Jason Collins became the first ever openly gay NBA player this week amid much positive acceptance and a tiny bit of backlash, but the athlete admits that he'd quietly engaged in a small tribute to murdered gay man Matthew Shepard on the court for some time.
Jason Collins' coming out was deemed by Dan Savage as possibly more of an impactful event than the reform of "Don't Ask, Dont Tell," which had forcibly closeted gay soldiers for years. The presence of an openly gay athlete in a major league sport is huge -- and speaking to Sports Illustrated, Collins disclosed his very touching tribute to Matthew Shepard.
If you have never heard his name, Shepard was a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming, beaten, tortured and left for dead back in 1998. Shepard was left by his assailants tied to a fence for 18 hours, and ultimately died of the brutal injuries inflicted upon him.
In SI, Collins says of his decision to honor Matthew Shepard's legacy as a closeted athlete:
"My one small gesture of solidarity was to wear jersey number 98 with the Celtics and then the Wizards. The number has great significance to the gay community. One of the most notorious antigay hate crimes occurred in 1998. Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was kidnapped, tortured and lashed to a prairie fence."
"He died five days after he was finally found. That same year the Trevor Project was founded. This amazing organization provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention to kids struggling with their sexual identity. Trust me, I know that struggle. I've struggled with some insane logic. When I put on my jersey I was making a statement to myself, my family and my friends."
Monday afternoon, Shepard's mother Judy -- who wrote the book The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed -- said Collins' 98 jersey gesture moved her to tears:
"It made me cry ... It was really quite a tribute, and I was very honored. And I know Matt would be thrilled."
Dad Dennis Shepard indicated he hopes to one day thank Jason Collins in person for honoring Matthew:
"I would really love to speak to him, because I know Judy and I would just like to thank him ... Because, No. 1, he had the courage to come out, period, and No. 2 that he wore 98 in honor of Matt, the year that he died."
Dennis says that Collins' must have been moved by Shepard's death, as he was a teen himself when it happened -- and he is optimistic that the player's bold decision will positively affect the landscape for all gay people:
"Hopefully this will start the conversation saying there's no difference, as long as my team wins, who cares if they're straight or gay? ... There have been a lot of athletes that played and were gay, and I have a feeling their teammates knew it and they just didn't care."