Jason Collins: Black, Gay and a Real Man

The NBA player has paved the way for all young gay men experiencing his same struggle for self-acceptance.

Jason Collins and Ioannis Bourousis of Emporio Armani Milano (Roberto Serra/Getty)

(The Root) -- The measure of man is not easily calculated, nor apparent to the eye. Assessing character requires levers of the heart and mind -- rendering scales wholly useless. Martin Luther King Jr. posited that the ultimate measure was to be determined not by where a man stood in times of comfort and convenience but, rather, in times of challenge and controversy.

It seems there are still such men -- and they are giants.

At 7 feet and 255 pounds, NBA center Jason Collins -- a 34-year-old professional whose career has taken him to the NCAA Final Four and Elite Eight, nine playoffs in 12 NBA seasons and two NBA Finals -- has often been, quite literally, the biggest man on the court.

In a world that defines masculinity and virility in terms of strength, size, speed and ferocity, it is serendipitous that Collins has become the first active major American professional male athlete to come out as gay. In a word, it shatters outdated stereotypes and offers a much-needed alternative to the sometimes innocuous (sometimes cartoonish) caricatures of gay men.

"I'm learning to embrace the puzzle that is me," Collins wrote in an exclusive column for Sports Illustrated. Collins, who played with the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards this past season, received overwhelming support from fans and colleagues. President Barack Obama, an avid basketball fan, called Collins personally to commend his "courage." First lady Michelle Obama sent a message via Twitter, "We've got your back!"

NBA Commissioner David Stern issued a statement expressing pride that Collins "has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue." Fellow NBA stars and former teammates showed solidarity, including Kobe Bryant, whose infamous anti-gay slur two years ago landed him a $100,000 fine.

The response is, no doubt, encouraging for a man who admits that he had lived his entire career in fear and chose to keep his secret, in part, out of loyalty to his teammates -- saying simply that he decided "not to let [his] personal life become a distraction."

For lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths and aspiring athletes, this is admittedly a watershed moment, and one that can lead to greater acceptance. It follows, of course, a positive and changing tide in Americans' perceptions of gay people and gay rights. The U.S. military's decision to allow gay soldiers to serve openly and President Obama's support for marriage equality have brought these issues into the mainstream. Until now, professional male sports has remained the final bastion of a "Don't ask, don't tell" culture that is tacitly homophobic.

By any measure, therefore, Collins' announcement is both a personal and collective triumph. But the sad truth underlying his story -- despite the fanfare that it is deservedly receiving -- is that there are far too many friends, siblings and colleagues among us who still suffer the suffocating darkness of the closet. Even in 2013.

Can you imagine living a life in which those closest to you didn't even know you? The most touching revelation Collins shared was that his twin brother, Jarron, was "astounded" at his coming out. A brother with whom he has spent his entire life, and who followed him to Stanford and into the NBA, had no clue that his brother was gay. "It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret," Collins wrote. "I've endured years of misery."