Openly Gay NBA Center 'Happy To Start The Conversation'

Mike Pesca talks to Audie Cornish about NBA center Jason Collins, who announced he is gay. Collins is the first male athlete to come out while still playing in a major American sport.

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"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." So begins an essay in the upcoming issue of Sports Illustrated, written by 34-year-old NBA center Jason Collins. And it's a big moment, not just for pro basketball but for all pro sports.

And NPR's Mike Pesca joins us now to talk through it. And, Mike, to start, Jason Collins has been around the league for a while now. I mean he's played on six NBA teams so far. What does he say prompted his coming out now?

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Well, it was a few things. In 2011, there was an NBA lockout and he said that disrupted his routine and it got him to thinking. And he's one of these people who - it took a little while to accept it for himself. He was engaged to a woman. He had issues with identity that you so often hear about. But he said the things that really prompted him to do it were his roommate from Stanford, now Congressman Joe Kennedy, marching in a gay rights parade, and him being jealous. He says he's not normally jealous of people, but that's something he wanted to do.

And even the Boston Marathon bombings, you know, kind of just - it thrust on, and this shows how recent it is. But it showed him how fragile life is, how things can change. He wanted to be honest at this moment.

CORNISH: So what's the reaction been so far from the league, but also from maybe other players?

PESCA: Yeah, I mean it's been really overwhelmingly positive so far - Steve Nash, Earl Watson, Kobe Bryant, among the early tweeters of support, Commissioner David Stern. You know, he went to Stanford. He was friendly with Chelsea Clinton. Chelsea's dad, Bill Clinton, had a press release timed exactly to Jason Collins' announcement in support. The White House has gone on record in support.

And if you project ahead about how this will be treated in NBA locker rooms and, of course, that's the question, you know, people can surmise what they want. But I would just point out the demographics of the NBA. The average age in the NBA is a little under 27. And when you poll people of that age, millennials, 18 to 32 - Pew last month just came out with a poll. The question: Should homosexuality be accepted or discouraged by society? Seventy-four percent of people in that age range say it should be accepted.

So this would indicate that that not only have we seen a lot of NBA players individually saying we'll support it, and not only is society moving in that regard, maybe there'll be more acceptance should - and we should mention Jason Collins is a free agent - should Jason Collins get a job on the team in this upcoming season.

CORNISH: Mike, I mean here we have the first openly gay male athlete playing in a major American team sport. But he's a free agent. He's 34. I mean, how big a deal is this really?

PESCA: Well, it's a big deal especially if he gets a job. If you look at a player of his ability, he's not a great - heck, he's not really a good player. But he could be a useful player for a team because he is a center, because he can play a bit of defense and coaches love him. He's the kind of guy that you would project a 34-year-old with his skills and size to make an NBA roster, if he wanted to. And when that happens that will be a landmark, the first openly gay male athlete going into an NBA locker room.

And we say these things like first openly gay male athlete, major North American team sports, it's because so many barriers have already fallen in terms of women's sports and European sports and smaller sports. But this is the NBA. You know, let's just think of it like this. It's not every day that the White House comments on a player coming out as gay.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Mike Pesca. Mike, thank you.

PESCA: You're welcome.

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