In the opening episode of the “Voice of the Nets” podcast, Jason Collins tells Chris Carrino that he adopted a low-key posture during the early part of his career because he was afraid he might be outed as a gay man.
In the iHeart podcast, Collins speaks about his coming out, his time with the Nets, both in New Jersey and later in Brooklyn, Jason Kidd, his hyperathletic high school back-up in L.A., the actor Jason Segal, and how “there’s no better feeling than blind-siding” an unsuspecting opponent. You can subscribe to the podcast here
The 13-year veteran said he deliberately avoided getting headlines because he feared that his secret life would be exposed. He simply didn’t want to confront it, as Carrino noted.
“Part of me trying to do the little things was intentionally not to score,” he said. “because I knew those people who don’t necessarily know the game of basketball will look at who’s the leading scorer and let’s go talk to that person. And I thought, I don’t really want that media attention because I knew that I was gay and I didn’t want to bring added attention to myself.
“Even early on in my career, that I knew I didn’t want added media attention, but the basketball purists knew I was still making plays to help the team win.”
Collins spoke as well about how while his decision to come out — in a Sports Illustrated story in May 2013 — was “liberating,” it was not an easy decision.
“It’s not easy,” Collins told Carrino. “It’s very difficult because not only are you trying to sort of hide a part of your game (laughs) but you’re also trying to hide a part of yourself in the locker room. Obviously, you’re worried about — okay, you walk around with a constant filter and you say, ‘don’t say this,’ ‘don’t talk about this.’ You don’t want to give any clue to anyone that you might be gay.”
“So it’s a lot of stress, a lot of energy that is being devoted to something to keep this secret. and it was very difficult,” he added, noting that in a strange way, the NBA lockout in 2011 played a key role in his decision to come out.
“But I did reach a point in my life that I started coming out to people because of the NBA lockout in 2011 where ... whenever you’re dealing with something stressful, you come up with certain outlets to reduce the stress and for me, it was basketball. Just focus on basketball, don’t worry about that giant elephant room kind of thing. Just focus on basketball, do your job. But when I couldn’t do my job and had that disruption in the timing, I was sort of forced to look at the elephant in the room and say, okay, we got to do something about this.”
Collins said that he began coming out to those close to him — friends, family, people that he trusted. It was after he was traded in 2013 from the Celtics to the Wizards that he began to move towards his public coming out.
“So I called my agent Arm Tellem and said, ‘I need to tell you something.’ So I came out to him and said, ‘Do we make an announcement.’ I wanted to come out. I was tired. But I said, ‘I want you to be the quarterback of this decision-making process. So you tell me whether I can make the announcement now when I’m playing for the Wizards or do we wait till the season is over and then I’ll be a free agent and we make the announcement. You tell me when to do it.’ And he was the one who came up with the game plan that we would wait until that season was over and came out in the beginning of May 2013.”
At the time, Collins was the first professional male player in any of the big four leagues — NBA. MLB, NHL or NFL — to reveal he was gay.
Collins also discussed how he decided to change his uniform number to 98. He did so to honor Matthew Sheppard, the college student who beaten, tortured, and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming, in October 1998. Collins called it “hiding in plain sight.”
“I had a nice cover story for that in that in one year I did lead the league in fouls, and I told the Celtics that I wanted the 98 because when the refs called a foul on you, they have to go to the scorer’s table and do the hand thing,” he said, Calling a foul on number 98 would be the worst number for the refs to signal.
After coming out, Collins signed with Brooklyn in April 2014, playing under a coach in Kidd who he had played with on the 2000 Nets (and had met for the first time as 12-year-old in California.) Collins also spoke at length about that time in New Jersey, including the Nets big win over the Celtics and the franchise’s first Eastern Conference championship in 2002 — 20 years ago Tuesday.
Specifically, Collins spoke about how after the Nets big collapse in Game 3 in Boston, Kidd was crucial in getting the Nets ship righted.
“JKidd. It’s funny. You know there are some players you are playing alongside of and you’re like, ‘that’s a Hall of Famer.’ Even in that moment, you know he’s a Hall of Famer. He was never one of those guys who was big, loud, yelling, screaming kind of leader. It’s one of those things when he spoke he said what needed to be said in the moment and everyone just feeds off of that. You feed off his intensity, his playmaking ability, obviously he makes everyone of the court better just by being out there on both ends of the court.
“So there’s this confidence you have when you’re playing (alongside) a guy who is arguably the MVP it instills that sense of belief that our team has Jason Kidd and the other team doesn’t.”
Carrino recounted how Brian Scalabrine had told him after that loss that Kidd walked into the visiting team locker room at TD Garden and said, “I’m never losing to that team again.” And they didn’t, taking the series in six games and going to their first NBA Finals.
There’s a lot more there, in particular for long-time Nets fans, like how Boston fans threw coins at Nets players while on the bench at TD Garden; how the Nets young players with their own history of winning helped Kidd transform the culture; the roots of the animosity between Kenyon Martin and Tim Thomas (and how Jason Segal beat Thomas in a high school dunk contest) as well as the climate of being young and gay in today’s America.
Collins is now an ambassador of NBA Cares and says he’s been counselling a number of pro athletes who remain closeted. Collins was quoted as well in a New Jersey Monthly story on Derrick Gordon, a Plainfield, NJ, resident who came out while playing for Seton Hall back in 2014, not long after Collins. Gordon, the first openly gay player in NCAA Division 1 basketball, said Collins decision helped push Gordon “over the cliff.”
“You’re gonna see pushback. Just be prepared for that pushback and know that there is a community of support to help you, so that you aren’t going through this journey alone,” Collins told Gary Phillips of New Jersey Monthly when asked to relay his advice to Gordon or anyone in his shoes.
The “Voice of the Nets” is part of a partnership between the Nets and iHeart that will feature Carrino and Ally Love, the Nets in-game host. The podcasts will air on Tuesdays. All Nets shows will be part of the NBA Podcast Network. Shows will be distributed by the iHeartPodcast Network and be available for free on iHeartRadio and anywhere podcasts are heard. Additionally, fans can catch special show content via the Nets’ social media channels.