WASHINGTON – Jason Collins said he was overwhelmed by the backing he has received — including from President Barack Obama — after the NBA center became the first major US professional team sport athlete to reveal he is gay.
“Not even in my wildest dreams could I ever imagine the support that I’ve received,” Collins, 34, told ABC television in his first interview since revealing his sexuality on Monday in an essay for Sports Illustrated.
“Random people just come up and shake your hand and say ‘thank you,’ and it touches you and you just feel honored and humbled.”
Obama, who telephoned Collins to express his support, called the positive reaction to the seven-foot (2.13m) veteran of 12 NBA seasons a sign of growing acceptance of homosexuality in American society.
“I told him I couldn’t be prouder,” Obama said at a White House news conference.
“One of the extraordinary measures of progress that we’ve seen in this country has been the recognition that the (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) community deserves full equality — not just partial equality, not just tolerance, but a recognition that they’re fully part of the American family.”
Collins, who helped New Jersey reach the NBA Finals twice in younger days, began dealing with the change from unheralded journeyman to gay role model.
“It doesn’t get any bigger than the leader of the free world giving you a call and saying you did a good thing. I did something not only to help myself but to empower others,” Collins told the New York Times.
“All my respect and support to Jason Collins,” tweeted Argentine guard Manu Ginobili of the NBA San Antonio Spurs. “Thanks to his courage perhaps someday an athlete’s sexual preference will be irrelevant. Congrats.”
Not everyone was supportive, with ESPN NBA commentator Chris Broussard calling Collins a “sinner.”
“I don’t agree with his statement,” Collins told the Times. “This is all about tolerance and acceptance. This is where the discussion begins.”
“You can’t please everyone,” Collins told ABC. “You just try to live your life by your values and go about your business.”
Retired NBA star Charles Barkley says there are gay NBA players who have chosen not to come out.
“We’ve all played with gay guys. We didn’t treat them bad,” Barkley said. “For us to have an honest discussion, if guys don’t like it, they should be able to say it and not get crucified.”
Collins said he did not know of any other gay players in the NBA.
“Statistically speaking, I’m probably not the only one,” Collins said. “Since no one else has raised their hand, you don’t know for sure. I’m 99.9 percent sure there are others.”
Several US women’s team athletes have played while openly gay, including retired Women’s NBA (WNBA) and US Olympic star Sheryl Swoopes, and 2012 US Olympic women’s football gold medalist Megan Rapinoe.
Brittney Griner, this year’s WNBA top draft pick, revealed earlier in April she is a lesbian.
Collins said openly gay tennis legend Martina Navratilova has been a role model for him.
“I look at her as one of my heroes,” he told the Times. “Hopefully going forward I can be someone else’s role model.
Collins told ABC his message to young gay NBA hopefuls was to keep working.
“It doesn’t matter that you’re gay, but the key thing is that it’s about basketball,” he said. “It’s about working hard. It’s about sacrificing for your team. It’s about dedication.”
Collins is seeking a new contract at age 34 and said several NBA coaches have supported him, confident he will not be snubbed for a new deal because of his revelation when the next NBA season opens in six months.
“I’m sure teams will look at my basketball, look at what I have to offer,” he told the Times. “I’ll be ready at any moment.”
Collins said he hopes to marry a man and raise children, adding: “I’m very optimistic of what the future brings.”