Jason Collins is one of the few people remaining who still calls Jazz point guard Earl Watson, “E.J.” The nickname goes back to Watson’s childhood and teenage years, when he and Collins first met as UCLA basketball recruits.
Watson has known Collins and his twin brother, former Jazz center Jarron Collins, for nearly half his life. Like most, however, he first learned that Jason Collins is gay Monday when he read the first-person account in Sports Illustrated. In the thoughtful, artful cover story, the veteran NBA center became the first active athlete in a major American team sport to publicly come out.
It came as a surprise although it wasn’t something Watson ever wondered about his friend, saying he “never even suspected it.” However, Watson called Collins “the perfect person to lead this” and to help “those who are like him or those who are afraid to come out.”
“I think he’ll stand in front of any barrage of media questions and answer everything with clarity,” Watson said. “I think some guys, certain guys, wouldn’t have the clear understanding of how to explain their situation and at the same time communicate the obstacles going through it and the avenues where you can actually reach people.”
Watson’s thoughts echoed waves of national support. NBA players including Kobe Bryant, Manu Ginobili and Baron Davis tweeted their support, as did former Stanford classmates Chelsea Clinton and Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy.
Jarron Collins voiced his support for his brother not long after the story was published.
“Very proud of you,” he said on Twitter.
In a statement, NBA Commissioner David Stern said, “As Adam Silver and I said to Jason, we have known the Collins family since Jason and Jarron joined the NBA in 2001 and they have been exemplary members of the NBA family. 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.”
Watson said that in his mind, gays in the locker room would not be an issue. But over time the question of whether a professional athlete could come out and be embraced gained steam, with NFL players Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayabadejo speaking in favor of supporting gay teammates. In recent weeks reports surfaced that a group of NFL players considered coming out.
Asked if players would object to a gay teammates, Watson said, “I think younger players who don’t know him will have some issues, some personal issues, but at the end of the day a lot of guys don’t get along anyway on an NBA team. So I don’t think it really matters.”
He added that the first player to come out is Collins — a thoughtful statesman of the game — will help smooth the transition into a world in which openly gay professional athletes play alongside straight ones.
“He’s the perfect person,” Watson said, “because he’s the most intelligent, creative, responsible, kind, character guy that’s probably in the NBA period.”
Watson, like Collins, will become a free agent on July 1. Whether an NBA team signs Jason Collins, who wrote that he “still has something to offer,” is not his motivation, Watson said.
“He’s playing because he loves the game,” he said. “I’m pretty sure he can get a job. It’s not like he’s an athlete who the game of basketball just defines him. ... I think the timing is perfect for him. I think it’s more or less the freedom and just waking up with the clarity he has that he has delivered that message. I don’t think it has anything to do with being signed or he even cares about that, honestly.”
Watson and the Collins brothers committed to UCLA and coach Jim Harrick before Harrick was fired for violating NCAA rules with a dinner for the three recruits. The Collinses subsequently enrolled at Stanford, while Watson went on to a four-year career with the Bruins.
“I go against the gay stereotype,” Collins said in the Sports Illustrated story written along with correspondent Franz Lidz, “which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay? But I’ve always been an aggressive player, even in high school. Am I so physical to prove that being gay doesn’t make you soft? Who knows? That’s something for a psychologist to unravel. My motivations, like my contributions, don’t show up in box scores, and frankly I don’t care about stats. Winning is what counts. I want to be evaluated as a team player.”
Watson said the piece rang true to Collins’ nature.
“It was typical him.” Watson said. “His delivery in everything he does, even his conversations, is very intellectual. He’s very articulate in the way he speaks. He’s a great communicator. There’s no one better than him to take the forefront on this.”
Jason Collins’ story
Veteran NBA center Jason Collins publicly declared Monday that he is gay in a cover story in the upcoming issue of Sports Illustrated.
To read Collins’ self-authored article, go to bit.ly/12J9eBi
Jason Collins file
Age • 34
College • Stanford
About • In first-person Sports Illustrated account Monday, Collins became the first active male athlete in a major American sport to publicly identify as gay.
Career • Selected No. 18 overall in 2001 by Houston and sent to New Jersey as part of draft-day deal. ... Has played for the Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards in a 12-year career. ... Has career averages of 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds in 20.8 minutes per game. ... Twin brother Jarron played for Utah Jazz from 2001 to 2009.