May 2, 2013
STANFORD, Calif. - At 7-feet tall, Jason Collins has always stood out in a crowd. He starred at Harvard-Westlake School near Los Angeles, where he and twin brother Jarron led the team to two state titles. Jason accumulated 2,379 points and 1,500 rebounds, the latter the most-ever by a California high school player.
Next stop for the twins was Stanford University, where they competed on stellar teams coached by Mike Montgomery from 1997-2001. Though both were slowed by injuries, when healthy, Jason was an inside force, departing as the school’s career leader in field goal percentage (.608) and fifth in blocked shots (89). He was a selected a third-team All-American and graduated with a degree in communication.
In those days, I was covering Stanford basketball for the San Francisco Examiner and CBSportsline.com and became well-acquainted with Jason and Jarron. I wrote many stories chronicling their success, often focusing on their intellect, commitment to team, toughness, work ethic, and gentle nature off the court.
One day, I brought my young daughter to practice so she could meet the twins. She was initially intimidated by their size, but they quickly won her over with their smiles, small talk and infectious enthusiasm.
Afterward, she gushed about their kindness and the size of their shoes. I told her to remember their names, because one day they would be famous.
Being around the Cardinal team, it was obvious they had great camaraderie. The twins weren’t immune to teasing and gave as much as they received, Jason in particular.
“People have no idea how banged up he was in 2001,” said former guard Michael McDonald. “He never complained, just went in and got his treatment. Once he got on the court, he laughed and joked and was always someone you could count on.”
Added Mark Madsen, now an assistant coach on the Stanford staff, “He’s the type of person who can bridge any gap and has the ability to relate to a lot of different types of people.”
That became apparent this week when Jason wrote a cover story for Sports Illustrated magazine and announced he was gay. At 34, after playing 12 seasons in the NBA for six teams, he decided the time had come – his time – for the first male athlete in a major American sport to reveal his homosexuality.
Prior to the story, Jason told some family and friends. One of the first was his aunt, Teri Jackson, the first black female judge in San Francisco. She said she knew all along, and applauded his decision.
“But it’s not because we needed to be a trailblazer,” she said to local reporters. “It’s because it’s right and it has to be done.”
This was no grandstand act by a player hoping to draw attention and extend his career with another team -- he’s currently a free agent. It was a highly-considered decision to improve his quality of life and make it easier for other professional and amateur athletes alike to do the same without fear of negative consequences.
“I never set out to be the first openly gay athlete in a major American sport,” Jason wrote in Sports Illustrated. “But since I am, I am happy to start the conversation.”
Almost immediately, former Stanford and NBA teammates reached out to congratulate him on Twitter, as did everyone from former President Bill Clinton to sports legends Martina Navratilova, Magic Johnson, and Kobe Bryant.
"I think he had an idea it would be big news, but I don't think he thought he would get a call from President Obama or Oprah."
- Stanford teammate Michael McDonald
Tweeted two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, “The time has come. Maximum respect.” McDonald said the support for Jason has been overwhelming.
“I think he had an idea it would be big news, but I don’t think he thought he would get a call from President Obama or Oprah,” McDonald said.
Most have commended him for his courage.
“Takes a brave man,” tweeted Kenyon Martin, who played with Jason with the New Jersey Nets. “I have no problem with it. He was my friend before and he will still be my friend.”
McDonald and the twins were childhood friends and came to Stanford together in 1997. Both were in his wedding. Jason was visiting McDonald, his wife and their new baby girl in Boston a month ago when he broke the news.
“We were just sitting on the couch,” McDonald said. “I was surprised. Really? Yeah, well, that’s great, man. I’m happy for you. I was just honored that he felt comfortable to tell a teammate and a friend.”
McDonald estimates about 50-60 former Stanford basketball players communicate regularly through an e-mail chain. Many, including the twins, returned to campus last year during football season for a reunion and to help celebrate the life of teammate Peter Sauer, who died in a pickup basketball game in New York.
After the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon, Jason was among the first to text McDonald to make sure he and he is family were safe.
“He’s always been very articulate, smart and thoughtful,” said McDonald.
When Jason’s story broke Monday, the e-mail chain heated up. It’s still going strong, but not for the reasons you might think.
“The wisecracks haven’t stopped the last few days,” said McDonald. “We always revert to our 18-year-old selves. It’s been a whirlwind for him.”
Jason gave a hint of his sexual orientation during his recently completed NBA season with the Washington Wizards when he wore No. 98. He did it to honor Matthew Shepard, a young gay student at the University of Wyoming, who was kidnapped and brutally murdered in 1998 hate crime.
“Every time I put on that jersey, I was already sending a message to myself,” Jason said to ABC News.
Now, he is sending a powerful message to kids and adults everywhere that it’s OK to be comfortable in who you are.
“He is speaking to a whole country of young people who don’t have a spokesperson,” said McDonald. “Now they do.”
-- By Mark Soltau, Stanford Athletics
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Palo Alto native Mark Soltau has spent his whole life and much of his career around Stanford sports. A sportswriter for 35 years, Soltau spent 16 (1981-97) at the San Francisco Examiner, where he covered not only the Cardinal, but all five 49ers Super Bowl-championship teams. Golf always has been his passion and Soltau served as the sport's beat writer for the Examiner, national golf writer for CBS Sportsline, contributing editor to Golf Digest, and since 1997 has been the editor of tigerwoods.com.