At 7 feet tall, Jason Collins never found it easy to hide. Not when he walked the streets of Boston. Or towered over the crowds at the city’s swanky nightspots. Or ran the parquet floor for the Celtics under the bright lights at TD Garden, a million-dollar NBA center trapped in a double life.
Collins remembers the burden of having to present himself as one of the guys, no different from other professional athletes — hiding the fact that he is gay. It was, he says, as if he had to press a personal “censor button” whenever he was with others.
He recalls the pain of not marching with his college roommate, US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, in last year’s Boston Gay Pride Parade. And the shame, he says, of hiding in plain sight.
But now all that is in the past, as Collins became the first active player in a major American sport to publicly reveal he is gay.
His landmark disclosure Monday, in a first-person cover story in Sports Illustrated, triggered an outpouring of support from Causeway Street to the White House.
President Obama’s spokesman commended Collins for his courage in advancing “the evolution that is taking place in this country,’’ while Celtics coach Doc Rivers praised the former Celtic as “a consummate professional’’ who has taken a giant step toward breaking down the vestiges of prejudice in American sports.
“I am extremely happy and proud of Jason Collins,’’ Rivers said.
Kennedy, a Brookline Democrat, said that regardless of how other players react, Collins’s strong character will persevere.
“He’s a historic figure for professional sports, a historic figure for our country, but he’s always gonna be the same guy,’’ Kennedy said.
Collins, who played 32 games for the Celtics before he was traded to the Washington Wizards in February, attributed the timing of his disclosure in part to the Boston Marathon bombings, which “reinforced my notion that I shouldn’t wait for the circumstances of my coming out to be perfect,’’ Collins wrote in the magazine. “Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?’’
The opening of his story was as simple as it was bold: “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.’’
Collins recalled struggling for years to pass as straight, dating women and once becoming engaged to marry.
“I thought I had to live a certain way,’’ he told Sports Illustrated. “I kept telling myself the sky was red, but I always knew it was blue.’’
His odyssey ends in a time of growing tolerance, in which the president in his inaugural address paid tribute to the gay rights movement, and in which leaders of some professional sports, the NBA in particular, have taken steps to create a more welcoming climate for gays.
NBA commissioner David Stern has cracked down in recent years on homophobic behavior, fining Lakers star Kobe Bryant $100,000 for uttering an anti-gay slur during a game and assessing a $50,000 fine against the Knicks’ Amar’e Stoudamire for using a slur in a Twitter message.
Stern has watched Collins play for six teams over 12 NBA seasons, reaching the playoffs nine times and the Finals twice. Collins, who has earned more than $32 million, became a free agent after the Wizards recently failed to reach the playoffs. He said he wants to continue playing in the NBA.
“Jason has been a widely respected player and teammate throughout his career,’’ Stern said in a statement. “We are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue.’’
Bryant, who has apologized for his earlier remark, joined many NBA players Monday in expressing support for Collins.
“Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others,’’ he tweeted.
Collins revealed that he wore the number 98 with the Celtics in a secret tribute to Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student whose brutal murder in 1998 became one of the most notorious anti-gay hate crimes of the era.
Shepard’s murder became a turning point in the history of gay rights, as the push for broader legal protections for homosexuals accelerated.
Collins wrote, “The strain of hiding my homosexuality became almost unbearable in March, when the US Supreme Court heard arguments for and against same-sex marriage.’’
He had moved to Washington and was living less than 3 miles from the Supreme Court.
“Here was my chance to be heard,’’ he wrote, “and I couldn’t say a thing,’’
Barriers to homosexuality in women’s sports have fallen so significantly that Brittney Griner, the reigning NCAA Player of the Year for the Baylor women’s basketball team, made few waves when she announced this month that she is gay. She has since signed endorsement deals with Nike and other national corporations en route to the WNBA.
Tennis great Martina Navratilova, who came out decades ago, joined gay and lesbian advocates in praising Collins.
“You are a brave man. And a big man at that :),’’ Navratilova tweeted. “1981 was the year for me — 2013 is the year for you :).’’
Rivers recently took the Celtics to a screening of “42,’’ the movie about Jackie Robinson advancing the civil rights movement by breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
“If you learned anything from Jackie Robinson, it is that teammates are always the first to accept,’’ Rivers said in a statement. “It will be society that has to learn tolerance.’’
A number of heterosexual professional athletes helped in recent years to clear a path for closeted players such as Collins by emerging as gay rights advocates.
The Red Sox also embraced Collins, saluting his courage and leadership.
“Any time you want to throw out the first pitch at Fenway Park, let us know,’’ the team said.
Meanwhile, Mike Wallace of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins demonstrated why gay athletes may hesitate to come out. Soon after the news broke, Wallace in a tweet asked why “guys wanna mess with guys’’ when there are “all these beautiful women in the world.’’
Wallace later apologized, tweeting, “Never said anything was right or wrong. I just said I don’t understand. Deeply sorry for anyone that I offended.’’
Collins wrote that his twin brother, Jarron, who played basketball with him at Stanford and went on to an 11-year NBA career, was surprised to learn he was gay.
“The hardest part of this is the realization that my entire family will be affected,’’ Collins wrote.
He told Sports Illustrated he recently informed Kennedy, who roomed with him at Stanford, that he came out in part because of Kennedy marching in last year’s Gay Pride Parade.
“I was proud of him for participating,’’ Collins wrote, “but angry that as a closeted gay man I couldn’t even cheer my straight friend on as a spectator.’’
Kennedy said he was unaware before Collins revealed to him he was gay two weeks ago because the player had always been a very private person.
“I was so honored that he shared that with me and proud that he was willing to go forward and come out,’’ Kennedy said, adding, “I’ve known Jason for 10 years and he didn’t need any help in his decision to come out.’’