Jason Collins nearly got Rick Welts into $200 worth of trouble.
Welts is the president of the Golden State Warriors, and is gay. And a short while before the news broke Monday that Collins would become the first active player from one of the four U.S. major pro sports leagues to come out, someone called Welts to give him a heads-up about the pending announcement.
Small problem: Welts was driving, and not using a hands-free device that California law dictates. He got pulled over but, Welts said, was let out of the costly ticket after telling his story to the California Highway Patrol officer.
“Thanks, Jason,” Welts said afterward.
Collins was thanked and applauded by virtually all sides of the sports world Monday when the first-person account of his life was published by Sports Illustrated.
Former President Bill Clinton spoke of Collins’ courage, tennis great Martina Navratilova called him a pioneer, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers compared him to Jackie Robinson.
Perhaps no one was more succinct than Los Angeles Lakers guard Steve Nash, who simply tweeted, “The time has come.”
Support freely flowed Collins’ way, mainly through social media, with players from all four major sports reaching out to offer congratulations, support or both. Even the entertainment world reacted, with actor Neil Patrick Harris, who came out in 2006, thanking Collins.
“Thanks for stepping up. For standing tall. And at 7 feet, that’s saying a lot,” Harris wrote.
Collins will be a free agent this summer. However, after averaging a mere 1.1 points in 38 games for the Celtics and Washington Wizards this season — and after scoring 10 points just one time since Jan. 2, 2008 — it remains to be seen what sort of interest the 34-year-old center will generate from clubs.
“He exemplifies everything we look for in players,” said Billy King, the general manager of the Nets franchise that Collins spent his first 6½ seasons with when the team was in New Jersey.
In Miami, guard Dwyane Wade tweeted that he respects Collins for “living in his truth” and forward Shane Battier said that he only judges teammates by their commitment to winning.
“Whether he is straight, gay, black, white, from Earth, or from Mars is immaterial. Just help us win,” Battier said.
Collins finished this season with the Wizards, spending months traveling, practicing, playing, dressing and hanging out with the same group of men, day after day after day.
They had no idea he was gay.
“No, I didn’t know about it! I don’t think anyone did!” Wizards guard Bradley Beal wrote in a text message. “I am proud of his decision to come out and express the way he feels and I’m supportive of that!! I never judge anyone, that’s his decision and his life to live! I always saw him as a great teammate, mentor, leader, huge asset to our team and just a vet to me! So all in all I respect what he has done.”
Wizards owner Ted Leonsis talked with Collins on Monday, saying that he told him, “we are proud of you and I support you in every way possible.”
Predictably, Collins’ message was not unanimously well received. Thousands of tweets about Collins included a gay slur. In New York, well-known sports radio host Mike Francesa called the story “a dramatic attempt to sell a magazine.”
Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace had to backtrack from, delete and eventually apologize for two tweets he posted about the Collins story, in which he said he did not understand homosexuality. And on his radio show on WQAM in Miami, former Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder — who said Collins was strong for coming out — questioned what effect it would have coming from a journeyman who’s likely nearing the end of his career.
“Him being the low-end player he is, it’s not going to open enough minds,” Crowder said.
No one knows how many minds Collins’ story may have opened Monday, though it did elicit plenty of responses.
“I think it is a monumental day,” said San Jose Sharks forward Tommy Wingels, who is active in the ‘You Can Play’ movement that is dedicated to fighting homophobia in sports. “It’s very encouraging for the LGBT community and more importantly sports in general. This is a day that’s been coming for a while.”
Many other athletes agreed.
“Gay people are part of our society,” Milwaukee Bucks forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute said. “We live with them, they’re our friends, they’re our co-workers and now they’re our teammates. It was going to happen some day or another, it just happened to be today.”
Added U.S. women’s soccer star Abby Wambach: “I think there is nothing more inspiring than to see somebody stand up, regardless of their environment, and be who they are.”
Said Detroit Tigers reliever Phil Coke: “He’s going onto that stage alone, and he’s taking on representing himself and his entire community. Not only that, but at this point, he’s representing every major sport in America. That takes a great deal of intestinal fortitude. I have the utmost respect for him.”
And this came from Toronto Raptors forward Rudy Gay: “Happy for my former teammate Jason Colllins. A true American. ‘home of the free because of the brave.’”
Welts came out in 2011, becoming the first senior sports executive to acknowledge he was gay. So clearly, he had some sort of sense about what Collins was feeling on Monday.
“He’s somebody who didn’t have the benefit of somebody going before him to sit and watch how people would react,” Welts said. “It takes a man of great courage to do what he did today. I’m happy for him. He can be the complete Jason Collins every day for the rest of his life.”
AP National Writer Nancy Armour and AP Sports Writers Antonio Gonzalez, Greg Beacham, Joseph White, Noah Trister, Larry Lage and Josh Dubow contributed to this report.