Jason Collins perfect person to take this first step

1st openly gay player in major pro team sports will bring us closer, make it easier for others to follow

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Chicago Tribune sports columnist Steve Rosenbloom on Jason Collins announcing he's gay. (Posted on: April 29, 2013)

NEW YORK — Over lunch in Las Vegas last summer, Bulls general manager Gar Forman and free-agent NBA center Jason Collins met to discuss what Collins might offer Chicago.

The word pioneer never came up.

"A very, very impressive guy,'' Forman recalled.

Yeah, America noticed Monday.

Collins represented the backup plan in case things fell through signing Nazr Mohammed. The Bulls made their decision for reasons related to basketball, the same criteria they will use again in July when Collins hits free agency months after his sexuality became a national topic of conversation.

"We're going to evaluate guys on their talent, professionalism, character and work ethic,'' Forman told the Tribune before Game 5 against the Nets at the Barclays Center. "It would be the same thing with (Collins) as anybody else.''

Except Collins forever distinguished himself from everybody else in major pro team sports Monday by coming out in a first-person Sports Illustrated essay as the first openly gay active player.

Consider it the most significant byline sports journalism will see in 2013. No headline will scream any louder or prouder about a monumental victory.

Twenty years from now, April 29, 2013, won't be remembered as the day Tim Tebow got cut by the Jets. It will go down as the date men's professional sports finally got on the right side of history thanks to Collins, the gutsiest athlete of any season.

We talk about courage a lot in sports. Knowing the inevitable controversy ahead, imagine the kind it took for Collins to confirm publicly that he had been living a lie for most of his 34 years, that his homosexuality was something that chose him instead of the other way around.

"I kept telling myself the sky was red, but I always knew it was blue,'' Collins wrote.

Color me impressed. Sports and society celebrated Collins sharing his story like the great occasion it was. The only thing greater will be when a pro athlete doing so warrants a shrug.

Based on the heavy reaction from locker rooms and board rooms all over the country, we are not there yet. But after Collins brought us closer, each athlete brave enough to follow the trail he blazed should find the response quieter.

But then it would have to be.

President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton praised Collins. The parents of Matthew Shepard cried upon learning in the SI story that Collins wore No. 98 in honor of their son, killed in 1998 in one of the worst anti-gay hate crimes ever. Twitter exploded. My Brooklyn cabbie suggested they make a movie "98'' to honor Collins the way "42" paid tribute to Jackie Robinson's life.

Perhaps the positive reaction made it easier for the next player to step out of the closet.

"I knew that I was choosing the road less traveled but I'm not walking it alone,'' Collins tweeted.

More than any other sport, basketball offered Collins the clearest path to acceptance. Locker rooms in the NBA generally lack the machismo that permeates other sports' inner sanctums. Unfortunately, Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace drove that home in a series of tweets in which he acknowledged, "I don't understand!!'' For a day, Wallace replaced 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver as the NFL's face of intolerance.

The NBA more obviously embraces diversity, from using female referees to melding international players with teammates of all colors and walks of life. From Dennis Rodman to heavily tattooed Heat forward Chris "Birdman" Andersen, the league traditionally projects a vibe that it takes players as they are. It was that welcoming sentiment summed up in a tweet by TNT analyst Steve Kerr: "Proud to have (Collins) representing the NBA.''

Players in both locker rooms for this Bulls-Nets series, from Jerry Stackhouse to Kirk Hinrich, echoed those feelings. As did both coaches.

"I didn't think it was a big deal,'' Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "It's reflective of society.''

Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo used practically the same words.

"Society is a lot more mature or accepting or ready for acting the way we should act right now," Carlesimo said.

A good test will come when Collins, a 12-year veteran, tries to find a team to sign him for a 13th. Backlash also will come from cynics who consider this a publicity stunt or, worse, those who attack Collins for practicing a lifestyle in conflict with their religion. Necessary discussions will intensify.

That will test the open-mindedness of those who applaud Collins as well as the patience of those who don't like to mix sports and social issues. But at least nobody will be talking hypothetically anymore. We finally have an example, and what a shining one Collins is.

The question about Collins coming out shouldn't be: Why now? It should be: What took so long?

For the good of sports everywhere, we no longer have to ask.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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