ATLANTA — Larry Drew coached Jason Collins for three seasons with the Hawks, two when Drew was an assistant and another as the head coach. One of those years, Collins was instrumental with his defense on Dwight Howard in helping Atlanta advance past the Magic in the first round of the playoffs. Drew also had Collins earlier in his career when he was an assistant in New Jersey.
But Drew had no idea what was coming when he received a phone call from Collins on Tuesday morning. Collins left a message, not informing Drew of his intent, but it wasn’t long before Drew learned that Collins had come out as the first active gay athlete in a North American professional sports league.
Drew missed the call. It came during the Hawks’ shootaround before Game 4 of their first-round series with the Indiana Pacers, but he called Collins back — leaving a message in return — and told Collins how proud he was of him.
“First of all, I’m very, very proud of Jason, the fact that he had the courage to come forth, to express himself for who he was,” Drew said. “That takes a lot of courage. When you’re a person who’s been in the limelight, as he has been, and he’s done such a phenomenal job as a ball player…. He is just such a great guy, an unbelievable person, a phenomenal teammate and I underline that because he was a guy that did everything coach always wanted him to do. Never complained. He always played hard. Knew what his limitations were on the floor. Stayed with his strengths. Just a phenomenal guy.
“When I got the news today I was very proud of him. The fact that he had the courage to come out and express himself. And reading some of his quotes, you can clearly hear in his message that he feels free now. It was a burden for a long time just to keep it kind of quiet. Now that he has expressed himself you can hear that he seems very free from it.”
Forward Josh Smith was a teammate of Collins’ for those three seasons in Atlanta. Smith spoke eloquently less than 90 minutes before game time about whether NBA players would be accepting of having a gay teammate in their midst in the locker room.
“To be honest, I think that this is a business,” Smith said. “In each and every business, everybody is not the same. You can’t ask for nobody to be the same as you or the next person. You just have to accept them for who they are. People who aren’t confident with their own sexuality, I think it might bother them. For a person who understands and respects the decision and respects the human being and as long as there’s always a professional atmosphere, I don’t think it should be a problem.”
Drew reinforced that message when it came to whether the 7-foot Collins, who turns 35 in December, might receive a contract offer going forward.
“Hopefully, we’re at a point where we can accept people for who they are,” he said, noting he was behind Collins “110 percent.” “Look at the individual. Again, if he can help me win ball games, I certainly would not rule him out, but, again, he’s 34, 35 so he’s moving up in age a little bit. But hopefully as a society we can accept people for who they are and we can look past things, particularly if that person, if he’s a guy who can still produce out on the basketball floor. If he is still productive if you put him in a game, certainly, I don’t see a reason why he shouldn’t be able to continue his career.”
Smith said that Collins could be a role model for other players who are struggling with the same decision as Collins made.
“I definitely commend on him on making the decision he made,” Smith said. “Now he can live his life comfortably and not worry about what the public eye, the feelings they have about the situation and I think that whoever it is that is uncomfortable coming out, I think they should look at ‘Big Jason’ and have that confidence. I respect it 100 percent.”
Smith said that he had no inkling about Collins’ sexuality. It was pointed out to him that Collins only told his twin brother Jarron last summer.
“Not that I know of,” Smith said. “Everybody has their own time to do everything. Now is his moment.”
Smith also said he thought the Stanford-educated Collins would be a good spokesman for gay athletes.
“He’s definitely a well-spoken human being,” Smith said. “Like I say, he’s been the ultimate professional and he’s been a great teammate so I think he’s definitely handled it well. I think it’s definitely good to hear positive reinforcement from the people he’s played with, with sincerity, not really sugar-coating anything. I really appreciate and respect what he did.”