“Unguarded with Rachel Nichols” airs Fridays at 2230 ET on CNN. Each week, the show features an in-depth interview with one of the biggest names in sports.
Jason Collins is the first openly gay player in major U.S. sport history
Collin's has played in Brooklyn Nets wins since signing a 10-day contract
He is one of a group of high-profile athletes to have come out in recent times
Robbie Rogers announced he was gay last year, Michael Sam recently came out
When Jason Collins pulls on his No. 98 Brooklyn Nets jersey, he’s not just representing a basketball team.
As the first openly gay player in major U.S. sports, he’s also paying tribute to Matthew Shepard, the victim of one of the most infamous hate crimes in recent American history.
Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, was beaten to death in 1998.
“I was very fortunate to speak with Matthew’s mother, Judy,” Collins told CNN’s “Unguarded with Rachel Nichols.”
“She had some great advice I don’t think she would mind me sharing. Typically I like to keep private conversations private but her message was: ‘Let the haters hate. Just keep living your life and keep going out there and being yourself.’ ”
It’s a powerful message and it’s proving effective – earlier this week Collins’ No. 98 jersey became the best-selling in the NBA.
Not bad when you consider that Collins – who had been without a team after coming out at the end of last season – has only signed a 10-day contract with the Nets.
“It’s really cool to see the support that’s out there,” he said. “It’s cool to see that people are going out there and buying the jersey and wearing it with pride.
“So I hope that continues and I’ll keep wearing the jersey and keep going out there and trying to do my job.”
Collins has been doing his job since making his NBA debut in 2001.
He spent seven years with the New Jersey Nets, the former name of his current employer, before going on to play for Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards.
The center’s first game of 2014 couldn’t have gone any better.
The 35-year-old played 10 minutes during a 108-102 win at the Los Angeles Lakers – his hometown team – and was given a warm ovation by the Staples Center crowd.
The reception he received is an indication of Collins’ newfound prominence.
Since coming out in a cover story for an issue of Sports Illustrated in April 2013, he has become part of a band of high-profile U.S. athletes who have gone public about their homosexuality – and they have been supporting each other.
U.S. international Robbie Rogers, who plays for Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy, announced he was gay two months before Collins. After telling the world about his sexuality, Collins went to Rogers for advice on how to handle the media.
NFL prospect Michael Sam revealed he was gay this month after completing his college career. If drafted by a franchise, he will become the league’s first openly gay player.
“I’ve met some other athletes who are in the same position as I am,” explained Collins. “We’re sort of like a fraternity just trying to help each other, just trying to keep inspiring each other, whether it be Robbie Rogers or Michael Sam, the list goes on and on.
“And it’s really great to you know hear each other’s stories and keep inspiring each other to work,” added Collins, who was a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union address in January.
A free agent since July, Collins’ determination to get back in the NBA was such that he went on a five-mile run the morning before his trip to the House of Representatives.
“I’ve grown so much as an individual, I’ve come across so many great people, great organizations, heard so many great stories, inspiring stories,” he said.
“I feel like with my actions I’ve had a positive impact on someone else’s life.”
While Collins’ return to the NBA has been a success, it could well be short-lived.
His temporary contract means he could be out of the league again by the end of next week, but he remains hopeful of extending his professional career.
“You know anything can happen – anything’s possible,” he said. “You continue to work hard, that’s what I did over the past 10 months … Always having that positive mindset that good things will happen if you prepare for it.
“It’s the same environment. Everything is the same. Like I said before, 12 years in the NBA, not a problem, not an issue. Year 13, not a problem, not an issue, same old, same old.”
For the man who is changing the face of the U.S. basketball, Collins is convinced everything looks just like it did before.
Read: Obama ‘couldn’t be prouder’ of Collins
Read: Here’s to Collins - and the NBA