Tennis greats Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova were three decades and more ahead of him. Diving icon Greg Louganis beat him by 19 years. And, unlike him, all three had obtained global celebrity in sports measured not by teamwork, but by individual performance alone.
Yet, Jason Collins, never more than a modestly skilled journeyman in his six-city tour around the NBA, has suddenly become a household name, not for his prowess in the paint, but for a singular act of courage that should persuade other gay athletes to come forward with their own stories.
We hope the wait won't be long. Fans, young and old, would profit from the knowledge that heterosexuality is not a prerequisite for competing on the field, court or rink, from Junior Jazz to the Utah Jazz, from the Little League diamond to Wrigley Field.
In declaring that "I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay," Collins stepped out of a closet that no active professional athlete in America's four major team sports had ever dared leave. Some former players, to their credit, came out after their careers had ended. Former Utah Jazz player John Amaechi was such a one.
Collins divulged his lifelong secret even his twin, former Jazz player Jarron Collins, didn't know in a thoughtful first-person account in Sports Illustrated while he waits to learn whether one of the league's 30 teams will sign him for a 13th year. In the context of his new status, it matters whether he takes the court again.
Yet, at 34 and soon to be a free agent, and with career scoring and rebounding averages in the low single digits, his future depends on whether anyone needs an aging, 7-foot, 255-pound banger, the roughhouse role that has kept him in the league. If he is passed over, it therefore cannot be assumed that sexual identity was a factor. But with the outpouring of support for Collins around the NBA, perhaps there is reason to hope he will be judged by the same criteria applied to any other player.
In the tide of enthusiasm for Collins' decision, comparisons to Jackie Robinson's breaking of major league baseball's color line were inevitable, if well off the mark. Racial discrimination was rife in 1947 when Robinson took the field and he was viciously reviled for it, inside and outside the clubhouse. Collins spoke up in a far more tolerant environment, where support for gay marriage is escalating.
Still, as in Robinson's case, somebody had to be the first. And for that, Jason Collins deserves our admiration and support.