yourself, let that shine through. Don't hide who you really are."

The issue of gay athletes coming out publicly has raised in prominence in recent months. It's potential apex before Monday's announcement by Collins came in early April, when former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo said that four National Football League players were considering coming out as well.

Ayanbadejo, an outspoken supporter of gay rights in and beyond the sports world, said that it would happen "sooner than you think."

"It's something I've been passionate about a long time," he said last November, after a measure legalizing same-sex marriage in Maryland passed. "Even though it doesn't affect me directly, it affects a lot of my friends. It affects my family.

Collins was traded to the Wizards and moved to the District of Columbia just weeks before the Supreme Court took up arguments for and against same-sex marriage. He says in his SI article that being so physically close to the case made keeping his secret unbearable.

"Here was my chance to be heard, and I couldn't say a thing," Collins said. "I didn't want to answer questions and draw attention to myself. Not while I was still playing.

Many fans said they were surprised it took this long for an active, professional athlete to come out as gay.

Darryl Davis of D.C. said, "I would think that there would have been others that would feel empowered to be who they are."

Support from President Obama

Hours after Collins disclosed his sexuality in an online article, Obama reached out by phone, expressing his support and telling Collins he was impressed by his courage, the White House said.

Collins' declaration in a first-person account posted on Sports Illustrated's website garnered particular attention from Democrats, many of whom have recently announced their support for gay marriage despite opposing it in the past. Obama announced his support last year during his re-election campaign.

Organizing for Action, a grassroots group run by Obama loyalists that grew out of his 2012 re-election campaign, offered its support for Collins as well, writing to Collins on Twitter on Monday that the group's supporters "stand with you today."

And first lady Michelle Obama chimed in on Twitter on Monday afternoon to applaud Collins.

"So proud of you, Jason Collins! This is a huge step forward for our country. We've got your back!" the tweet read. It was signed "mo" - signifying that the first lady personally wrote the message.

Former President Bill Clinton also voiced encouragement, releasing a statement that asks fans, NBA colleagues and the media to support and respect him. Clinton said he has known Collins since he attended Stanford University with his daughter Chelsea.

Clinton said Collins' announcement Monday is an "important moment" for professional sports and the history of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Collins is "a good man who wants no more than what so many of us seek - to be able to be who we are, to do our work, to build families and to contribute to our communities," Clinton said. "For so many members of the LGBT community, these simple goals remain elusive."

Chelsea Clinton also tweeted her support for Collins Monday, saying she was proud of her friend for having the strength and courage to be the first openly gay player in the NBA..

Earlier Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Collins' decision was another example of progress and evolution in the U.S. as Americans grow more accepting of gay rights and same-sex marriage. He said he hoped the 34-year-old center's NBA colleagues will also offer support.

"We view that as another example of the progress that has been made and the evolution that has been taking place in this country," Carney said.

Chad Griffin, the president of Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, said Collins has "forever changed the face of sports."

"No longer will prejudice and fear force gay athletes to remain silent about a fundamental part of their lives," Griffin said.

The NBA player also received support from Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., his college roommate. Kennedy tweeted Monday that "I've always been proud to call (Collins) a friend, and I'm even prouder to stand with him today."

{ }

And now, Collins says, he will be in Boston on June 8, marching alongside Kennedy at the city's 2013 gay rights parade.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.