NBA center Jason Collins: I'm gay

Jason Collins #98 of the Boston Celtics takes a break in the game against the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center on November 15, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Updated at 4:40 p.m. Eastern

Veteran NBA center Jason Collins told Sports Illustrated that he is gay, becoming the first male athlete in one of the four major U.S. team sports to come out during his career.

"I'm happy to start the conversation," Collins wrote in a story that appears in the May 6 issue of Sports Illustrated.

"I wish I wasn't the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, 'I'm different,'" he wrote. "If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand."

The 34-year-old Collins, a free agent who played for the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards this season, said he intends to keep playing.

"I still love the game, and I still have something to offer. My coaches and teammates recognize that," he wrote. "At the same time, I want to be genuine and authentic and truthful."

Collins said that while he kept his sexuality private, he showed silent solidarity with the gay community by choosing 98 as his jersey number this past season. He said the number was a reference to 1998 - the year gay college student Matthew Shepard was killed in a hate crime in Wyoming and the year a suicide prevention organization called the Trevor Project was launched.

Collins' announcement comes as the NHL and NFL have launched initiatives to fight homophobia in sports. Earlier this month, the NHL and its players association teamed up with an advocacy group that promotes gay rights and strives to foster a welcoming environment for gay athletes. Last week, the NFL said it would promote a "culture of inclusion" for gay players and recruits and other prospective players.

Several current and former NFL players told CBSSports.com's Mike Freeman last month that a current gay NFL player is strongly considering coming out publicly during the offseason.

NBA executives, players and prominent politicians were quick to support Collins after the player went public.

"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," NBA Commissioner David Stern said in a statement.

Several NBA players voiced support, including Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant who tweeted:

Said Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld: "We are extremely proud of Jason and support his decision to live his life proudly and openly. He has been a leader on and off the court and an outstanding teammate throughout his NBA career. Those qualities will continue to serve him both as a player and as a positive role model for others of all sexual orientation."

White House spokesman Jay Carney called the decision courageous and former President Bill Clinton said it was "an important moment for professional sports and in the history of the LGBT community."

Mr. Clinton said in a statement that Collins is "a good man who wants no more than what so many of us seek — to be able to be who we are, to do our work, to build families and to contribute to our communities."

Chelsea Clinton, who knew Collins at Stanford, also tweeted her support.

Congressman Joe Kennedy, Collins' college roommate, also praised the player for his "unwavering integrity."

"I'm proud to stand with him today and proud to call him a friend," Kennedy said in a statement.

John Amaechi, who retired from the NBA in 2004, acknowledged in 2007 that he was gay - the first NBA player to do so. He took to Twitter to support Collins:

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com

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