ATLANTA (AP) — Jason Collins didn’t play much during his three seasons with the Atlanta Hawks.
His most memorable contribution came in the 2011 playoffs, when he banged with Dwight Howard for six games and helped the Hawks pull off an upset of the Orlando Magic.
Now, he’s being praised by his former teammates and coach for becoming the first athlete in one of the four major North American leagues to reveal he is gay before retirement.
“I’m very, very proud of Jason,” said Hawks coach Larry Drew, whose team was tied at two games apiece with Indiana in an opening-round playoff series.
Collins joined the team in 2009 and played a total of 103 games over his three-year stint. In that series against the Magic, the 7-footer started every game to give Atlanta a more physical presence against Howard. It worked. Collins continually frustrated Howard with his rough-and-tumble play, and the Hawks won 4-2.
“He was a great teammate, the ultimate professional,” forward Josh Smith said.
Drew was one of the people Collins reached out to before his revelation in Sports Illustrated. They exchanged voice mails on Monday, with the coach expressing he “was very proud of him and behind him 100 percent.”
“He had that burden for a long time to just keep it kind of quiet,” Drew said. “Now that he’s expressed himself, you just hear that he feels very free.”
Smith believes that Collins coming out might inspire others to do the same — perhaps even other pro athletes.
“Whoever was uncomfortable about coming out can look at Jason and have that confidence,” Smith said. “Sometimes it just takes one person.”
After his contract in Atlanta ran out, Collins split last season between Boston and Washington. He’s a free agent again and hopes to keep playing for at least one more season.
There’s no indication he will return to the Hawks, who are expected to undergo a radical makeover after the playoffs are done.
But Smith and another former teammate, injured Atlanta center Zaza Pachulia, said they would welcome the chance to share a locker room with Collins.
“It definitely wouldn’t bother me,” Pachulia said. “He was a good teammate when we played together.”
Then again, Pachulia knows there are some players who might object to having a gay teammate.
“I wonder what’s going to happen, too,” he said. “We’ll all just have to wait and see what the reaction is going to be. There are some 400-plus players in the league. I’m sure there will be some players who will have problems with it, who wouldn’t like it.”
Over at Turner Field, Collins was a topic of discussion as the Braves faced the Washington Nationals.
“Being the first at anything is pretty tough,” infielder Chris Johnson said. “You may get some people who are immature about it and have things to say, but it’s his life. That’s why we live in America. You can choose to do whatever you want.”
AP Sports Writer Charles Odum in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.