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NBA center Jason Collins on Monday became the first active player in a major American professional team sport to reveal he is gay -- a groundbreaking disclosure greeted with broad support.
Collins, a free agent who has played in the NBA for six teams over the past 12 seasons, went public with his sexuality to Sports Illustrated in a major cover story released on the magazine's website.
"I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black and I'm gay," begins the essay that Collins penned for the magazine with writer Franz Lidz.
"I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I'm happy to start the conversation.
"I wish I wasn't the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, 'I'm different.' If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand."
The landmark revelation will focus attention on Collins in much the same way as the spotlight shone on Jackie Robinson in 1947 when he became Major League Baseball's first black player, with the next club to sign Collins sure to face increased scrutiny.
"Jason Collins has forever changed the face of sports," said Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin. "No longer will prejudice and fear force gay athletes to remain silent about a fundamental part of their lives.
"Collins has courageously shown the world that one's sexual orientation is no longer an impediment to achieving one's goals, even at the highest levels of professional sports... Jason Collins is a hero for our own times."
Collins can expect homophobic taunts from NBA game hecklers the way Robinson endured racial insults without fighting back, but a spokesman for US President Barack Obama, a major basketball fan, hoped for more enlightened reaction.
"We view that as another example of the progress that has been made and the evolution that has been taking place in this country," the spokesman, Jay Carney, said of Collins' revelation.
Carney commended Collins "for his courage" and said the White House will "support him in this effort and hope that his fans and his team support him going forward."
Former US president Bill Clinton, whose daughter Chelsea was a college friend of Collins at Stanford, lauded Collins' disclosure as historic.
"Jason's announcement today is an important moment for professional sports and in the history of the LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) community," Clinton said.
"I hope that everyone, particularly Jason's colleagues in the NBA, the media and his many fans extend to him their support and the respect he has earned."
NBA commissioner David Stern praised Collins for the courage and leadership of his admission.
"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," Stern said.
Collins also earned support from fellow NBA players, teammates, other gay athletes such as retired NBA player John Amaechi and tennis legend Martina Navratilova, and celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres.
"Proud of @jasoncollins34. Don't suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others #courage #support," Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant posted on Twitter.
Collins, a 7-footer who helped New Jersey reach the 2002 and 2003 NBA Finals, has averaged 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds over 713 NBA games for New Jersey, Memphis, Minnesota, Atlanta, Boston and Washington. He has mainly played in reserve roles over the past six seasons.
He averaged 1.1 points and 1.6 rebounds last season in a combined 38 games for Boston and Washington.
Collins told Sports Illustrated that he wants to keep playing in the NBA while being honest about his feelings.
"I still love the game and I still have something to offer. My coaches and teammates recognize that," Collins said. "At the same time, I want to be genuine and authentic and truthful."
Collins said years of keeping his sexuality secret from teammates took a toll.
"It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret," Collins said. "I've endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew.
"Each time I tell another person, I feel stronger and sleep a little more soundly."
Collins, who was engaged to a woman at one stage, said he knew he had to go public when college roommate Joe Kennedy, a Massachusetts congressman, said he marched in Boston's Gay Pride Parade last year.
"I was proud of him for participating but angry that as a closeted gay man I couldn't even cheer my straight friend on as a spectator," Collins said. "I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore."
Jarron Collins, Jason's twin brother who spent 10 seasons in the NBA before retiring in 2011, tweeted: "I've never been more proud of my brother."
"I already anticipate the questions: 'Are you the gay twin or the straight one?'" Jarron Collins told SI. "This is uncharted territory, and no one can predict how it will play out."