(Reuters) - Boston's gay pride parade last year, and this month's bombings at the city's marathon helped persuade Jason Collins it was the time to come out as the first gay player in one of North America's top professional leagues.
Collins, a former center with the National Basketball Association's (NBA) Boston Celtics, said in a Sports Illustrated article published on Monday that he had gradually become frustrated with having to keep silent on gay issues.
"I realized I needed to go public when Joe Kennedy, my old roommate at Stanford and now a Massachusetts congressman, told me he had just marched in Boston's 2012 Gay Pride Parade," Collins said in the SI article, which he co-wrote with a journalist from the magazine.
Joe Kennedy is the grandson of the late Robert F. Kennedy, younger brother of former president John F. Kennedy.
"I'm seldom jealous of others, but hearing what Joe had done filled me with envy. I was proud of him for participating but angry that as a closeted gay man I couldn't even cheer my straight friend on as a spectator," he said.
"If I'd been questioned, I would have concocted half truths. What a shame to have to lie at a celebration of pride. I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore. I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, "Me, too," he said.
Collins, who was traded from the Celtics to the Washington Wizards in February and is now a free agent, waited until the 2012-2013 regular season ended earlier this month to make his announcement. He said he had not come out earlier due to a desire to protect his team.
"Loyalty to my team is the real reason I didn't come out sooner. When I signed a free-agent contract with Boston last July, I decided to commit myself to the Celtics and not let my personal life become a distraction.
"When I was traded to the Wizards, the political significance of coming out sunk in. I was ready to open up to the press, but I had to wait until the season was over.
"A college classmate tried to persuade me to come out then and there. But I couldn't yet. My one small gesture of solidarity was to wear jersey number 98 with the Celtics and then the Wizards. The number has great significance to the gay community," he said, referring to the 1998 murder of University of gay Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.
"When I put on my jersey I was making a statement to myself, my family and my friends," he said.
IMPACT OF BOSTON BOMBING
The 34-year-old Collins had already come out to his family and close friends but said the bombing at the April 15 Boston Marathon, which killed three people and injured over 200, had pushed him to make his announcement.
"The recent Boston Marathon bombing reinforced the notion that I shouldn't wait for the circumstances of my coming out to be perfect. Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?
"When I told Joe a few weeks ago that I was gay, he was grateful that I trusted him. He asked me to join him in 2013. We'll be marching on June 8," he said of this year's Boston gay pride parade.
Collins also said that he found it very tough to keep out of the public debates about gay marriage in the United States.
"The strain of hiding my sexuality became almost unbearable in March, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against same-sex marriage. Less than three miles from my apartment, nine jurists argued about my happiness and my future.
"Here was my chance to be heard, and I couldn't say a thing. I didn't want to answer questions and draw attention to myself. Not while I was still playing," he said.
A two-time NBA finalist, Collins said he was ready to sit down and talk with other players but already felt happier now he had come out publicly.
"Openness may not completely disarm prejudice, but it's a good place to start. It all comes down to education. I'll sit down with any player who's uneasy about my coming out. Being gay is not a choice. This is the tough road and at times the lonely road.
"If I'm up against an intolerant player, I'll set a pretty hard pick on him. And then move on.
"The most you can do is stand up for what you believe in. I'm much happier since coming out to my friends and family. Being genuine and honest makes me happy."
(Reporting By Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Frances Kerry)