The Washington Wizards' Jason Collins has just become the first athlete in a major North American team sport to come out of the closet while still playing in the league (assuming he catches on with a team for next year -- he's a free agent).
David Stern's office released the following statement on Monday: "As Adam Silver and I said to Jason, we have known the Collins family since Jason and Jarron joined the NBA in 2001 and they have been exemplary members of the NBA family. Jason has been a widely respected player and teammate throughout his career and we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue."
In 2011, the commissioner discussed the issue at more length. Awkwardly, he both acknowledged the challenges to gay NBA players and made clear he, Stern, would not be the person to instigate change -- specifically saying he did not want to become a "social crusader" on that issue.
I pointed out that roughly 3,600 men had played in the NBA, but at that time precisely none had come out of the closet. And there had been more than a few hints at anti-gay rhetoric in the NBA. Just a few examples:
In his 2007 book, retired player John Amaechi both came out of the closet and shared word of bigoted behavior from his former owner and coach.
In 2009, TV cameras caught Kenyon Martin calling Mavericks owner Mark Cuban a gay slur (NSFW).
My question for Stern, in 2011, in the wake of Bryant's comment: Do NBA players work in an environment that is hostile to gay people? Might that be why no active player has ever come out of the closet?
Stern's response: "I don't think so. But I think that left unresponded to, statements like [Bryant's] could lead to a hostile work environment, and we're not going to have it."
Why, then, I asked, in an era when it's hard to find large businesses without openly gay employees, had no NBA player ever come out?
"I don't want to become a social crusader on this issue," Stern said, "but I think sports, male sports, has traditionally not been an inviting environment for gay men to identify themselves. But eventually ... we will get to a place where it is not an issue in sports."
Stern predicted some player would come out: "It's going to be hard, but it'll happen, I have no doubt about it."