After 13 years in the NBA, the league’s first openly-gay athlete is retiring.
Jason Collins, who currently plays for the Brooklyn Nets, announced his exit in a heartfelt letter published on The Player’s Tribune Wednesday.
Today, I am retiring from the NBA after 13 seasons. Most people reading this probably don’t know me from SportsCenter. Most people know me as “the gay basketball player.” I have been an openly gay man for approximately three percent of my life. I have been a professional basketball player for almost half of it.
In order to understand why I am so lucky to be sitting here today as a person who is finally comfortable in his own skin, you need to understand how basketball saved me. I needed to live the past few years as an openly gay basketball player in order to be at peace retiring today. Why? It starts on a bus and ends on a plane.
“Hey Jason … Jason! How come we never see you with any women? Are you gay?”
The team bus was uncomfortably silent. Everybody from the front of the bus to the back heard the question. It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. In sports, guys bust each other’s balls all the time. I had been asked that question a few different times by teammates in my previous years in the league, but this time was different. Whenever guys would go out on the town on road trips, I always had a built-in excuse—a trip to a local casino or a visit to a family friend or a college buddy in that city who I had to go see. Sometimes those friends were real. Sometimes I made them up and would sit alone in the hotel watching TV while the guys went out to enjoy the nightlife.
It was a lonely experience, even when I was around other people. It was always mentally draining, because I always had to be on, 24/7. Whenever I went out to dinner with teammates, I became especially skilled at steering any conversation away from the personal and back to the realm of sports or entertainment. After a while, guys just know you as the vet who loves to talk basketball. When you go to a new team, you have to create that character all over again.
“I think you’re gay, dude.”
Every other time, I could find a way to laugh it off. This time was different. I was 30 and unmarried. No kids. No crazy road stories. For years, I had dated women—never men, even secretly—but now I was starting to be more honest with myself about my sexuality. I felt like maybe the guards I had put up were starting to wear down. This time, the question stung like it never had before. There’s a very particular feeling in the pit of your stomach when the question comes up. I call it the blush. You feel angry, yet also embarrassed.
It felt like everybody on that bus was looking at me and could see right through me. Part of me was tired of running. Part of me wanted to scream out the truth and just get it over with, but I couldn’t. In a split second, that familiar survival instinct kicked in and I thought, Okay, I have to prove to these guys that I’m straight.
As ridiculous as it sounds, I asked myself, What would a straight guy do in this situation? So I pulled the fake-heated mean-mug face. Like, no way am I gay. Me? Are you serious? I started talking about a girl who had conveniently come to visit me that week. Of course, this girl was just a friend, but the guys didn’t know that. So I just kept talking, hoping I sounded believable. I felt like I was sinking in quicksand. It was so silent you could hear a pin drop.
Finally, somebody yelled out from the back of the bus, “Hey, what are you talking about? I saw him out with that girl the other night. Come on, man. You crazy. He’s straight.”
My teammate vouched for me.
Maybe he really saw me out with her, but I think he was just throwing me a lifeline. Whatever the case, the awkward silence broke. Guys started talking again. I slid back down into my seat. I had avoided the question one more time, but I knew I couldn’t keep up the act. It was exhausting.
On one hand, I felt pressure to be “The Perfect Son” for my family, which had always been incredibly loving and supportive of me. I wanted to keep up the hope for my parents that someday, when basketball was over, they would have the big traditional wedding and the grandkids from me and my wife. I was afraid of being rejected by my family and friends, much more so than being run out of the NBA.
On the other hand, by trying to keep everyone around me happy, I was becoming increasingly lonely. No matter your religion or what your political views are, I think there’s one thing we can all agree on. Most human beings are not meant to be alone. I know I’m not.
Later on that year, we faced the Orlando Magic in the playoffs, and I was given the unenviable task of guarding Dwight Howard. By that point, my battles in the post with Shaquille O’Neal over the years were starting to catch up with me. I used to play this game with Cliff Robinson where we’d come up with names for the moves Shaq used to punish you. “There’s the ol’ meat cleaver! Aw no, there’s the spine tingler!”
Shaq is responsible for a whole bunch of seven-foot-tall middle-aged men hobbling around America right now.
So my back was getting creaky, and Dwight was a 25-year-old beast. My job was the same as it had been my entire career: Make his life as miserable as possible. Bump him. Foul him. Stick a hand in his face and pull out every single wiley vet move under the sun to keep him from dominating the game.
Of course, he had his moments. He’s Dwight. He averaged 27 points a game. I averaged 1.8. But, when it mattered most, we kept him from hurting us. We won the series in six. Coach Van Gundy said it was the best defense he had seen on Dwight all year. But, I was essentially invisible. I barely talked to a single reporter during the whole series.
What a crappy, thankless job, right? To me, it was perfect. When I came into the NBA from Stanford, I had already decided what type of player I would be. I wanted to be the best player and teammate I could be, but not attract too much attention or make too much noise. I didn’t want people to start asking questions about my personal life.
Collins made headlines last year when he announced his sexuality as a free agent in the league. His future remained uncertain, with many calling the move career suicide. But he bounced back, and was picked up by the Brooklyn Nets earlier this year during the trade.
Kudos to Mr. Collins for his bravery and embracing life in his true form.
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