Jason Collins Has No Team, But He'll Always Be A Trailblazer

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A historic day in sports, NBA veteran Jason Collins announced that he's gay, making him the first openly gay male athlete playing for a major American sports team.

He is smart. He is a Stanford man.

He is strong and he is aggressive. At 7 feet, 255 pounds, he led the NBA in personal fouls in 2004-2005.

He is a veteran of 12 seasons, six teams, two NBA Finals, a teammate known for his commitment to his group's greater good. No less than Celtics coach Doc Rivers — one of the finest judges of character in basketball — called him "a pro's pro."

Jason Collins also is unsigned.

There is no team next to his name today. No Celtics. No Knicks. No Nets or even Wizards. He is a free agent center. And for this late April day in 2013, Jason Collins also was the free agent center of the athletic world's attention.

When Collins announced that he is gay in an eloquent and powerful piece in Sports Illustrated, he became the first active male player in a major North American team sport to reveal his homosexuality.

In the ensuing hours, Collins was called brave. He was called courageous. The shrinking army of misguided moralists and, worse, homophobes, those who would judge him or wish him harm, of course, would say otherwise.

I would choose to use the word "complete."

For years, Collins has shown us that he is smart, strong and aggressive, a pro's pro. And now at age 34, Jason Collins has helped us complete his mosaic. He also is gay.

"No one wants to live in fear," Collins wrote in Sports Illustrated in a paragraph that could have been written by some of the great authors in American history. "I've always been scared of saying the wrong thing. I don't sleep well. I never have. But each time I tell another person, I feel stronger and sleep a little more soundly. It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret. I've endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time. I still had the same sense of humor, I still had the same mannerisms and my friends still had my back."

I have had conversations with gay athletes over the years, some well known, some not known at all. One was with Martina Navratilova during the weekend of her induction into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 2000. Inevitably, those conversations arrived at this point: Yes, I'm gay, but it does not define my entirety, any more than saying you're heterosexual defines your entirety. I was not surprised to read Collins say that as proud as he is to be an African-American he doesn't want his race to define him any more than he wants his sexual orientation to. "I can't let someone else's label define me," he wrote.

Still, I am happy Collins grabbed control of his story, was able to articulate it so brilliantly on his own terms. As LZ Granderson, the gifted and openly gay writer for ESPN, pointed out, it would have been unfortunate if the first gay team athlete had been "outed" in some salacious way by TMZ or some other gossip entity.

I recall a conversation 12 years ago with Brendan Lemon, former chief editor of Out magazine. Three months earlier, he had written about his relationship with a recognizable major league baseball player and how that boyfriend was agonizing about coming out as gay.

``I have people say to me, `You've created this big expectation. You've given people the first 90 minutes of a movie and then you didn't tell them who did it,'" Lemon said. "They're frustrated. That's a human reaction. But it isn't my story to finish. To finish the story, I have to out somebody. I'm not going to do it."

That player never stepped forward.

On Monday, Jason Collins did.

He isn't the first gay athlete to do so. Not even close. Women in individual and team sports have for several years. Basketball player Brittney Griner revealed she's gay only two weeks ago. Males in individual sports have, too. So have males who had retired from team sports.

Still, don't be fooled into believing this is a non-story.

It is very much a story.

As an active player, Collins must clear the last barrier. The male locker room is the final frontier.

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