Howard Fendrich

WASHINGTON: With the simplest of sentences, NBA veteran Jason Collins set aside years of worry and silence to become the first active player in one of four major U.S. professional sports leagues to come out as gay.

In a first-person article posted Monday on Sports Illustrated’s website, Collins begins: “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”

Collins has played for six teams in 12 seasons, most recently as a reserve with the Washington Wizards after a midseason trade from the Boston Celtics. He is now a free agent and wants to keep playing in the NBA.

“I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different,’?” Collins writes. “If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”

Saying he had “endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie,” Collins immediately drew support for his announcement from the White House — President Barack Obama called him — along with former President Bill Clinton, the NBA, current and former teammates, a sponsor, and athletes in other sports.

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.

The Wizards, whose season ended April 17, issued a statement from President Ernie Grunfeld: “We are extremely proud of Jason and support his decision to live his life proudly and openly. 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.”

Collins’ coach with the Celtics, Doc Rivers, drew a comparison between Monday’s announcement and Jackie Robinson’s role when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball.

“I am extremely happy and proud of Jason Collins. He’s a pro’s pro. He is the consummate professional and he is one of my favorite ‘team’ players I have ever coached,” Rivers said. “If you have learned anything from Jackie Robinson, it is that teammates are always the first to accept. It will be society who has to learn tolerance.”

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.

According to the General Social Survey, the public has grown increasingly accepting of gay relationships. That survey found in 1987 that 76 percent of Americans thought sexual relations between adults of the same sex was morally wrong. That fell to 43 percent by 2012.

“I’m glad I’m coming out in 2013 rather than 2003. The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted,” Collins writes. “And yet we still have so much farther to go. Everyone is terrified of the unknown, but most of us don’t want to return to a time when minorities were openly discriminated against.”

Grateful for support

On Monday evening, hours after his story appeared on the web, Collins wrote on Twitter: “All the support I have received today is truly inspirational. I knew that I was choosing the road less traveled but I’m not walking it alone.”

Momentum has been building toward this sort of announcement from a pro athlete in a top league in the United States. NFL players Brendan Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe were outspoken in support of state gay-marriage amendments during last year’s elections.

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.

In his SI piece, he jokes self-effacingly about his journeyman career and a parlor game known as “Three Degrees of Jason Collins.”

“If you’re in the league, and I haven’t been your teammate, I surely have been one of your teammates’ teammates. Or one of your teammates’ teammates’ teammates,” he writes.

In contrast to mostly widespread support, ESPN reporter Chris Broussard drew criticism for comments he made calling homosexuality “a sin” on the network’s Outside the Lines program. Broussard took issue with Collins’ description of himself as a Christian because he was “openly living in unrepentant sin.”

David Scott, a spokesman for ESPN, declined to comment about Broussard’s statements.

While Collins is the first male athlete in a major North American professional league to come out while intending to keep playing, several have previously spoken after they retired about being gay, including the NBA’s John Amaechi, the NFL’s Esera Tuaolo and Major League Baseball’s Billy Bean.

The New York Times contributed to this report.