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Collins' former teammates, coaches offer support on historic day

PLAYA VISTA, Calif. -- As supportive reaction and opinion flowed in from across the NBA, we learned some fundamental truths about Jason Collins from those who worked right alongside him.

Yes, those former teammates and coaches recognized that Collins, a 12-year NBA journeyman, made a forever imprint Monday on an otherwise nondescript basketball career by becoming the first active pro athlete to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality. From LeBron James to Kobe Bryant to David Stern, the courage to be the first -- and to make the NBA the place where it happened -- was publicly and thoroughly embraced.

As it should have been.

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But for those who played with and coached Collins at some of his numerous stops on the NBA map, that's not where their thoughts were on Monday. Their thoughts were on Collins the teammate -- the hard worker, the solid screen setter, the guy who would play hurt and never complain. Jamal Crawford, who played with him in Atlanta, talked about how the Hawks wouldn't have beaten the Magic in the 2011 playoffs had Collins not been there to guard Dwight Howard one-on-one, allowing the other four guys to "take out their shooters."

"One of the coolest teammates," Crawford said after the Clippers practiced in preparation for Game 5 of their first-round series against the Grizzlies. "He was always a professional. … I think he'll have the support of everybody."

On a momentous day for the NBA, for sports, and for the country, these were some of the most fitting tributes to Collins: not just the ones that acknowledged his historic and courageous decision to champion the issue of gays in sports, but also the ones that described the essence of who he's been on the court and in the locker room for a dozen years.

"Very coachable, always a student of the game," said Clippers assistant Marc Iavaroni, who coached Collins in Memphis. "He was plugged into doing what's best for the team, the best way to help us win games, and he was always a mentor for other guys."

Because of Collins, the next openly gay NBA player -- and the one after that, and the one after that -- will simply be able to stand on his own merit as a teammate and a pro. Just like Collins always has, only without the burden of living with a secret.

"I'm proud of him," Chauncey Billups said. "I'm proud that he's able to feel comfortable in his own skin and be who he is and [be] comfortable enough to come out. Now I'm pretty sure he feels free and feels like he can live a little bit. … I'm happy that he had the courage to do that."

Doc Rivers, who coached Collins in Boston, said, "He's a pro's pro. He is the consummate professional and he is one of my favorite 'team' players I have ever coached. If you have learned anything from Jackie Robinson, it is that teammates are always the first to accept. It will be society [that] has to learn tolerance. "

Grant Hill is in his 18th NBA season, and the NBA that he came into in 1994 would not have been ready for this. Now, Hill has lasted long enough in the game to be part of an NBA culture where something like what happened Monday could be possible. Collins has paved the way for the next openly gay pro athlete to be recognized for his contributions on the floor, field or film room -- to be cherished and valued for the kind of strength Collins had always shown before Monday's announcement in Sports Illustrated changed sports forever.

"There's so much more exposure, there's more understanding and there are more people -- more examples, not just celebrities or people in the limelight, but people in your community," Hill said. "There's more people who are out and proud and living that way, and so I think one of the areas that still needs probably more understanding is in sports. But it's slowly happening, and certainly this was a huge step. I think it's bigger than a lot of people really look at. This is a huge step, so it's good. We should all be tolerant of each other and respectful."

Hill never played with Collins but did suit up in Phoenix with his twin brother Jarron, who also played for the Clippers. His mother is friendly with the Collins twins' mother, so there's a connection there. Collins has been around so long, played on so many teams, that it's hard to find a locker room that doesn't have at least one of his former teammates.

"I think it'll be interesting to see the response," Hill said. "I know he wants to continue to play next year. I hope he does play if he wants to."

And if he does, he'll be known for this. He'll be known for the history that he made on Monday and for the burden that he decided to take on for the benefit of others.

What could be a better tribute, a stronger legacy than that? This is what: the one that has always defined Collins as a teammate, and the one that will follow him wherever he goes in life.

"He's a good dude," Hill said.

A simple, yet poignant compliment that said it all.

 
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