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Jason Collins: How No. 98 became a symbol

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
March 1, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Collins' jersey number, 98, has taken a broader significance
  • He became the first openly gay player in the NBA
  • He wears the number in honor of Matthew Shepard

(CNN) -- For years as he chased his dream, shooting hoops and racing up and down the court, professional basketball player Jason Collins wore the No. 98 jersey.

It was a personal gesture, a way of remembering Matthew Shepard, a gay college student whose own dreams were ended in 1998, when he died after being tied to a fence post, beaten and tortured. But when Collins came out as the first openly gay NBA player in history, that number suddenly took on a broader significance.

"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," Collins said, adding "... it's nice to have a positive impact on someone's else's life, and I feel like with my actions that I've had a positive impact on someone's else's life."

This week, that jersey became the top-selling one in the NBA.

The NBA announced Friday that it will donate all proceeds from the sale of Collins jerseys to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and the Matthew Shepard Foundation. In addition, the league will auction off Collins' autographed, game-worn jerseys to benefit the same organizations.

"It's really cool to see the support that's out there," Collins told CNN's Rachel Nichols in an interview set to air Friday evening. "And yeah, it's cool to see that people are going out there and buying the jersey and, you know, wearing it with pride. So I hope that continues, and you know I'll keep wearing the jersey and keep going out there and trying to, you know, do my job."

Collins became a symbol for the gay rights movement after disclosing that he is gay in an April Sports Illustrated magazine column. Since then, he's received a warm outpouring of support from basketball colleagues, league officials and fans.

"I know everyone in the NBA family is excited for him and proud that our league fosters an inclusive and respectful environment," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said after Collins' signing last Sunday.

Collins' path from a little-known, aging NBA center to gay rights icon who was invited by first lady Michelle Obama to the State of the Union is one that speaks to the nation's changing attitudes about homosexuality. Last week, he signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets.

According to a national Quinnipiac University poll conducted in September, 56% of the nation supports marriage for same-sex couples, compared with only 25% who supported it in 1996. A CNN poll in 2010 was the first time a poll found that a majority of respondents backed it.

We are becoming a very different nation from the one in which Shepard's murder became a watershed moment and rallying cry for the gay community.

Becoming, but not quite there yet.

"I've met some other athletes who sort of are in the same position as I am, and we're sort of like a fraternity just trying to help each other, just trying to, uh, keep inspiring each other, whether it be Robbie Rogers or Michael Sam, the list goes on and on," Collins told Nichols of Rogers, an openly gay soccer player, and Sam, an openly gay NFL prospect.

"So many great athletes I've met along my journey. And it's really great to, you know, hear each other's stories and keep, you know, inspiring each other (out here)."

When she visited Collins in Denver, Shepard's mother, Judy, gave the basketball player some words of encouragement.

"... Her message was like, 'let the haters hate.' Just keep ... living your life and keep going out there and being yourself," Collins said.

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