Millions of non-basketball fans never heard of Jason Collins until this week. The 34-year-old NBA free agent is not a household name and has never been one of the game's most significant or exciting players.
Looming over most of his competitors, the 7-foot Mr. Collins is tall even by NBA standards. Still, he's not one of the game's "big men." He's a perfectly decent competitor whose best days as a center in the NBA are probably behind him, though he doesn't believe so.
This year, the veteran of 12 seasons split his time between the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards, where his average of one point and one rebound per game weren't high enough to sell many jerseys bearing his name.
That is no longer the case. Mr. Collins' No. 98 jersey became one of the NBA's hottest commodities after he came forward with information he's kept hidden from all but family and close friends for most of his life.
This week's Sports Illustrated cover story is a piece by Mr. Collins that changed the dynamics of his celebrity overnight: "I'm a 34-year-old NBA center," the first line read. "I'm black. And I'm gay."
Immediately, social media exploded. Jason Collins' bold declaration of homosexuality qualified as breaking news at every newspaper with a functioning website. Words of support poured in from politicians, celebrities and fellow athletes. Erudite social commentary about the impact of Mr. Collins' "coming out" for the LGBT community dominated the rest of the week.
A few journalists like ESPN's Chris Broussard and The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz separated themselves from the pack with less-than-laudatory takes on Mr. Collins announcement. Ironically, Mr. Kurtz, the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources," turned out to be an unreliable source himself when he incorrectly reported at The Daily Beast that Mr. Collins had failed to mention that he had once been engaged to a woman.
In fact, Mr. Collins included that tidbit in his essay fairly early on. Mr. Kurtz somehow missed it in his rush to judgment about the first active player in one of the nation's four major sports to admit he's gay. While Mr. Kurtz's sloppiness is merely inexplicable (though it was surely part of the reason he left his Daily Beast/Newsweek job Thursday), Mr. Broussard got downright Old Testament biblical in his take on Mr. Collins' confession.
The sports commentator reminded his audience that gays are "openly living in unrepentant sin" and are "in open rebellion to God." To his credit, Mr. Broussard also said that anyone who engages in premarital sex regardless of sexual orientation is just as guilty, so he wasn't just slapping around a promiscuous gay guy.
Why Mr. Broussard decided to focus on Mr. Collins' homosexuality without mentioning a host of commandments routinely violated by athletes from idolatry and adultery to Sabbath-breaking is a question only the ESPN analyst can answer. It is worth noting that Mr. Broussard issued an apology for his comments within 24 hours, so there are legitimate questions about whether he truly has the courage of his convictions.
A lot of folks have compared Mr. Collins' announcement to Jackie Robinson's historic integration of baseball in 1947. It seems like an appropriate comparison because it forces the public to recognize a whole category of human beings formerly considered unworthy of inclusion in one of America's most popular sports.
There has been push-back from gay commentators about what they consider undeserved praise for Mr. Collins this week. Some, like Bloomberg View's Josh Barro, criticize Mr. Collins for being closeted for most of his career when being honest would've meant more to the gay community years ago.
"Did Collins have to wait until his career might be over?" Mr. Barro asks, wondering why an athlete who graduated from Stanford and "who has made more than $32 million during his NBA career" didn't find the courage to expose himself to career risk earlier. Jackie Robinson couldn't hide from his blackness during the Jim Crow era, but Mr. Collins kept his head down until public approval of gay marriage surpassed 50 percent. Coming out now is convenient, critics insist -- which is not exactly the same thing as heroic.
Mr. Collins came out of the closet too soon for some commentators and not soon enough for others, but given the public nature of his declaration, it may not be long before other athletes do so earlier in their careers because of his example.
It is not always possible to wait for the bravest person, but it is crucial to every movement to find the one person who is willing to be first. Ask Rosa Parks.
Correction, posted May 3, 2013: This version has been updated to state that Jackie Robinson's first game in the Major Leagues was in April 1947.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631; Twitter: @TonyNormanPG. First Published May 3, 2013 4:00 AM