WALTHAM, Mass. — Shortly before Jason Collins went public with a historic announcement, he called one of his former coaches to give him the groundbreaking news everyone would know in a few hours: Collins is gay.
On the phone with Doc Rivers, though, Collins was not able to give his message as easily and succinctly as he did in print. So, the Celtics coach interrupted him.
“When he called to tell me, you could tell he wanted to tell me, and I told him before he said it: ‘Jason, I could care less what you’re about to tell me,’” Rivers said. “That’s how I feel. I honestly feel that way.”
Rivers was one of the unanimous voices at Celtics practice on Tuesday to lend their support to Collins, who becomes the first male athlete in a major American sport to come out while he is still playing. In a short stint with the Celtics this season, Collins made an impression on his teammates and made some close friends, which is why two of the calls he made prior to the story breaking were to Rivers and Celtics captain Paul Pierce.
Pierce will always have a connection with Collins for a gesture he made earlier this season. After Pierce scored 40 points in a win over the Cavs, he was awarded a rare game ball — which he promptly handed over to Collins, in recognition of the veteran big man’s screen-setting and defense. Collins was in awe.
“It says a lot about the type of person that Paul is,” Collins said, “that he had a game like that, yet my teammates still appreciate what it is I do out there on the court.”
Now, Pierce and Collins are linked again, and Collins learned more about the type of person Pierce is. Collins called Pierce on Monday morning, right before SI.com posted the story, and Pierce admitted he was surprised — not that there was now an active gay athlete, but that Collins was that gay athlete. Pierce said he and Rivers have talked before about how there would probably soon be an “out” athlete. He just never imagined it would be one of his former teammates.
“To each his own,” Pierce said. “It’s probably going to open the door to many more. There’s so many professional athletes, there’s so many human begins, that are scared to expose it because of the exposure of sports and what people might think about it. But I think what he did was a great thing, just to kind of open the door for other athletes who probably now are going to have the courage to come out.”
The biggest shock of all, for some people, might have been how blasé Rivers, Pierce and much of the NBA community have reacted to the news. The Celtics answered questions Tuesday about Collins, interspersed with more typical questions like their defensive adjustments against the Knicks. Collins being gay seemed as normal to them as the need to contain Carmelo Anthony in Game 5.
Pierce and Rivers admired and respected Collins before. After placing two tough phone calls, Collins discovered that they still do. Collins may be changing a lot of people’s opinions, but between him, Rivers and Pierce, it appears nothing has changed.
Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.