Shortly after being acquired from the Boston Celtics and before donning a Wizards uniform for the first time, Jason Collins met with the local media. Speaking with a small contingent of reporters in the middle of the locker room on a late February night as Washington hosted the visiting Houston Rockets, the 7-footer openly discussed several aspects of his lengthy career - including a clear understanding of how he had remained in the NBA for a dozen seasons.
“Twelve years of being able to foul people,” Collins cracked.
That's not just some self-deprecating humor. In six of his last seven seasons including the just completed campaign, Collins finished with more fouls than points scored.
“I’ve sort of found my niche role in the league, as far as being a solid low-post defender, go out there, box, rebound, be physical and use all six of my fouls,” said Collins, a first-round selection in 2001. “You can’t take ‘em home with you.”
The former Stanford product also joked that he wears No. 98 so that whistling referees have extra work when flashing hand signals to the scorer's table.
Of course on Monday Collins revealed a significantly more personal tale. The 34-year-old announced that he is gay, the first active player in any of the four major sports to come out.
The world also learned of the real reason he wore 98 this season after sporting 34 or 35 during his pro and college career. From Collins' first-person story in Sports Illustrated:
"Loyalty to my team is the real reason I didn't come out sooner. When I signed a free-agent contract with Boston last July, I decided to commit myself to the Celtics and not let my personal life become a distraction. When I was traded to the Wizards, the political significance of coming out sunk in. I was ready to open up to the press, but I had to wait until the season was over.
"A college classmate tried to persuade me to come out then and there. But I couldn't yet. My one small gesture of solidarity was to wear jersey number 98 with the Celtics and then the Wizards. The number has great significance to the gay community. One of the most notorious antigay hate crimes occurred in 1998. Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was kidnapped, tortured and lashed to a prairie fence. He died five days after he was finally found. That same year the Trevor Project was founded. This amazing organization provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention to kids struggling with their sexual identity. Trust me, I know that struggle. I've struggled with some insane logic. When I put on my jersey I was making a statement to myself, my family and my friends."