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Ten years after, Jason Collins reflects on how he changed the NBA — and sports — landscape

It’s been 10 yeas since Jason Collins came out as a gay man in a Sports Illustrated cover story. He spoke with The Athletic about where things stand.

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Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2013-14 season will be remembered as a big, if disappointing, time for the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets had traded for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and signed Andrei Kirilenko the previous summer and hired Jason Kidd to coach them. They already had Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson on the roster. A championship beckoned.

Instead, there was all manner of controversy as the Nets started slow and the new acquisitions looked their age. Kidd got Tyshawn Taylor to spill water on him and got the front office to exile Lawrence Frank, brought in to help him in his rookie year as coach. It all led to a second round exit, then Kidd’s departure.

But for all of that, the biggest moment came — the one the season will be most remembered for — in February when Billy King signed Jason Collins to a vets minimum deal. The starting center for the Nets when New Jersey had twice gone to the Finals, Collins had come out as gay the previous April. In inking a standard NBA contract, he became the first openly gay player to ever sign with a team in one of the big four leagues: NBA, NFL, MLB or NHL. Over the arc of history, that moment and not Kidd’s spillage nor Pierce’s “that’s why they brought me here” will be the signature moment of that season.

Last week was the 10th anniversary of Collins 15,700-word cover story in Sports Illustrated which began, “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m Black. And I’m gay.” On Monday, The Athletic published interview with Collins about his experience back then and how ten years on, there has been both progress and heartbreak on the road to LGBTQ rights.

Collins, who is now an ambassador for NBA Cares, told Damion Sayles of The Athletic that while there has been progress, retrograde legislation, particularly in the South and border states, is making it difficult for other gay athletes to come out.

“As far as what worries me, it’s some of these laws being passed around in state legislatures,” he told Sayles. “With everything that’s going on in our world and in our communities, there seems to be a huge focus on the LGBTQ+ community. Whether it’s trans rights or ‘Don’t Say Gay’ or no pride flags in Florida, which is crazy to me, it’s a constant reminder that regardless of the social justice issues — racial equity, women’s rights to choose, LGBTQ+ issues — there are people on the other side of that issue who are working constantly to roll back things and push us back in time.

“It’s a constant struggle and fight for equality. You can celebrate marriage equality but know the next day you’ve got to fight just to keep it or keep on advancing. There are some very conservative people out there who want to walk things back in time, and we cannot let that happen.”

Collins lauded straight allies in the NBA, particularly Dwyane Wade who last week told reporters that he had moved out of Florida, where he won three NBA titles for Miami, because he felt his family, which includes transgender daughter, Zaya, “would not be accepted” in the state. Similarly, Collins talked about Reggie Bullock’s advocacy for LGBTQ rights following the murder of his transgender sister, Mia Henderson, in 2014.

He also pointed to the disparity between men’s and women’s sports, noting that when a woman athlete comes out, it’s basically greeted with a shrug, but when a man does the same, there is always more to the story.

“I remember when Carl Nassib came out a couple of years ago, and that was big news, versus when Elena Delle Donne came out right before the Rio Olympics. Everyone was like, “OK, cool, go win a gold medal.” It’s great to see women continue to lead the way. When I was a kid, I was looking for role models with regards to LGBTQ+ athletes. They really weren’t on the male side; they were on the female side with Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova. … Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot out there other than Carl Nassib actively in the NFL,” said Collins.

One issue that Collins finds strange is that when a male athlete comes out, there are questions about the locker room, whether the announcement will be a distraction that could prevent a team from winning.

“Carl’s teams have made the playoffs. My teams made the playoffs. Robbie (Rogers)’s team won the MLS Cup. You can go on and have success and be authentic and open with the world,” he said.

Collins also spoke about how he has been proud to represent the NBA which he said has been the leader in acceptance, second only to the WNBA.

“I think the WNBA is leading the way. You’ve got to give the women credit and acknowledge that. Right after the WNBA is the NBA, as far as supporting our athletes and encouraging our athletes to speak up,” said Collins referring not just to issues of sexual preference and gender identity but in the larger context.

Collins admits that he has been surprised at the small number of male athletes who’ve come out since he signed with the Nets. He said NBA commissioners David Stern and Adam Silver had cleared the way for him as did Nike.

“I saw that they were creating an atmosphere, if I were to step forward, that I would be supported,” he told Sayles. “We have to keep creating an environment and also remind people that with regards to endorsements, you won’t lose any of that. I’m still a Nike athlete to this day, 10-plus years later. Just know that there are opportunities to live your life authentically and still play your sport.”