A trailblazer for LGBTQ+ athletes gave a rousing speech at Vermont’s Middlebury College, which NECN and NBC10 Boston are sharing in full at the start of Pride Month.
Jason Collins, who played 13 years in the NBA and became the first openly gay athlete in the league, delivered a commencement address Tuesday and also received an honorary degree from Middlebury.
Collins described himself in the speech as "tall, big, beautiful, Black, gay, and fabulous" and praised tennis stars Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova — both pioneers for LGBTQ+ athletes — for coming out much earlier in the bright spotlight of the sports world.
"Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did," Collins said of King and Navratilova helping to inspire his 2013 declaration.
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Collins played for seven teams including the Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks, and Washington Wizards. He noted he was not just the first openly gay active athlete in the NBA, but also the first in the four major men’s sports leagues in North America.
Collins currently works for the NBA as a community and philanthropic ambassador, he said.
In the speech, Collins urged the Middlebury College graduates to be good to people around them, and to regularly practice kindness — predicting it will not go unnoticed. Collins said doing so is vital to being a good teammate and member of society.
The athlete also recalled a moment in his first game as an openly gay player, when he was knocked to the ground while going for a rebound. Three of his teammates sprinted to lift him back up to his feet, Collins remembered.
"That small gesture let me know that I was accepted, that I was one of the guys, and they had my back," Collins said, urging the audience to pay attention to moments in sports broadcasts when someone falls down — to witness how teammates lift them up, and how quickly.
"What kind of person will you be?" Collins asked the audience, reminding graduates to demonstrate care for others, especially when they’ve been knocked down, and especially when they are from different backgrounds.
The LGBTQ+ history-maker, a Star Trek fan, concluded his commencement address by giving the audience a Vulcan salute typical of the character Dr. Spock — telling the Middlebury graduates to "live long and prosper."