NEW YORK — Veteran basketball player Jason Collins announced on Monday that he was gay, smashing through one of the final frontiers in U.S. sports with a frank personal statement and winning warm praise as a groundbreaker.
Collins, a 12-year NBA player, became the first active athlete from any of the four major U.S. men’s professional sports leagues to come out publicly as gay.
He did so in a first-person account published in Sports Illustrated, saying he had gradually become frustrated with having to keep silent on gay issues. The Boston Marathon bombings this month had convinced him not to wait any more for a perfect moment to come out, he wrote.
“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center,” his essay began. “I’m black. And I’m gay.”
“I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different.’ said Collins, who played last season with the Boston Celtics and then the Washington Wizards and is now a free agent.
“If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
Players, administrators and some politicians applauded him for taking a stance. Some hailed it as a landmark day in American civil rights, perhaps as important as when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball.
President Barack Obama, a big fan of the NBA who regularly plays pickup basketball with his friends, called Collins to express his support, a White House official said.
Collins’ move came at a time of heated debate over gay rights in the United States, where polls show public opinion is fast moving toward greater acceptance, although a core of social conservatives oppose such change.
Some in sports declined to join the chorus of voices in support of Collins. Sportswriter Chris Broussard, speaking on ESPN television, grouped homosexual acts with adultery and premarital sex, saying he believed this was “walking in open rebellion to God.”
In the coming months, the Supreme Court will rule on whether to strike down parts of a federal law that defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman. In 2011, the military repealed a ban on openly gay soldiers.
“Jason’s announcement today is an important moment for professional sports and in the history of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community,” former President Bill Clinton said in a statement.
NBA commissioner David Stern said he was proud of Collins.
“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,” Stern said.
In a country where it is no longer news for politicians and entertainers to be openly gay, there had been questions over the lack of an openly gay player in the big four men’s professional leagues: the NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball.
Sports, which helped play a key role in changing public opinion on racial discrimination, had come to seem out of step with much of the rest of American society.
Collins, a 34-year-old 7-foot center who has played with six different teams during his 12 years in the NBA, said he never had any grand plans of being the first openly gay player, but events off the basketball court persuaded him to come out.
He was inspired by last year’s gay pride parade in Boston, he said, but delayed making an announcement because of a desire to protect his team, waiting until the end of the regular 2012-2013 season ended. Collins was also prompted by the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings which killed three people and wounded more than 200, he said.
“The recent Boston Marathon bombing reinforced the notion that I shouldn’t wait for the circumstances of my coming out to be perfect,” he wrote in Sports Illustrated. “Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?
Kobe Bryant, one of the NBA’s greatest players, was fined $100,000 in 2011 for a homophobic slur. On Monday, he was among the first of dozens of active players who took to social media to applaud Collins.
“Proud of @jasoncollins34. Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others,” Bryant tweeted.
Two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Steve Nash tweeted: “The time has come. Maximum respect.”
There are openly gay players in many top professional leagues in other countries in the world as well as smaller leagues in North America and individual sports.
Other gay athletes, including former NBA center John Amaechi, had waited until their retirement to divulge their sexuality publicly, but there was a growing sense that times were changing.
Earlier this year, the American soccer player Robbie Rogers outed himself, although he had just retired. And Brittney Griner, one of the country’s top women’s basketball players, said she too was gay.
Bill Clinton, whose daughter Chelsea was a classmate of Collins at Stanford University, said he hoped Collins would be treated fairly by everyone.
“I hope that everyone, particularly Jason’s colleagues in the NBA, the media and his many fans extend to him their support and the respect he has earned.”
A sense that it was hard for gay athletes to come out had started to change in recent years, and it had seemed like only matter of time until an active male player in one of the big pro leagues said he was gay.
The question came into sharp focus this year around the National Football League, usually viewed as the most macho of America’s pro sports.
In the days leading up to this year’s Super Bowl in New Orleans in February, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver told reporters he would not welcome a gay teammate into the locker room.
He later retracted his comments but reports later emerged of NFL teams asking college players about their sexuality at a scouting combine in February.
This prompted the New York State attorney general to send a letter to the NFL, urging the league to take action and adopt a formal policy on sexual discrimination.
High-profile NFL players, most notably Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo, began advocating for gay rights, and suggested there were a handful of players ready to come out once someone had taken the first step.
Collins was a first-round draft pick, 18th selection overall, by the Houston Rockets in 2001. He was traded to the New Jersey Nets where he spent his first six seasons, primarily as a starter, with his best season coming in 2004-05 when he averaged 6.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.
In the past several seasons he has been primarily used as a backup center and has played with eight teams in the last six seasons, including 40 games this season with the Celtics and six with the Wizards. He has averaged 3.8 points and 3.6 rebounds per game in his 12-year career.