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Here's to Collins -- and the NBA

By Roxanne Jones, Special to CNN
May 1, 2013 -- Updated 1006 GMT (1806 HKT)
Jason Collins, who played with the NBA's Washington Wizards this season, has disclosed that he is gay, making him the first active openly homosexual athlete in the four major American pro team sports. Collins (No. 33) played college ball for Stanford, here against Maryland in 1998. He has been in the NBA for 12 seasons. Jason Collins, who played with the NBA's Washington Wizards this season, has disclosed that he is gay, making him the first active openly homosexual athlete in the four major American pro team sports. Collins (No. 33) played college ball for Stanford, here against Maryland in 1998. He has been in the NBA for 12 seasons.
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Jason Collins' NBA career
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Jason Collins' NBA career
Jason Collins' NBA career
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Jason Collins' NBA career
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Roxanne Jones: Kudos to NBA player Jason Collins for coming out publicly
  • Jones: NBA head David Stern worked for decades to create an inclusive environment
  • Jones: Because of Stern, it was "no big deal" when WNBA's Brittney Griner came out
  • Only question that matters for Collins, she says, is whether he can step up his game

Editor's note: Roxanne Jones is a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and a former vice president at ESPN. She is a national lecturer on sports, entertainment and women's topics and a recipient of the 2010 Woman of the Year award from Women in Sports and Events. She is the co-author of "Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete," (Random House) and CEO of Push Media Strategies.

(CNN) -- Thank you, Jason Collins, for stepping up and being a real man. I like your game.

A real man is honest and confident and can look the world in the eye and take responsibility for his own life. Real men can stand up to religious zealots who believe that they have the right to stand in judgment of others. You are exactly the right man at the right time to help break down the stereotypes about gays in professional sports.

And kudos to the NBA Commissioner David Stern for working tirelessly over decades to create a workplace environment that is inclusive and diverse across many cultural issues, including sexual orientation.

Roxanne Jones
Roxanne Jones

"Jason has been a widely respected player and teammate throughout his career, and we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue," the commissioner said Monday.

Having worked in sports for two decades and having been a straight ally for most of my adult life, I know this day didn't come just because President Barack Obama and other politicians say it's OK to be gay. Sure, having the topic of LGBT equality in the public conversation is an important part of changing a culture, but it has been the everyday people with the courage to advocate for equality and break down hostile environments that make a day like Monday possible.

The NBA, more than any other professional men's sports league, has worked to create a culture that supports gay athletes. No doubt, there will be critics and ugly accusations thrown at Collins. And that, along with his anemic stats -- 1.1 points per game -- might make it a challenge for him to find a job in the NBA next season. But the reaction from his peers to his coming out has been overwhelmingly positive:

NBA star Al Horford, an ex-teammate of Collins, tweeted: Al Horford‏@Al_Horford15h. @jasoncollins34 was a complete professional and a great teammate. I support him in his decision and wish him all the best in the future.

Collins and challenging gay stereotypes
Obama: 'Very proud' of Jason Collins
Barkley: Jason Collins will open debate

Another from All-Star Steve Nash of the LA Lakers summed up most of the comments around the league: Steve Nash‏@SteveNash21h The time has come. Maximum respect. RT @Baron_Davis: I am so proud of my bro @jasoncollins34 for being real. ... http://tmi.me/TGSBh

Under Stern's leadership, which began when he was named commissioner in 1984, NBA has been in the forefront of the discussion on gay rights in pro sports. And this was not always a comfortable or popular position.

Back when the Women's National Basketball Association launched in 1996, I was a young assistant sports editor working at the New York Daily News. Part of my job was to launch the first pull-out section announcing the formation of the league and a preview of all the teams.

It was nearly impossible to assign a WNBA story to any of the top sports writers. I recall the only writer who agreed to cover the league was Filip Bondy, to whom I will always be grateful. Everyone else loudly refused. "It's not even a sport," they told me. "I won't cover a bunch of @#&%! lesbians," the guys said.

But if not for the steely determination of Stern to see his league treated fairly by the media, or as fair as he could demand, few would have covered the WNBA at all back in its inception. Stern met with editors and producers from across the country and made it clear that the WNBA was a part of the NBA.

And if the media wanted to get credentials for the men's games, the women's games would be covered, as well, by the NBA writers. And he tried, as much as possible, to end the witch-hunters who spent time trying to track down which WNBA players were gay and who was dating whom on the teams.

That early culture-changing work is why it was "no big deal" as some writers said recently when Brittney Griner, the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft and one of the best female basketball players, came out of the closet, before she even played her first pro basketball game for the Phoenix Mercury.

Griner said when she was drafted: "If I can show that I'm out and I'm fine and everything's OK, then hopefully the younger generation will definitely feel the same way."

It took years for some WNBA execs, players and coaches to stop hiding their gay athletes and welcome the diversity that makes the game appeal strongly to all audiences. Eventually, the witch hunts mostly stopped and the game became based on its merits: It's either good, entertaining basketball, or it's not.

In April 2011, there were signs that Stern was continuing to look for ways to present the men's game as more gay-friendly. In a bold move, the league partnered with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and taped a serious of athlete public service announcements.

"Using gay to mean dumb or stupid: not cool. Not cool. Not in my house, not anywhere. It's not creative. It's offensive to gay people. And you're better than that," Grant Hill, who was playing for the Phoenix Suns, said in his announcement.

The Phoenix Suns' CEO Rick Welts, who has since resigned for personal reasons, had just come out in public, revealing that he was gay. (Welts is now president and chief operating officer for the Golden State Warriors.) Unfortunately, on the same day that Hill was taping his public service announcement, Laker star Kobe Bryant was caught on camera shouting a gay slur at a referee. Stern immediately fined him $100,000 and made Bryant apologize publicly.

But today is a new day. All eyes are on Collins. Hill is a superstar. Griner is a superstar in the making. Collins has been to the playoffs, but he's never been a star player. And he has work to do to prove he's still got NBA game.

The first question he has to answer is: Can you still ball?

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roxanne Jones.

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