When Jason Collins got in touch with his friend US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III a few weeks ago, Kennedy had little idea what he wanted to talk about.
The former Stanford roommates agreed to meet in person, before the Marathon bombing upended Kennedy’s schedule. When they finally caught up by phone, Collins had major news: He was gay, and he was going to become a trailblazer, by becoming the first active major-sport American athlete to come out.
Kennedy told him, “This has been a long week, but you just put a smile on my face,’’ the congressman recalled in a telephone interview.
Collins, a former Boston Celtic, shocked the sports world with his announcement Monday. Suddenly a question asked for years — who will be the first major sport male athlete to come out — had an answer, albeit one few would have guessed.
In basketball terms, Collins is a journeyman, a big center who has played for six teams in 12 years and can be counted to deliver hard fouls in limited minutes. Useful and productive, but hardly a star.
For Kennedy and others who know him personally, he is much more than that. “Jason is a great guy and a great friend,” Kennedy said. “He is someone I’ve literally and figuratively looked up to. He’s a historical figure now, but he’s still the same great friend I know.”
They roomed together in Kennedy’s sophomore year, when Collins and his twin brother Jarron were helping to carry Stanford to the Elite Eight and the Final Four before each of them headed to the NBA.
“He’s a very private person,” Kennedy said. “But he stood up for his teammates, and he stood up for his friends.”
Collins cited Kennedy’s influence in his decision to come out. Specifically, he said, he felt jealous when Kennedy told him last year that he was marching in Boston’s Gay Pride Parade.
“I was proud of him for participating, but angry that as a closeted gay man I couldn’t even cheer my straight friend on as a spectator,” Collins wrote in an article in Sports Illustrated. “If I’d been questioned, I would have concocted half-truths. What a shame to have to lie at a celebration of pride. I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore.”
Collins wasn’t the first athlete to come out. A handful have announced their orientation after retirement. A few WNBA players are openly gay.
But, culturally, it matters that Collins is an active player and that he is a man. How will the locker room react? How will fans react? What about endorsements?
Collins’s announcement challenges comfortable but homophobic notions about athletic heroes, said Dan Lebowitz, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. He calls the revelation a civil rights watershed moment.
“The sports world is typified by this hypermasculine definition of manhood that hadn’t allowed for these conversations of an athlete of a different sexual orientation,” Lebowitz said. “I think it creates a positive self-image for every gay kid who is an athlete or every gay kid who isn’t an athlete. They can find people who are like them.
“There should be a lot of room for a grand definition of what manhood is. It can be a million things, including being a gay athlete.”
Contrary to years of dire predictions, Collins’s announcement seemed to be warmly received in the sports world. His former teammates Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett wasted no time expressing their support. Coach Doc Rivers spoke of being proud of him. Collins is a free agent, and the Celtics have left the door open for a possible return.
Meanwhile, Kennedy was hearing from a lot of Stanford classmates Monday. “It’s one of those moments that makes you proud to know somebody,” he said.
Kennedy downplayed his role in helping Collins through his career-defining moment. “He really didn’t need any help,” the congressman said.