DEEP LOVE OF TENNIS FOLLOWS JASON COLLINSUSTA SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
WHEREVER HE GOES
WHEREVER HE GOES
AUGUST 29, 2023 | STEVE PRATT
DEEP LOVE OF TENNIS FOLLOWS JASON COLLINS WHEREVER HE GOESUSTA SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
AUGUST 29, 2023
Top: Jason Collins with Billie Jean King at Wimbledon; Bottom: Jason in Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open.
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There was a problem, and Jason Collins needed to figure out a solution. And fast. During a recent trip to Portland to visit some old college buddies, the former NBA star settled into a sports bar to watch the Cincinnati final pitting Novak Djokovic against Carlos Alcaraz.
But none of the rows of TVs had the all-important US Open lead-up match playing. At Collins’ suggestion, the group exited and quickly found another establishment close by showing the match.
“I asked if they had the tennis on any of the TVs, and they said they didn’t,” Collins chuckled recently recalling the memory of one of the year’s most epic battles between the game’s top two stars. “I said, ‘What do you mean you don’t have the tennis?’ Come on, you are not a legitimate sports bar if you don’t have the tennis on.”
The 44-year-old Collins – who grew up in Northridge and now splits his time between Los Angeles and Austin, Texas – definitely has his tennis priorities straight when he’s doing one of his favorite things: traveling.
“I always bring my rackets with me wherever I go because you never know,” said Collins, whose 13-year NBA career saw him play for seven different teams. “I’m trying to do anything I can besides riding a stationary bike or getting on a treadmill at the hotel gym. I did find a couple of great clubs in Portland to play at. Everywhere I go tennis people are just so nice and so friendly. I really like the sport and the camaraderie with the different people I meet.”
Collins was speaking from Seattle as his travels continued through the Pacific Northwest just days after Hurricane Hilary invaded SoCal. He said he wasn’t having as much luck finding a club to play at in the Emerald City.
“I did find the Seattle Tennis Club, but they had an all-white clothing rule,” Collins said. “But I thought, nah, I’m not going shopping. I did actually play at a club like that down near Miami once in Coral Gables. I did it because one of the head tennis pros used to be the coach of Venus Williams and I thought maybe I’d see her, but I didn’t.”
You meet the energetic Collins on the phone for the first time and it’s like talking to someone you’ve known for years. And every topic brought up eventually circles back to his love for the game of tennis.
Like the time he was traveling in Hong Kong and there happened to be a WTA event going on. Collins said he was looking for an American player to cheer on and Shelby Rogers was in the draw. “After the match, her coach Marc Lucero came up to me and introduced himself,” Collins said. “He was like, ‘Who’s this loud American?’ ”
The SoCal-based Lucero invited Collins to a First Break Academy Return the Serve event in Carson and Collins was happy to lend a hand and participated in some of the kids’ clinics.
“I try to give back to the community any way that I can,” Collins said. “I fell in love with the sport when I was a kid, and it was something everyone in my family could play together. I want others to experience that same kind of joy that I have from playing tennis.”
Since 2015, that joy has been experienced through USTA Leagues as Collins will once again this Fall play for a Mountain Gate 8.0 doubles team.
“I just got another email from my USTA captain,” said Collins, whose team has advanced to Sectionals a few times. “We ran into a player who was self-ranked and said he played college tennis and was in his mid-20s. I can’t imagine being that age and playing basketball as an NBA player and showing up at my local rec center and dominating.”
Again, Collins tells the story with an endearing laugh, adding, “I highly encourage everyone to go out and get involved with all the programs that the USTA Southern California Section offers because tennis people are just such great people.”
It has been 10 years since Collins made the decision to come out as gay in a Sports Illustrated cover story, becoming the first openly gay athlete to play in one of the four major professional sports.
“It was the best decision for me to step forward and follow people like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, who use their voice and their platform,” Collins said. “I remember wanting to wait till after the season ended before making a public announcement but realized I couldn’t stay silent and wanted to add my voice to that chorus and join those who were speaking out for equality.”
Collins said that he has always felt welcome on the tennis courts and has attended US Open Pride Days. He offered this bit of advice for the USTA SoCal, which does so much to keep the sport of tennis inclusive to all who want to play: “Continue to be visible, vocal, and use your platform to demonstrate that you support all athletes who are members of or allies of the LGBTQ community.”
Collins has traveled to all four Grand Slams, and can’t wait for the start of the US Open. He is predicting Alcaraz to win the final in five sets. He loves watching doubles, especially Taylor Townsend. “Her hands are just incredible,” he said. “She wins with whoever she plays with.”
As for the women’s singles winner, Collins said, “I gotta go for Coco [Gauff]. I love the additions she’s made to her team.”
Collins met Coco’s new coach Brad Gilbert at a pro-am in Malibu. “When I play doubles I have a bad habit of just watching the ball and not looking forward. Brad kept saying, ‘Keep your racket up.’ When I’m at the net, I always hear that voice in my head that says, ‘Keep that racket up! Keep that racket up.’ ”