As of this morning, Jason Collins is the NBA's first openly gay player. But for two years, he's been hiding a tribute in plain sight.
34 has always been Collins's uniform number of choice. He wore it at Stanford. He switched to No. 35 when he came into the league with the Nets, because 34 was taken by Aaron Williams. But upon being traded to Memphis in 2008, he went right back to his favorite number.
But upon joining the Celtics in 2012, he became No. 98. In his SI profile, Collins explains:
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. One of the most notorious antigay hate crimes occurred in 1998. Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was kidnapped, tortured and lashed to a prairie fence. He died five days after he was finally found. That same year the Trevor Project was founded. This amazing organization provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention to kids struggling with their sexual identity. Trust me, I know that struggle. I've struggled with some insane logic. When I put on my jersey I was making a statement to myself, my family and my friends.
Collins never explained the switch at the time, though this past season in Washington, he joked it away, telling the Post that he wore No. 98 to give the referees problems when they had to hand-sign his uniform number when calling a foul on him.