WASHINGTON - With the simplest of sentences, NBA veteran Jason Collins set aside years of worry and silence to become the first active player in one of four major U.S. professional sports leagues to come out as gay.
In a first-person article posted Monday on Sports Illustrated's website, Collins begins: "I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay."
Collins has played for six teams in 12 seasons, most recently as a reserve with the Washington Wizards after a midseason trade from the Boston Celtics. He is now a free agent and wants to keep playing in the NBA.
"I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I'm happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn't the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, 'I'm different,'" Collins writes. "If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand."
Saying he had "endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie," Collins immediately drew support for his announcement from the White House - President Barack Obama called him - along with former President Bill Clinton, the NBA, current and former teammates, a sponsor and athletes in other sports.
Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant tweeted that he was proud of Collins, writing: "Don't suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others," followed by the words "courage" and "support."
"We've got to get rid of the shame. That's the main thing. And Jason's going to help that. He's going to help give people courage to come out," said Billie Jean King, a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame who confirmed she was gay after being outed in the early 1980s.
"I guarantee you he's going to feel much lighter, much freer. The truth does set you free, there's no question. It doesn't mean it's easy. But it sets you free," King said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press.
The Wizards, whose season ended April 17, issued a statement from team president Ernie Grunfeld: "We are extremely proud of Jason and support his decision to live his life proudly and openly. He has been a leader on and off the court and an outstanding teammate throughout his NBA career. Those qualities will continue to serve him both as a player and as a positive role model for others of all sexual orientation."
According to the General Social Survey, the public has grown increasingly accepting of gay relationships since the late 1980s. That survey found in 1987 that 76 percent of Americans thought sexual relations between adults of the same sex was morally wrong. That fell to 43 percent by 2012.
"I'm glad I'm coming out in 2013 rather than 2003. The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted," Collins wrote in SI. "And yet we still have so much farther to go. Everyone is terrified of the unknown, but most of us don't want to return to a time when minorities were openly discriminated against."
Momentum has been building toward this sort of announcement from a pro athlete in a top league in the United States. NFL players Brendan Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe were outspoken in support of state gay marriage amendments during last year's elections.
The topic made waves during Super Bowl week when one player, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, said he wouldn't welcome a gay member of his team. At the time, Ayanbadejo estimated that at least half of the NFL's players would agree with what Culliver said, at least privately.
Indeed, Collins' message was not unanimously well received. Thousands of tweets about Collins included a gay slur. In New York, well-known sports radio host Mike Francesa called the story "a dramatic attempt to sell a magazine."
But there was an outpouring of positive sentiments as well.
NBA commissioner David Stern said in a statement: "Jason has been a widely respected player and teammate throughout his career and we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue."
Living in the nation's capital last month while the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about same-sex marriage had an effect on Collins, who says "the strain of hiding my sexuality became almost unbearable" at that time.
"Less than 3 miles from my apartment, nine jurists argued about my happiness and my future. Here was my chance to be heard, and I couldn't say a thing," he writes. "I didn't want to answer questions and draw attention to myself."
In his SI piece, he jokes self-effacingly about his journeyman career and a parlor game known as "Three Degrees of Jason Collins."
"If you're in the league, and I haven't been your teammate, I surely have been one of your teammates' teammates. Or one of your teammates' teammates' teammates," he writes.
Never a star, he acknowledges, "I take charges and I foul - that's been my forte. ... I set picks with my 7-foot, 255-pound body to get guys like Jason Kidd, John Wall and Paul Pierce open. I sacrifice myself for other players."
He continues: "I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay?"
Collins says that if he remains in the NBA, he could face uncomfortable reactions from fans.
"I don't mind if they heckle me. I've been booed before. There have been times when I've wanted to boo myself. But a lot of ill feelings can be cured by winning," he writes. "I hope fans will respect me for raising my hand."
In February, former U.S. soccer national team player Robbie Rogers said he was gay - and retired at the same time.
Female athletes have found more acceptance in coming out. Brittney Griner, a top college basketball player now headed to the WNBA, caused few ripples when she said this month she is a lesbian. Tennis great Martina Navratilova, who came out decades ago, tweeted Monday that Collins is "a brave man."
"1981 was the year for me - 2013 is the year for you," her post added.
Collins' twin brother, Jarron, was also a longtime NBA center who last played in the league in the 2010-11 season. Collins says he told his brother he was gay last summer.
"He was downright astounded. He never suspected. So much for twin telepathy," Collins writes in SI. "But by dinner that night, he was full of brotherly love. For the first time in our lives, he wanted to step in and protect me."
At Stanford, Collins was a college roommate of Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass. Collins writes that he realized he needed to go public when the congressman walked in Boston's gay pride parade last year - and Collins decided he couldn't join him.
Collins writes that the Boston Marathon bombings "reinforced the notion that I shouldn't wait for the circumstances of my coming out to be perfect. Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?"
And now, Collins says, he will be in Boston on June 8, marching alongside Kennedy at the city's 2013 gay rights parade.
"In the brotherhood of the NBA, I just happen to be the one who's out," Collins wrote.
Jason Collins' career
College: Attended Stanford University, where he played on a Final Four team; first-round draft pick in 2001.
NBA career: averaged 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds for the New Jersey Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards. At age 34, he is now a free agent.
No. 98: Collins says he quietly made a statement for gay rights even while keeping his sexual orientation a secret. He wore No. 98 with the Celtics and Wizards - 1998 was year that Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming, was killed, and the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization, was founded.