Celtics rally around Collins

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers sensed that Jason Collins had something profound to tell him when he phoned a few days back and struggled to put it into words. Rivers saw where the conversation was headed and informed his former player that what he was about to say was a nonfactor in the coach's eyes.

"He told me he was coming out and I told him, 'Great, good, let's move forward,'" said Rivers. "I jokingly said, 'I wish you could've gotten me more rebounds, because that's what I care about, really, at the end of the day.'"

One day after Collins became the first active professional athlete in major American sports to reveal that he is gay, his former coach and Celtics teammates came out in staunch support of him.

Like Rivers, Celtics captain Paul Pierce said he got a call from Collins in advance of his first-person piece published in Sports Illustrated in which he disclosed his sexuality.

"I had mentioned to Doc that it was going to happen, that there was going to be a gay player in professional sports to come out. It just so happens he seems to be the first and I was one of his teammates," said Pierce. "But I think to each his own. I think it's probably going to open the door to many more. There's so many professional athletes, there's so many human beings that live a dark life. They're scared to expose it because of the exposure of sports and what people may think about them. But I think what he did was a gre at thing just to kind of open the door for a number of athletes who proba bly now are going to have the courage to come out."

The 34-year-old Collins appeared in 32 games for Boston this season, including seven starts , before being dealt to Washington at February's trade deadline in a swap for Jordan Crawford.

Rivers wrestled with the decision to deal Collins, who had emerged as a vocal leader in the Celtics' locker room despite a sporadic on-court role. Boston initially planned to send Chris Wilcox in the deal, but he used his impending Bird rights to veto that swap and forced Boston to include Collins in his place.

Those Celtics who played with Collins earlier this season and spoke on Tuesday were unanimous in voicing support and encouragement for their former teammate.

"I'm just happy for him, obviously, being able to be himself," said Kevin Garnett. "Everybody, their personal lives is their personal lives and whatever their personal preference is, is just that. We're here to support everything that he's doing, and I'm just happy for him that he's able to be himself."

Echoed Jason Terry: "I'm happy for him. It looks like he's had a huge, tremendous weight lifted off of him. And that's all you can ask, for any man or woman, is to be at peace with themselves. And then you can find that ultimate happiness, and I think that's where he is. Being a teammate of his, I know how hard he works, I know how dedicated he is to his craft, and he was a great teammate, regardless of his sexual preference. It didn't matter to me. I liked him as a guy, as a teammate, and I still do."

Jeff Green said that Collins taught him how to be a professional and led by example with an unwavering work ethic despite an inconsistent role. Green admitted he was unaware at the time that he had a gay teammate, but said it didn't matter to him.

"We all are here for the same reason, that's to win," said Green. "No matter if you're gay, straight -- it doesn't matter to me. We play basketball. That's our job. What you do outside of the court, that's his business and we go from there."

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge also expressed support for Collins. He told the Boston Herald: "This doesn't change the way I look at him or see him. My job is to evaluate players by what they do on the court and at practice, what kind of teammates they are.

"Jason was one of the most professional, hardworking guys that we had in our organization or that I've ever been around. He's a class act and a real pro, and I wouldn't hesitate to bring him back if I felt that his talents were needed for us to be successful."

Rivers said he understands the gravity of Collins' announcement, but hopes that there will be a time when an athlete declaring that he or she is gay will be met with the same sort of indifference that he showed when Collins phoned him.

"It's a nonfactor to me, and I know it's a factor to a lot of people. I just have never understood why anyone else cares what anyone else does," said Rivers. "And I told Jason that. I said, 'It will be a nonissue eventually, but it will not be right now.' And it will be news, and maybe it should be or shouldn't be. I don't know the answer to that."

Rivers acknowledged that Collins will have to deal with players and fans less tolerant of his sexuality than those in the Celtics' locker room. But Rivers does not even begrudge those who do not accept Collins' sexuality.

"If we're going to be tolerant, we have to be tolerant to everyone," said Rivers. "[Tim] Tebow gets more stuff for being religious; what's wrong with that? You don't have to agree with any of that. But if you're tolerant, you're tolerant, and if you're not, you're not. And that's the bottom line."

Rivers believes Collins is well-equipped to deal with whatever response he receives.

"I think every time he goes to a new city, someone will want to talk about it, or there may be some guy in the crowd who wants to voice his opinion," said Rivers. "They voice their opinion pretty well when we're on the road anyway. It's just white noise at the end of the day. I'm sure when Jackie Robinson went on the road, some of the things he heard, they all went away eventually, and this will go away too."

Collins is a free agent and, at age 34 with a limited on-court skill set, he might not find a lot of available job options this offseason. But Rivers believes his leadership and understanding of the role he brings to a team at this stage of his career ought to encourage a team to sign him.

And his former Celtics teammates wouldn't mind seeing him back in Boston.

"We definitely need his toughness," said Terry. "We'd love to have it in this [playoff] series [against the New York Knicks]. He's one of the toughest guys in the NBA."

Added Pierce: "I thought while he was here he was very professional, and we need more guys like that. The way he carried himself, what he did off the court, in practice, he was one of the more professional players that you see. There was a time at the beginning of the year when he didn't play much, but what you saw from him was a guy who came in, got his work in, didn't complain about it, and that's what we need from more guys like him."

Asked if he'd welcome Collins back, Green added: "Most definitely. He played the game hard. He was an awesome teammate." Green paused a beat and then quipped, "He set good screens, he got me open. That's all you can ask for."