During his three seasons of basketball at Penn State University and the eight-year professional career that followed, John Amaechi never told any of his teammates that he was gay.
When he came out in February 2007, four years after he had played his last NBA game with the Houston Rockets, his announcement was seen as revelatory, a key step toward encouraging open dialogue and tolerance in the locker rooms of America's four major team sports -- social spheres widely considered to be so traditional and closed-minded that they represented the final frontier for the acceptance of homosexuals.
"Oh, I remember the feeling in my stomach, the knot in my stomach," Mr. Amaechi said, "when I knew that people would go from looking at me as an NBA player or former NBA player to being 'that gay guy.' I remember that trepidation."
Even after Mr. Amaechi's courageous public pronouncement, skeptics of its importance said nothing would change the sports world's pervading climate of machismo until an active professional athlete did the same.
So you can imagine the pride Mr. Amaechi felt when he recently spoke with Jason Collins, a center with the Washington Wizards, and Mr. Collins said that he is gay and ready to shout it from the mountaintop.
Monday morning, Mr. Collins' first-person story, detailing 33 of his 34 years spent in hiding and the genesis of his decision to free himself from the lie of his life, appeared on Sports Illustrated's website. When the magazine hits newsstands later this week, Mr. Collins' smiling face will grace the cover, with the headline "The Gay Athlete."
Mr. Amaechi, a psychologist, has spent the past six years as that face. He's written a book, "Man in the Middle," and became a New York Times best-selling author. Having played for the Utah Jazz with Mr. Collins' twin brother, Jarron, during 2001-03, it was natural that Jason Collins would contact him before going public. Mr. Amaechi met with Jason and Jarron several weeks ago in Los Angeles and talked with Jason on the phone, answering some questions about what was to come.
"I think he's remarkably brave," said Mr. Amaechi, who received death threats after his announcement, "but I'm reminded of how sad it is that you have to be brave to do this. It's notable that I've got 750 interview requests in my inbox right now. It's a bit sad that in this day and age it's that big of a story."
It certainly felt big to Jason Collins, who admits in his piece for Sports Illustrated that he has had trouble sleeping for most of his life. With each person he's told about his homosexuality, starting with an aunt in 2011, he's rested a little easier.
In 2012, Mr. Collins received a jolt when his college roommate at Stanford, Joe Kennedy, now a Massachusetts congressman, told him that he had marched in Boston's Gay Pride Parade.
"I was proud of him for participating," Mr. Collins wrote, "but angry that as a closeted gay man I couldn't even cheer my straight friend on as a spectator. If I'd been questioned, I would have concocted half truths. What a shame to have to lie at a celebration of pride."
Mr. Collins also recalled living in Washington, D.C., this March as the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against same-sex marriage. It would have been a perfect time for him to make his announcement, if not for the regular season still playing out its final games.
Now, he can attend any marches or rallies he pleases. And if Monday's reaction to his news is any indication, he can do so without fear of much public ridicule.
As soon as Mr. Collins' story spread, he received praise and well-wishes from across the spectrum, from President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama to former tennis star Martina Navratilova (who came out as a lesbian during her career in 1981) to former President Bill Clinton, who tweeted "I'm proud to call Jason Collins a friend."
But what of Mr. Collins' NBA brethren? After all, it was former Miami Heat star Tim Hardaway who said when Mr. Amaechi came out, "I hate gay people," before apologizing and later speaking out for gay rights. In April 2011, the NBA fined Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant for using an anti-gay slur talking to a referee during a game.
On Monday, Mr. Bryant said on Twitter that he was proud of Mr. Collins, adding "Don't suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others #courage #support."
The Wizards, Mr. Collins' latest team, also publicly supported the player, who will be a free agent this offseason. In his 12-year career, Mr. Collins has played for six teams, mostly as a backup.
Representatives from the other major pro sports weighed in with positive vibes, too. As Pirates starting pitcher Jeff Karstens prepared for Monday night's game in Milwaukee, he said, "This hits a lot closer to home with me because I have a family member who's bisexual. I just think the people that can't deal with it are macho, and they think there's some kind of thing wrong with [gay people.] They're normal people."
Mr. Karstens said he expects that those who speak out against homosexuals will receive more backlash than Mr. Collins.
Former Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace put that theory to the test on Monday when he tweeted, "All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys SMH [shake my head]."
The NFL's response to Mr. Wallace came in the form of a statement: "We are going to review the comment. This underscores the importance of education and awareness."
Overall, for Mr. Collins, who wrote that his sexuality has kept him from becoming close with his teammates, Monday's reaction appeared to come as a relief. He tweeted, "All the support I have received today is truly inspirational. I knew that I was choosing the road less traveled but I'm not walking it alone."
Those who know the path, like Mr. Amaechi, will be there as a resource for Mr. Collins, the 7-foot-tall Southern Californian who is now the face of a movement in its infancy.
With so many hurdles still to be cleared outside of sports in the fight for gay rights, Mr. Amaechi believes it's unlikely Mr. Collins has started a coming out party.
"The floodgates are waiting to be opened," Mr. Amaechi said, "but there are some fairly sizable roadblocks to overcome before that can happen. Not everybody is as wonderfully equipped as Jason to handle the pressure, to deal with the vitriol. There are people that you don't want to step up to a microphone to address nuanced issues, but anybody that's interviewed Jason Collins knows he's the perfect guy for this."
J. Brady McCollough: email@example.com and Twitter @BradyMcCollough. Staff writer Mike Sanserino contributed. First Published April 30, 2013 4:00 AM