SOUTH FLORIDA — When Jason Collins was a freshman at Stanford, he saw a familiar face across the room at a party on campus. He walked over to introduce himself.
“Hi, I’m Jason Collins,” he said.
“Hi, I’m Chelsea Clinton,” she replied.
Collins, now 37, tells the story of this “very Stanford awkward nerd introduction” a lot these days. At the time, Collins was a promising young center for the Cardinal basketball team. Chelsea was political royalty, the daughter of the 42nd President of the United States. But nearly two decades later, Collins has become something of a political figure himself. For the past year, the 13-year NBA veteran has traveled across the country, campaigning for Chelsea’s mother to become America’s 45th president.
In the NBA, Collins was rarely in the limelight. He wasn’t a scorer, averaging just 3.6 points per game over his career. He wasn't flashy, nor was he spectacular. But around the league, he was respected as a leader. On the court and in the locker room, he was extraordinarily selfless. He was scrappy and diligent. He was physical, but intelligent, and known for his tenacity. He was rarely in the headlines—at least not until the end of his career—but he was always in the middle of doing things to help his team win.
And now, he's doing the same for Hillary Clinton.
On a bright Sunday afternoon in mid-October, cars trickle into a sleepy shopping center in Naranja, just southwest of Miami. A few storefronts down from Winn-Dixie and Family Dollar is an airy Clinton campaign field office. It’s less than three weeks before Election Day, and around 20 staffers and volunteers inside are preparing to canvass the area, hoping to drive early voting in a crucial swing state. If Clinton wins Florida, Donald Trump’s already improbable path to the White House would narrow significantly.
One woman wears an American flag blouse and a Brooklyn Nets hat. She’s dressed for the occasion. Jason Collins, who last played in the NBA with the Nets in 2014, is on the campaign trail for a two-day swing through South Florida. His first stop is here.
Forming a semicircle around the 7–footer, the group listens intently as Collins introduced himself as a former NBA player. He shares the story of meeting Chelsea. He offers his perspective on a lesser–known side of Bill and Hillary Clinton, whom he first met in college. He saw them not just as president and first lady, but as the loving parents of his friend. He describes the thrill of having the Clintons attend his Stanford graduation party. And then he discusses what he’s best known for: In 2013, Collins became the first active openly gay male athlete in the major four American professional sports leagues.
Collins came out publicly on the cover of the May 6, 2013, issue of Sports Illustrated. But before he made his announcement in SI, he came out privately to the Clintons, something he revealed this summer in a speech at the Democratic National Convention.
Surveying the volunteers and organizers in Naranja, Collins shares the advice the Clintons gave him before he made history.
In that moment, when it feels like it’s too much, just close your eyes, take a deep breath and keep moving forward.
With less than 20 days remaining in the most vitriolic political campaign in memory, you could sense the room inhale.
Collins and his twin brother, Jarron—a Golden State Warriors assistant coach who had a 10–year playing career—grew up around Los Angeles. From an early age, Collins developed a sense of social awareness. He was especially influenced by his maternal grandmother, who grew up in upstate Louisiana. Beatrice Jackson, who died after a seven–year bout with stomach cancer last year, was religious and a disciplinarian. “Just picture an old black woman with like a bible in one hand and a belt in the other,” Collins says. She preached the importance of education—and she educated her grandchildren about her life as an African–American in the Deep South.
Jackson told the boys stories about life under Jim Crow laws. She described the intimidation tactics used against African–Americans, preventing them from exercising their right to vote. About how difficult it was for her to exercise her democratic rights. Collins learned how his grandfather served in the military during World War II, only to return home as a second–class citizen.
“She would tell me stories about how being an African–American, how people have died for me to have this right to vote. So there’s that sense of I owe it to them, I owe it to my country, I owe it to myself to take part in this process,” Collins says. “And that’s what I want every single person, every single American to feel—that sense that you’re doing it for yourself, you’re doing it for your country, but you’re also doing it for the people that have come before you. Don’t let their sacrifice go in vain.”
Collins has always been surrounded by politics, even if he hasn’t been involved in formal politics for most of his life. For nearly two decades, he has been friends with Chelsea, who was a bridesmaid at Jarron’s wedding. He considers Joe Kennedy, a Congressman from Massachusetts and the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, a good friend. (Collins and Kennedy were roommates during the former’s senior year at Stanford.) Next year, Collins’s aunt, Teri L. Jackson, will become the first female African–American presiding judge on the San Francisco Superior Court after nearly 15 years on the court’s bench.
It wasn’t until Collins came out in 2013 that he became a political figure himself, but in reality his social awareness had been a defining part of his life long before he was receiving calls from President Obama or volunteering for Hillary Clinton. Tellingly, before he came out publicly, Collins wore No. 98 with the Celtics and Wizards to honor Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student that was brutally beaten and killed in 1998.
After coming out in 2013, Collins became a civil rights hero. He marched in Boston’s gay pride parade in 2013, and became the first openly gay man to play in the NBA in February 2014 after he was signed by the Brooklyn Nets. He joined President Obama’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, and he became an ambassador for NBA Cares, traveling around the world on missions in conjunction with the State Department and other organizations. He has played a role in Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. Less formally, but just as importantly, he has been a beacon of hope to other LGBT athletes who might fear stigmatization from the locker room. When Obama called him after his announcement, he told Collins that his decision to come out publicly would make life easier for others.
“I think it’s really incredible to live your authentic life and have a positive effect on someone else’s life by doing that,” Collins says.
“Jason’s kindness and fierceness alike derive from that word too often bandied about and too rarely true: integrity. Jason has always maintained he’s first a basketball player. He is. But he’s also a leader and an inspiration,” Clinton wrote. “For Michael Sam, Derrick Gordon and others whose names we may never know. And also for those of us lucky enough to be fans — or to call him our friend.”
After he came out, Collins began recognizing the value of leadership for creating meaningful change. His brother, Jarron, saw Jason take advantage of his new status as a pioneer in the sports world.
“I think that obviously my brother coming out raised his profile and raised his platform, and gave him a very strong voice. And I think he’s doing everything he can to have a positive impact on our society as a whole, given his voice and his platform,” Jarron says. “The way that he can speak for LGBT rights and for things that affect our society and have a true social impact in a positive way, I think will be his mission going forward.”
Since retiring from professional basketball in 2014, Collins has tried to balance his job with the NBA with a strong conviction that Hillary Clinton should be the U.S.'s next president.
Collins started formally working with Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2015. The Clinton campaign’s surrogate outreach coordinator, Michelle Kwan—yes, the former figure skater and two–time Olympic medalist—started sending Collins all over the country to help Clinton reach the White House. Collins and Kwan had become friends while serving on the Presidential Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, helping Michelle Obama with her “Let’s Move!” initiative.
Collins’s unique perspective, Kwan says, allows him to amplify Clinton’s campaign message to key voting blocs, particularly LGBT and African–American voters. His personal connection to the Clintons is also invaluable.
“Jason can talk about how Hillary Clinton has supported him throughout his career, whether it is on or off the basketball court,” Kwan says. “I feel like everybody who has been on the campaign, we all have personal reasons why we joined or wanted to help as a surrogate. And for Jason, it’s personal.”
After making more than $30 million over his NBA career, Collins could have simply written a check for his preferred candidate. (Hillary for America received $2,700 from Collins in August 2015, public records show.) But instead, Collins has eagerly sought opportunities to campaign for Clinton, and Kwan has happily deployed him on the trail, sometimes at a moment's notice.
Collins called potential voters during primary season, urging them to vote for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary over her top competitor, Bernie Sanders. (“They hung up on me!”) He knocked on doors in Minnesota. He and Jarron addressed the Democratic National Convention, where Collins delivered a speech he wrote the night before. He helped register voters in crucial swing states like North Carolina and Florida. He has traveled all over the country, making stops in places like Seattle, Minneapolis, Oakland, Portland, Raleigh, Charlotte, Gainesville, Jacksonville, Reno and New York. When Kwan sends Collins on the road, she has to remind volunteer drivers that they should avoid chauffeuring the seven–footer in a small car.
Collins is hardly the only athlete to offer support to either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump this election season. Clinton seems to be the overwhelming preference among current and former NBA players, picking up endorsements from the likes of LeBron James and Kareem Abdul–Jabbar, and receiving support from players like Grant Hill and James Jones on the campaign trail.
What makes Collins’s involvement in the campaign more unique than the typical celebrity supporter's is that he’s on the ground, shaking hands, getting out the vote, encouraging staffers, canvassing—the little things that can swing an election.
“I’ve seen a lot of the process and [I just have] an appreciation for all the people that sacrifice and volunteer and put in the time and effort and work to make sure that Hillary is our next president,” Collins says. “And I would feel absolutely horrible if Donald Trump is our president and I didn’t do everything I could do to make sure that Hillary Clinton becomes president.”
After Naranja, Collins’s next stop is a campaign office in a nondescript Miami Beach office building. He gives his stump speech—on the Clintons, coming out and why it’s so important for Hillary to win the election—and then he takes questions. One staffer asks him Trump’s use of the phrase “locker room talk” to defend lewd comments he made about sexually assaulting women in an unearthed 2005 Access Hollywood tape.
“I’ve heard stupid things said in the locker room. I’ve heard some really homophobic things said in the locker room. There are some bad jokes that are said in the locker room as well,” Collins replies. “But what he was talking about was sexual assault.
“I’ve never heard a conversation like that in all of my years being in the locker room,” Collins adds. “And I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms.”
The next morning, after a final Sunday evening stop at a campaign office in Hialeah, he’s back on the trail, this time at Florida International University in Miami. It’s Monday morning, but students are abuzz—Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, is set to deliver a speech on campus. It’s the first day of early voting in Florida. Collins poses for photos with volunteers, thanking them for their work and chatting about politics as students begin filing toward a Secret Service checkpoint. A few steps away, a protester wears a “Hillary For Prison” shirt.
Then Collins hustles inside, where he approaches random students and pitches them on the merits of volunteering for the Clinton campaign. He signs up six volunteers.
Kaine’s speech won’t begin for around another hour, but Collins departs campus and heads north to Pompano Beach, where he’s set to visit a field office. Inside, he and Representative Ted Deutch (D., Fla.) address a crowded room of phone bankers.
After delivering his speech, Collins asks if anyone has questions. “When are you running for president?” one volunteer asks.
You could be forgiven for thinking Collins is a seasoned politician. He delivers his stump speech with poise, commanding the attention of the room. He speaks about political issues with nuance and clarity.
“My first thought as I listened to him was boy, he’s really powerful. And my second thought was I’d really love for him to be my colleague,” Deutch says, laughing. “But it sounds like he’s really busy doing great work. He’s awfully good. He’s got a powerful story to tell, and he does it with such passion and eloquence that he’s the perfect person to have on the campaign trail.”
Collins’s personal story as a trailblazer for the LGBT community makes him uniquely qualified as a surrogate for Democrats, who have been far quicker to embrace LGBT causes than Republican politicians. Many conservative politicians still oppose same–sex marriage despite the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which effectively made marriage equality the law of the land. But the fight for LGBT equality remains central to Collins’s identity.
Later Monday afternoon, Collins swings through Wilton Manors, which proclaims itself the “second gayest city” in America. At Rosie’s Bar & Grill, he shakes hands with patrons and poses for pictures. Then it’s off to the Pride Center at Equality Park, an organization that offers health, social, educational and security support for the local LGBT community. Collins tours the facility after taking a moment to write a message of support for a Pride Center social media campaign.
“It’s a safe space that brings the community together and provides much needed services and programs. THANK YOU!”
LGBT rights haven’t been at the forefront of the 2016 campaign, but Collins scoffs at the idea that Trump isn’t anti–LGBT. Trump hasn’t made traditional conservative social issues a focus of his campaign, but Collins points out that he selected Mike Pence, a governor with an anti–LGBT record, as his running mate. He also notes that Trump’s list of possible Supreme Court nominees largely subscribes to social conservatism.
“It’s really cool to see how our society is changing and I want it to continue to change and stay on that road to acceptance and equality for all. And I truly believe that Hillary Clinton will keep us on that path. I know she will,” Collins says. “I fear that Donald Trump will not.”
He laughs at his understated characterization of Trump, a celebrity businessman who upended the election by crushing his competition in the Republican primary. Since he announced his candidacy in June 2015, Trump has denigrated nearly every subgroup of Americans, from Hispanics to Muslims to women. Even though Clinton was criticized during the primary for her husband’s 1994 crime bill, which exacerbated America’s mass incarceration, and for using the term “superpredators” when she was first lady, Trump’s outreach to minority voters has been clumsy and ineffective. (African–Americans and Hispanics overwhelmingly prefer Clinton to Trump.) As a black man, Collins is particularly concerned by Trump’s embrace of stop-and-frisk, a policing tactic that was declared unconstitutional in 2013 by a district judge in New York because it disproportionately discriminated against young black and Hispanic males.
Collins is also disturbed by Trump’s other insults. Trump infamously kicked off his campaign by bashing Mexican immigrants: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Collins’s sister-in-law, Jarron’s wife, is Mexican-American. Jarron’s children are of Mexican–American descent. Unsurprisingly, Trump’s heated rhetoric on immigration concerns both Collins brothers.
“The way that he has addressed Mexicans and Mexican–Americans in particular with his comments in the past, it absolutely affects my family and my wife’s family deeply,” Jarron Collins says. “And it was very hurtful, his comments. That’s definitely something our family has discussed.”
Jason is on the campaign trail to support Hillary Clinton. But like many other Clinton supporters, he’s also motivated by his opposition to Trump.
“He reminds me of a nice used car salesman. He gets you with all the slogans and all that,” Collins says of Trump. “But at the end of the day, you know he’s running game on you. And it’s not working on me.”
Collins visits another field office in a narrow shopping center in Tamarac, a bit northwest of Fort Lauderdale. He repeats the advice the Clintons gave him: Close your eyes, take a deep breath and keep moving forward.
“Something that I try to do is move forward with grace and poise,” Collins tells the small group of organizers and volunteers.
Before arriving in Florida, Collins participated in an NBA Cares event in South–Central Los Angeles, where kids from a Boys & Girls Club played basketball with LAPD officers. He’s traveled all over the world on behalf of the league. He has educated rookies on LGBT issues and homophobia. In both his role as NBA Cares Ambassador and Clinton campaign surrogate, he touts his commitment to greater equality, especially for marginalized groups like the LGBT and African–American communities.
Collins sees the world through sports, and politics is no exception. His experience as an athlete informs his political convictions.
“The team is made stronger by the weakest person on the team,” Collins says. “So it’s like our society, you have to try to do as much as you can to help those that have the least.”
Whether Collins dives further into organized politics remains to be seen. But his talent and potential are clear, as is his willingness to do the unglamorous work essential to politics. His friend Representative Kennedy (D., Mass.) isn’t surprised people would speculate about his political future.
“He’s got an extraordinary heart. He sees people and meets people, whoever they are, where they are, which is an incredible gift that not everybody has and he has it,” Kennedy says. “And I think it can be particularly powerful in politics.”
He later added: “Jason is a truly decent man, and one of the most decent people I’ve ever come to know. And I think, I admire him for the courage he’s shown, the willingness to raise his voice and to again not do so in a flashy way but to just quietly but consistently and strongly and powerfully move, influence this debate and reach out to people that otherwise wouldn’t necessarily be engaged in some of these issues. It’s an impressive thing. And if we are going to make our country a kinder and gentler and more inclusive place, we need more people like Jason doing what he’s doing.”
Collins’s last stop of his South Florida swing is in Liberty City, a largely black community in Miami, roughly five miles north of downtown. He delivers his stump speech and thanks volunteers and organizers for their work. A staffer asks Collins if he’ll make a call to a voter to help get out the vote efforts, and he agrees. “I’m having flashbacks to immediately getting hung up on,” he laughs.
Collins practices his approach with the staffer. Then he picks up a flip–phone and dials the number. Leaning forward in his chair, he takes a deep breath.
“Hi, my name is Jason Collins and I’m a retired NBA player.”