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Jason Collins said he has gotten "incredible" support since coming out as the first openly gay player in one of the four major U.S. pro sports leagues, and he hopes he may have made the path easier for others to follow.
Collins sat down for an interview that was aired by ABC's "Good Morning America" on Tuesday, one day after the veteran NBA center revealed his sexuality in a first-person story posted on Sports Illustrated's website.
"I think, I know, in my personal life, I'm ready, and I think the country is ready for supporting an openly gay basketball player," Collins told ABC's George Stephanopoulos.
ABC aired the interview in two segments, with Stephanopoulos asking Collins in the second portion whether he hoped that other players would follow his example.
"I hope that every player makes a decision that leads to their own happiness, whatever happiness that is in life," Collins responded. "I know that I, right now, am the happiest that I've ever been in my life."
Collins said he went through something akin to a 12-step program while deciding to come out, dealing with emotions such as anger and denial.
"But when you finally get to that point of acceptance, there's nothing more beautiful than just allowing yourself to really be happy and be comfortable in your own skin," Collins said.
Dozens of NBA players sent messages to Collins after the story was posted Monday, many doing so through social media. The support didn't stop there, with President Barack Obama also calling to offer his support.
"It's incredible. Just try to live an honest, genuine life, and the next thing you know you have the president calling you," Collins said. "He was incredibly supportive and he was proud of me, said this not only affected my life but others going forward."
Speaking at a news conference Tuesday, Obama said Collins showed the progress the United States has made in recognizing that gays and lesbians deserve full equality. He said they deserve "not just tolerance but recognition that they're fully a part of the American family."
Collins told Stephanopoulos that he one day hopes to be married and have children, but describes his relationship status as single. He dated women in the past, staying with former Stanford and WNBA basketball player Carolyn Moos for eight years and getting engaged to her before calling it off. Collins called her last weekend to say that he was coming out.
"I had to sit down," Moos told ESPN.com's Rick Reilly. "I was shocked. There's no words to really describe my reaction. ... But this does alleviate some of the pain. ... I'm so happy for him. He deserves to live the life he wants."
Collins tried to explain the conflict that he felt between his private feelings and public persona.
"I tried everything in the book as far as trying to convince myself to lead the life that you should," Collins told ABC. "Calling off the wedding was obviously a tough decision, but it was the right one, because I knew I wasn't getting married for the right reasons."
Collins said he does not know of any other gay NBA players. He also told ABC that he was overwhelmed by the reaction of tennis legend Martina Navratilova, who came out in 1981 and called him a pioneer after he went public with his story.
"I look at her as one of my heroes, the dignity and class that she's lived her life and all that she's achieved in her career," Collins said. "She is my role model. Hopefully, going forward, I can be someone else's role model."
Navratilova said Tuesday in an interview with ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" that the fact Obama called Collins to express his support shows how far the fight for gay equality has come. Still, she said she doesn't expect a rash of athletes to follow in Collins' footsteps and come out publicly.
"I don't think it's going to be like a dam that bursts open, but I think players will feel more open about it, perhaps feel more free to come out to their teammates ... not have to do it publicly but at least to their teammates and front office, friends and family," she said.
She went on to explain why she still thought coming out publicly was difficult.
"To come out publicly like Jason did or like I did, that's difficult because then you get the tag," she said. "It's 'Martina Navratilova, lesbian tennis player.' They don't say 'Chris Evert, the heterosexual tennis player.' "
While Collins thinks that the world is ready for an openly gay player in basketball, former Steelers receiver and NBC analyst Hines Ward said Tuesday that he doesn't think the NFL is ready.
"I don't think football is ready. There's too many guys in the locker room and, you know, guys play around too much," he told NBC Sports Radio.
Ward said he hopes some player has the courage, however, and added that that person would have his support.
"I want people to live their lives for who they are and don't have to hide behind closed doors to do that," he said.
Collins averaged 1.1 points this season for the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards. He will be a free agent this offseason and plans to continue his career.
"From my teammates, I'm expecting support because that's what I would do for my teammates," Collins told ABC. "A team is like a family. The NBA is like a brotherhood. And I'm looking at it like we all support each other on and off the court."
Two of Collins' teammates from the Nets teams that went to the Finals in 2002 and 2003 count themselves among the many NBA players supporting him.
Jason Kidd said he received a call from Collins wanting to talk about the situation.
"It takes a lot of courage of what he did," Kidd said. "But it's just going to make the world a better place at the end of the day."
Kenyon Martin said he "didn't have any inclination of anything like that" when asked if he knew about Collins' sexual orientation when they were teammates.
"Takes a brave man," Martin said. "I commend him for him having the courage to do it. I have no problem with it. He was my friend before and he will still be my friend."
Celtics forward Kevin Garnett says he's happy Collins can be himself while Jason Terry says it seems like a tremendous weight has been lifted from Collins. And Jeff Green called him an "awesome" teammate who set good screens.
Paul Pierce adds that Collins told him Monday morning he was gay. Coach Doc Rivers says Collins informed him a few days ago, but learning the news was a "nonfactor" for him.
Asked by Stephanopoulos what his story could mean to youth who play basketball and are worried about their futures because they are gay, Collins offered a simple piece of advice.
"It doesn't matter that you're gay. The key thing is that it's about basketball," Collins said. "It's about working hard, it's about sacrificing for your team. It's all about dedication. That's what you should focus on."
Arguably the best player on the planet, LeBron James echoed those sentiments Tuesday, while calling Collins "noble" and "strong.""None of us should go around wondering about what other people think we should be," James said. "I think it's very strong of (Collins). I've got the utmost respect for Jason. If you can play the game, then that's all that matters at the end of the day."
In the second part of the ABC interview, Collins discussed what it was like to come out to his family and people closest to him. In the SI piece, Collins said that the first relative he came out to was his aunt, Teri Jackson, a San Francisco Superior Court judge, who he said already knew he was gay -- "so, I guess, she's good at reading people," Collins told ABC.
"When you keep telling yourself a lie, at some point you buy your own cover story, like a CIA spy or something," Collins said.
His own twin brother, Jarron Collins, had no idea about his brother's orientation.
"I am really good at playing it straight," Jason Collins said, laughing at his own joke. "Maybe he needs to hang out with my aunt a little more, get a discerning eye like she has."
ABC said the interview was taped Monday night in Los Angeles.
Information from ESPNNewYork.com's Ohm Youngmisuk and The Associated Press was used in this report.