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Basketball is a sport I’ve only paid modest attention to. My knowledge of the sport is very limited. I know Spike Lee sits courtside at the Knicks games and Jack Nicholson is usually seen courtside at Lakers games. I know that Lamar Odom was a Laker and then went somewhere in Texas and then back to California again but that was only because the Kardashian headlines are inescapable at the supermarket and well, Lamar is married to Khloe.

But back to basketball, and really all professional sports. Jason Collins recently announced that he is gay in an essay for Sports Illustrated. I wish that I could say who cares or that it doesn’t matter, but it does matter, and I do care. You should too. Here’s why.

You know someone who is gay. You love someone who is gay. You may not know it, but you do. I promise you that you do.

When I was a kid back in what my kids describe as the Stone Ages, gay was thrown around a lot as an insult. I remember knowing a few girls who were athletic and my fear was that people would think that I was a lesbian like them. I know. Terrible. My fear didn’t come from not liking people who were gay. My fear came from the perceptions that others had. I suppose I had my own perceptions as well including the perception that girls who played sports were lesbians. Actually I knew that wasn’t true and I was secretly a little envious of their athletic ability but not so envious that many labeled them lesbians and some of the names I heard them called privately.

Things have changed somewhat but has it really gotten better? Is Jason Collins the only gay NBA player? NFL? NHL? MLB? I doubt it. So why is nobody coming out? Not that they owe it to the public to disclose. But are they telling the members of their team? I doubt that too.

Jason CollinsSo why is Jason Collins so important? Why do I love that our President called him to support him in coming out as a gay man and a gay athlete? I love it because I love people who are gay. I love it because I see their struggle and in 2013 still hear gay slurs being whispered privately. I love it because too many kids still think that gay is a funny thing to call someone and that it implies weakness. Too many kids think that it’s ok to call someone a faggot.

A kid that I love was recently taunted with gay slurs. He was repeatedly called “faggot” by some other kids. It wasn’t done in a joking fun kind of way, not that there’s anything funny about that word. The word is ugly and it was used to belittle and diminish. It was a word used to hurt and it did hurt. It didn’t just hurt the kid they called that ugly name though. Those kids hurt his family and his friends. They hurt all of the people who love him.

It hurt because we don’t look at him and see a kid who is gay. We see a kid who is creative and smart and has a beautiful heart. We look at him and see a person that we love, a person who would never hurt anyone with his words or his actions. He happens to be gay. Who is that hurting?

Jason Collins matters because in his eloquent essay he shares his fear of coming out and his worry that his world will fall apart. He talks about dating women and even getting engaged because it was what he considered a “normal” life. In his essay Jason Collins gives us a small glimpse of what it must feel like to hide who you are from so many people and how emotionally exhausting that can be. He matters because in coming out he is paving the way for other athletes and even some young kid who wonders if he will be accepted.

Jason Collins talks about Matthew Shepard and it is a poignant reminder of how much hate there is in the world and how far we’ve come and still have to go. It is a reminder of why it is so important that when we talk about the LGBT community we also remember that they are not just a community but people that we know and love. They are our brothers and sisters, our cousins, our friends, our loved ones. For every Jason Collins there is a kid somewhere who knows that there is hope and that they are not alone.

Programs like The Trevor Project, or on a more local level, Pride For Youth offer support for teens and young adults. Teens and young adults have more options for support, understanding and advocacy than when I was a teenager. We still have a way to go but we’re getting there. We all knew there were gay players in professional sports. Now we have an athlete brave enough to put his name on it. With Jason Collins will come more and hopefully we will look back and wonder what the big deal ever was.

That is why Jason Collins matters.

Kristen is a single mom of 3 kids and studying at The CUNY School of Professional Studies. She is blogging while she still figures out what she wants to be when she grows up.