Jason Collins didn't have much impact at the end of the bench for the Washington Wizards, but he carved out a piece of history Monday when he revealed in a Sports Illustrated story that he is gay -- the first active player in a major U.S. professional sports league to declare himself publicly.
"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," Collins wrote. "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."
It's a historic moment, but it is not THE historic moment. It took personal courage for Jason Collins to reveal who he is, and the moment shouldn't be diminished. It moves the ball down the field toward the goal line -- which should be tolerance and acceptance, or simply live-and-let-live without painful judgements.
But Collins is 34 years old, a bit player at this point in his career, and who knows if he will even be on an NBA roster next season. The true test will come when a prominent player -- not a star, but a starting player in the middle of his career -- makes the same declaration when he will be in locker rooms and playing fields and courts for years to come.
Collins made it easier for that moment to come.
The most remarkable aspect of Collins' announcement was the public reaction -- overwhelmingly positive and supportive. Politicians, athletes and organizations went out of their way to voice their support for the courage Collins displayed -- including his team (or former team, as Collins became a free agent at the end of the season), the Washington Wizards.
"We are extremely proud of Jason and support his decision to live his life proudly and openly," Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld said in a statement.
The most significant show of support came from one of basketball's biggest stars -- Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who tweeted, "Proud of @jasoncollins34. Don't suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others #courage #support #mambaarmystandup #BYOU."
It was Bryant who, in his own way, paved the way for Collins.
Two years ago, Bryant was fined $100,000 for using a gay slur that was heard on national television in a game after receiving a technical foul. The was a defining moment -- a major sports star hit with a severe penalty for using a slur that unfortunately had been thrown around in the heat of the moment in many games far too often.
I don't know what is in Bryant's heart, but he has been an active supporter of gay rights since -- sort of an awakening, not just for him but for all of sports, about the damage done by accepting hate speech.
It opened people's eyes -- and their minds.