What exactly does it mean to be normal? Does it mean that you don’t stick out in a crowd? Does it mean that you don’t look different than the general public? Does it mean that you act like everyone else? I guess if you’re Jason Collins then, you’ve never been normal.
Collins, a 7ft African American professional basketball player, has never been normal, at least when it comes to appearances. He, along with his twin brother Jarron Collins, have always stuck out from the crowd. But until recently, it was only because of Collins’ physical stature and his ability to play basketball at an elite level. Now, Collins sticks out for a very different reason. Jason Collins is gay, and he is the first American Professional athlete to come out while still playing professionally.
Two weeks ago, almost no knew Jason Collins was. Even to those who follow the NBA intently, Collins name was one almost never mentioned. For those who actually knew of Collins, he was simply known as a center that had become somewhat of journeyman during his 12-year NBA career.
Collins first rose to stardom while playing college basketball at Stanford. Alongside his brother Jarron, the Collins Brothers became All-Americans and led Stanford to the Final Four in 1998. In 2001, Jarron and Jason declared themselves eligible for the NBA Draft, leaving Stanford as leaders in several statistical categories.
Jason was drafted with the 18th overall pick by the Houston Rockets, and was later traded to the New Jersey Nets on draft day. While playing for the Nets, Collins solidified himself as a hardworking center that wasn’t afraid to draw a foul when he had to. He played an integral part in the Nets 2002 playoff run that led them all the way to the NBA Finals, where the Nets would eventually lose to the Los Angeles Lakers. Collins would play six more seasons with the Nets before he was traded to the Memphis Grizzles. From there, Collins has bounced around the league, playing with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Memphis Grizzles, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, and Washington Wizards. After the end of this season, Collins was released by the Wizards and is currently a free agent.
A month ago, Collins was as normal of a guy as it gets in the NBA. Finishing the season on a terrible Wizards team, Collins was looking himself in the mirror and seeing a 12-year career and a 34 year-old body that had taken its fair share of beatings. But unlike any other North American professional athlete, Collins had been keeping a secret inside of him that made him different than every single professional athlete in this country. Collins is gay, and he was about to become the first professional athlete in American sports to publicly come out as a gay athlete.
It is never easy to publicly admit that you are “different” than the rest of the world, especially when literally the rest of the world is staring you in the face. Collins admitted he didn’t want to be the first professional athlete to come-out, but he realized that it was time to show the world that gay athletes can and deserve to compete with the best athletes in the world. The gay community needed a face to the cause, and finally they had one: the perfect one.
There seems to have been a stereotype that gay people can’t play a professional sport because they can’t compete in a “man’s world,” or aren’t tough enough to play professionally. Jason Collins couldn’t stand farther from that myth. Collins is the epitome of what the NBA would call a “tough-guy.” The NBA may stand for the National Basketball Association, but everyone knows what it really stands for: “No Babies Allowed.” Collins has always been known as a player who is never afraid to set a tough screen, scrap for rebounds, and draw a hard foul when players drives to the basket. In fact, Collins led the league in fouls committed during the 2006 NBA season. I don’t think Collins has to worry about his tough guy image too much.
But now to the real issue here, a gay athlete playing professional sports? Collins has possibly made the biggest barrier in sports since Jackie Robinson’s inception into professional baseball. It is has long been assumed that gay athletes have played at the highest level of professional sports, but not a single North-American player had ever publicly admitted it while still actively playing. Collins may ask to be thought of us as just “one of the guys,” but he’s not; he’s so much more than that.
This shouldn’t be a big deal, but sadly it is. Who really cares whether Jason Collins goes to bed with a man or a woman? Shouldn’t we judge Collins based on his athletic performance, not his sexual orientation? Collins deserves the respect that every other professional athlete in American sports receives. In time, people will begin to see that sexual orientation plays no part in someone’s ability to shoot a basketball, throw a football, or catch a baseball.
Collins is now the face of the gay community. He can change an entire generation of people and athletes. Kids all across this country who may or not be gay, now have a figure to look up to and admire. Hopefully this nation will see that Jason Collins is only the first of many gay professional athletes. Maybe some of those gay athletes will be the most prominent names in sports.
There is no doubt in my mind that at some point in my life I have either played sports with a teammate who’s gay, or have played against one. My hope is that after Collins announcement, kids won’t be afraid to mix gay and sports together, because doing what you love is more important than the preconceived notion of someone’s sexual orientation.
Life is too short to worry about the little things. Collins’ announcement shouldn’t be a game-changer in the sports world; it should be a motivator to get more gay and lesbian kids playing sports.
The beautiful thing about sports is that it teaches us so many life lessons. Arguably the most important lesson it teaches us is the one this country has been afraid to discuss for so long: bringing different people together. Sports are supposed to unify us, not separate us. By announcing that he is gay while still actively playing professional basketball, Collins has begun the process of repairing that image and bringing this country back together.
Jason Collins is an American hero. He may not be a Hall-of-Fame basketball player, but he has forever changed the landscape of American professional sports. He may be the first, but he certainly won’t be the last.