Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins was at an event in D.C. in June when someone approached him and said his story as the first openly gay man to actively play for a major professional sports team helped him repair his relationship with his mother.
“I’ve heard other stories along those same lines,” Collins told the Washington Blade last month during an interview. “It’s just really great to see when you have an impact.”
Collins said his life is “exponentially better” since he came out in a Sports Illustrated op-ed in April 2013.
The California native who briefly played for the Washington Wizards in 2013 before coming out has taken part in a U.N. panel on homophobia and transphobia in sports, marched in Boston’s annual LGBT Pride parade and spoken to the Point Foundation and other advocacy groups. Collins has also appeared in a campaign against homophobia in soccer that YouTube broadcast during the 2014 World Cup.
President Obama in April appointed Collins to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.
“There are a lot of different avenues we can use to tackle homophobia and really stress the importance of inclusion and diversity in sport,” Collins told the Blade.
Collins, 35, in February became the first openly gay man to play in a game for a major American professional sports league when he played 11 minutes during a Nets game against the Los Angeles Lakers. He wears jersey number 98 in honor of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student murdered outside of Laramie, Wyo., in 1998.
Collins received a standing ovation from the fans inside the Barclays Center when he took the court during his first playoff game.
“The atmosphere was incredible,” he told the Blade. “Even my first game back during the regular season when I entered the game and getting a standing ovation from the crowd in Brooklyn is something that I will never forget. This amazing moment shows the character of the fans in Brooklyn.”
Collins further noted the 1969 Stonewall riots that became a watershed moment in the modern LGBT rights movement took place in New York.
“This is where the Stonewall riots happened,” he told the Blade. “Flash forward to when I entered a game and got a standing ovation when I took the court for my team. As a society we’re on the right path.”
A number of other athletes have come out since Collins publicly disclosed his sexual orientation.
St. Louis Rams defensive end Michael Sam, who made his debut with the team on Aug. 8 during a preseason game with the New Orleans Saints, in February came out as gay during a series of interviews with the New York Times and ESPN.
Collins is among those with whom Sam spoke before coming out.
The Nets center told the Blade he was “very proud” of the acceptance speech the former University of Missouri defensive end gave when he accepted an award during ESPN’s annual ESPY Awards that took place in Los Angeles last month.
“I continue to tell him just how proud of him I am,” said Collins, noting he met Sam’s partner and his parents at the ESPY Awards. “It’s really cool to see how everything is progressing.”
Collins continues to describe retired tennis champion Martina Navratilova as one of his inspirations — he met with her and retired tennis champion Billie Jean King while he was in London for this year’s Wimbledon. He also applauded lesbian WNBA star Brittany Griner and Megan Rapinoe, an out midfielder for the Seattle Reign who is guest editor of the Blade’s second annual Sports issue, as additional examples he feels will inspire more LGBT athletes to come out.
“With athletes like myself and Robbie Rogers and Michael Sam, we’re showing athletes that we’re adding a few pages to that playbook,” said Collins, noting male athletes often come out after they retire. “It’s something that female athletes have been doing for years, whether it be Martina Navratilova all the way up to Brittney Griner.”
Collins, who remains a free agent, told the Blade he has not made any decisions about the upcoming season and whether he will return to the Nets.
“I’m going to enjoy my summer right now,” he said. “I still work out. I still train.”
Collins told the Blade his immediate plans include public speaking and traveling.
“I will evaluate things at the end of the summer,” he said.