Note: Tweet a photo of you in your Jason Collins Nets No. 98 jersey @Outsports with #Collins98Jersey and you could win a Gay Games registration or a $200 donation to your favorite LGBT Sports Coalition charity!
When I first heard that Jason Collins had been signed by the Brooklyn Nets last month and would suit up that night in Los Angeles, I was a little nervous for him. As a fellow out basketball player, I began to think about all the thoughts rushing through his head -- the fears, self-doubt, the fact that maybe the game would be different.
As soon as I saw his press conference and first steps out on the floor, I knew it was business as usual for the veteran player. It reminded me of my first days with my college team after coming out, and the bottom line that always stayed constant: I was a contributing player in a competitive basketball environment. Like all LGBT athletes, the goal is to continue playing the sport we love and help our team succeed.
The next step was to get one of his jerseys. That night, I texted my dad and my boyfriend saying I wanted some Collins gear. They both bought me a shirt within hours. Needless to say, when I got the gifts, it was Christmas No. 2 for me.
The idea of having his jersey was paradoxical. I wasn’t looking to emulate or support the best scorer or most well-known player in the NBA. I wanted to connect to and support someone just like me. If I had to ability, I would get every jersey of every LGBT athlete out there and support each one, even those in the closet.
This isn’t to say I am heterophobic. In fact, I have many friends who are quite heterosexual. The truth is that I, and the many others donning Collins gear, want to express our utmost support for the man we look up to. He’s just another gay athlete, just like us. I wore the jersey walking through an Atlanta airport and there was a certain confidence and pep in my step. I could tell the people who recognized the jersey and sort of gave me a nod. It made me feel good.
Collins' inspiring return to the NBA is an enormous feat not just for gay athletes, but for LGBT people everywhere. He is an intelligent, down-to-earth, hard working guy with a love for basketball and for people. He is proving that you could be gay and have successful relationships with your teammates while also having success on the court.
It’s clear that Collins' bravery set into motion a wave of change in sports for LGBT athletes. In the last 11 months, Outsports has published more coming out stories from college and professional athletes than ever before. In a wide array of sports, the culture changed from secluded and discriminatory to inclusive and familial.
We can all agree that Collins is no LeBron (not many young people model their game after screen-setting and rebounding). He’s Jason. There are plenty of reasons to watch him play and him being openly gay is only one of them. When I first heard the news of Collins' jersey selling out so quickly and of his signing gaining so much attention, I was so happy; I just did not understand why the impact was so profound. The Nets just wanted a physical, backup center who could rebound. It wasn’t until his jersey sales skyrocketed that I understood the true impact of him playing. He walked out on that court and immediately "Collins 98" became a symbol of hope. He has the opportunity to show kids watching on TV that he’s just like us.
I never wanted to be a star on the basketball court. I knew my basketball aspirations wouldn’t reach the professional level. I wear his jersey because I am so proud of Jason for being a voice of hope in the game I love. I can wear this with his name and number and be inexplicably gratified that I too am a gay athlete and it is more than OK for people to know. He puts on that jersey because he loves basketball and he loves himself for who he is. Many more are buying his jersey to show that all-stars are not the only athletes who fans can rally around and be proud of. LeBron and KD can fight for MVP. Jason Collins is playing for something bigger than himself. I’m not saying he’s the Mockingjay or this is a battle. Jason has already won in life.
I was lucky enough after my coming out article to have one final season of authentic, rewarding competition. Our season ended with a 18-9 record, hours of hard work, and timeless friendships. I graduate in May knowing I left the court giving everything I had, including the complete version of who I am. I hope and plan to continue to be a part of this movement in the future.
Derek Schell is a senior at NCAA Division II Hillsdale College, majoring in International Business, and is a guard on the men's basketball team. He can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and followed on Twitter @dschell4.