Oprah Winfrey called. Then, minutes later, President Obama rang.
On the other end of the phone, Jason Collins sat stunned. The former Celtics center listened as Winfrey applauded his courage and relayed her pride. Collins talked with Obama about the importance of acceptance and tolerance and gay role models.
All the while, Collins couldn’t help wondering how the world-famous media mogul and the leader of the free world got his cellphone number so quickly.
And that was just Day 1 of what Collins now calls “my new life.”
A little more than a month ago, Collins, 34, became the first openly gay active player in a major American team sport. With his historic revelation, Collins went from little-known NBA role player to national figure in hours. And he is still trying to process it all.
“It’s been incredible over the past month,” said Collins. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. I’m meeting all kinds of wonderful people, and the support has been overwhelming.
“It’s been kind of surreal that I’m either calling or texting back and forth with these famous people. It’s nothing but love and support,” he said.
Ever since he came out in a first-person Sports Illustrated cover story — it ran just after the season ended for his Washington Wizards — it has been a whirlwind. Calls from celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, and appearances on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” with his twin brother, Jarron, and at the Democratic National Committee’s LGBT fund-raising gala in New York City with Michelle Obama.
But amid all the attention, one invitation caught Collins completely off-guard: first-pitch honors at Fenway Park.
On Thursday night, Collins will be back in Boston for the first time since his announcement, hoping to throw a strike at the ballpark’s first-ever “Pride Night.” Then on Saturday, he’ll march in the Boston Pride Parade with his college roommate, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III.
“I knew coming out that I was going to walk with my old college roommate, and getting to throw the first pitch out is sort of icing on the cake,” said Collins. “I saw that Joe had participated in the parade last summer and I was very proud of him. I was also partly jealous.
“I don’t know what to expect. I’ve never been to a Pride parade. Joe has told me, ‘Prepare for anything.’ I’m looking forward to a brand new experience and really seeing the community celebrate who we are. That sense of acceptance will be a lot of fun.”
For Collins, traveling to Boston and, in particular, marching with Kennedy will be a full-circle experience. When he learned that Kennedy had marched in last year’s event, it helped Collins realize he wanted to come out and celebrate gay pride, too. The Marathon bombings provided a final push out of his closeted life.
“I lived a couple blocks away from Copley Square,” said Collins, who played in 32 games for the Celtics this season before a February trade sent him to Washington. “I knew where the bombings took place. I used to walk up and down Boylston Street a lot.
“The tragic event was another reminder that there are no guarantees in life and that there is no perfect time to do something. It was a reminder that things can change in an instant. So why not start today living your life in a genuine and honest way?”
Still, his new life, like his old life, remains largely focused on family, friends, and basketball.
On occasion, he takes his 4- and 2-year-old nieces to church — a church, he added, that accepts him as a gay man, that “values tolerance and equality and a sense of community and that we’re all God’s children.”
With his nieces coming up easily in conversation, Collins said, “I don’t want to scare anyone away, but I will say that a goal of mine is to one day, down the road, be a father.”
But at the moment the 7-footer is preparing for the next NBA season, getting back into his offseason workout routine in Los Angeles. Collins, a 12-year NBA veteran who has played for six teams and appeared in two NBA Finals, will enter free agency this summer.
If he signs a contract and plays next season, he stands to be the second openly gay male athlete to compete in a major American team sport. On May 26, soccer player Robbie Rogers took the field for the Los Angeles Galaxy in an MLS game and became the first. Collins reached out to Rogers and relayed his happiness about the milestone.
“The more people that choose to live an honest and genuine life, the better it is for everyone,” said Collins. “The more of us [athletes] that step forward and break that stereotype that’s out there about what it means to be gay, the more of us will change people’s perceptions and challenge the misconceptions out there.
“I’m glad to see that the response for Robbie has been overwhelmingly supportive. I couldn’t be happier to see him back on the field. It’s inspiring. That’s what I want, to get back on the court and it just become about playing basketball. That’s what it should be about.”
As soon as Collins came out, there was speculation that his announcement was calculated — that some teams would jump at the chance to sign the NBA’s first openly gay player. But he dismissed suggestions that he came out for anything other than personal reasons.
“I feel that even if I’d stayed in the closet, I would still have an excellent opportunity to play in the NBA next year,” he said. “This was about coming out. I was comfortable enough in my own skin to come out on my own terms and in my own words.”
Coming out as an active athlete, Collins said, was entering “a big unknown” and “uncharted territory.” There were no guarantees about how people would react, especially within the sports community. But what he called “overwhelmingly positive” support from NBA players gives Collins confidence that it will be a smooth transition onto the court.
The most surprising call of support Collins received came not from Winfrey or Obama, but from former NBA player Tim Hardaway. In 2007, Hardaway made homophobic comments on a Miami sports radio show.
“It’s great to see someone who starts off with one opinion evolve and change his opinion,” said Collins. “I’m trying to live my life as honestly and authentically as I can. And I’m more than willing to pick up the phone and have an honest back-and-forth conversation.
“Maybe at the end of the conversation, like two civilized human beings, we agree to disagree on something. But at the end of the day, it’s all about respect and tolerance and acceptance. As long as there’s respect, you can still go out afterwards, have a beer, sit down, and watch a ballgame.”Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org