Jason Collins

Jason Collins didn’t publicly come out as gay until his final NBA season. But once he was able to be himself, the trailblazing center says he unlocked deeper relationships with his teammates and coaches.

In a recent interview on the “All About Change” podcast series, Collins reflects on his journey. He publicly came out in April 2013, and signed with the Brooklyn Nets the following February, when he made history as the first out active gay player in major U.S. men’s team sports.

During that special season, he says his connections with those around him only grew more meaningful.

“I had closer relationships with my coaches, with my teammates, to the point where we’re playing against the Miami Heat and on one of the days off, an assistant coach and one of my teammates, we’re going to do a hot yoga session together. We’re doing yoga. That would never have happened when I was in the closet,” he said. “But you’re forming more authentic connections with your teammates, with your coaches, with your coworkers, and life is just so much better when you’re having those real connections with people.”

Despite playing in the NBA for 15 seasons, Collins says he retreated from the spotlight for the bulk of his career. He was afraid that media attention would attract scrutiny into his personal life, which he didn’t want to share.

“I didn’t want attention,” he said. “Obviously attention would come…especially when you’re a professional athlete and you’re over age 30 and you’re not married, people are like, ‘What’s going on there?’ I didn’t want those questions.”

Collins dated ex-WNBA player Carolyn Moos for a while, before calling off the engagement in 2009. Like many closeted queer folx, he thought he had no choice but to live a lie.

“When I was younger I dated women. I even got engaged. I thought I had to live a certain way,” he wrote in his coming out essay. “I thought I needed to marry a woman and raise kids with her. I kept telling myself the sky was red, but I always knew it was blue.”

As a public figure, Collins embraces the power of visibility. He lacked out gay role models growing up, leading him to question whether he could be himself and succeed in the NBA.

Over the last 11 years, he has tried to be an example for others who may be sorting out their own LGBTQ+ identities.

“It’s a lot easier to accomplish your dreams and goals when you see somebody who looks like you, or when you see someone who might have a similar background,” he told Queerty in an interview this year. “You’re like, ‘If they did it, I can do it.'”

One missed connection that stands out in Collins’ mind was when Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly into space, visited his high school, where she was an alumnus. Collins had no idea she was gay, until he read her obituary years later.

When he was debating whether to come out, his missed encounter with Ride stood at the forefront of his mind.

“I didn’t find out she was gay until her obituary,” he said. “When I was debating whether to come out, part of discussions with my family was that moment that was missed with me and Sally Ride. I didn’t want someone to find out I was gay from my obituary.”

As one of the most famous out athletes in the world, Collins no longer has to worry about someone finding out his orientation from his obituary. He enjoyed widespread acceptance when he came out, with the biggest stars in the NBA, including Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, expressing their support.

Though his experience was positive–and he’s said as much in many, many interviews–there still hasn’t been another out active NBA player. There currently isn’t an out active gay player in any of the major men’s U.S. sports leagues.

That reality shows there’s still a stigma around gay athletes in men’s sports. Eleven years later, Collins is still doing all he can to change it.

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