Jason Collins joked when he joined first joined the Wizards after a trade-deadline deal with the Boston Celtics about why he wore No. 98. It was to make referees work extra hard to signal to the scorers' table when he was called for fouls, a notorious staple of his 12-year NBA career.
The real story behind his number wasn't all that Collins kept to himself, revealing in a Sports Illustrated story on Monday that he is gay. Given that even the veteran 7-foot center's twin brother, Jarron, didn't know, the news came as a shock to his teammates.
"He's just like normal guy in the locker room, he treats everybody the same and doesn't act in any kind of way toward anybody," Wizards rookie guard Bradley Beal said. "I'm happy for him, that he's able to be the first guy to actually come out and just express his feelings and his sexual orientation. He's definitely someone who helped us on both ends of the floor ... and just being a mentor. Just because of his sexual orientation, that shouldn't change anything. I'm very supportive of his decision."
In his essay, Collins said that he chose his number in honor of 1998, the year of a notorious hate crime committed against Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who "was kidnapped, tortured and lashed to a prairie fence. He died five days after he was finally found."
Collins, 34, appeared in just six games for the Wizards but made an impression after he was traded by the Celtics, along with injured Leandro Barbosa's expiring contract, for Jordan Crawford. He was influenced to make his announcement by being in the District this spring as gay marriage was argued before the Supreme Court and as the Boston Marathon bombings took place in his former home.
"We are extremely proud of Jason and support his decision to live his life proudly and openly," Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld said in statement. "He has been a leader on and off the court and an outstanding teammate throughout his NBA career. Those qualities will continue to serve him both as a player and as a positive role model for others of all sexual orientation."
A free agent, Collins isn't expected to be a part of the Wizards' plans next season, and his announcement will add a dose of intrigue to where he could land next, particularly at this late stage of his career. He has averaged 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game during stints with six different teams since he was drafted in 2001.
"Some people insist they've never met a gay person," Collins wrote. "But Three Degrees of Jason Collins dictates that no NBA player can claim that anymore."
In his first interview in the Wizards locker room in February, Collins was light-hearted about how he had managed to last in the NBA, saying that it was "twelve years of being able to foul people. The stats aren't pretty."
His mix of humor and consummate professionalism endeared him to the many teammates who used Twitter, Instagram and other outlets to make their support for him known.
"[Y]ou have made sports what it should be and that's 'OPEN,' " Wizards forward Martell Webster said on Twitter. "[P]roud of you for being you. That's jump shot is still weak lol."