Jason Collins (L), playing for the Atlanta Hawks, is pictured during a game in Atlanta, Georgia on April 28, 2011
Basketball center Jason Collins became the first active player in a major American professional team sport to reveal he is gay -- a groundbreaking disclosure greeted with broad support.
The 34-year-old free agent who has played for six NBA teams over the past 12 seasons, went public with his sexuality in an essay published Monday on Sports Illustrated magazine's website.
"I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport," Collins said. "But since I am, I'm happy to start the conversation."
Among those backing Collins was US President Barack Obama.
"The president called Jason Collins to express his support and said he was impressed by his courage," a White House aide told AFP.
Collins took to Twitter Monday night with a message of gratitude.
"All the support I have received today is truly inspirational," he said. "I knew that I was choosing the road less traveled but I'm not walking it alone."
The revelation has drawn comparisons to the way the spotlight shone on Jackie Robinson in 1947 when he became Major League Baseball's first black player.
"Jason Collins has forever changed the face of sports," said Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin. "No longer will prejudice and fear force gay athletes to remain silent about a fundamental part of their lives."
"Collins has courageously shown the world that one's sexual orientation is no longer an impediment to achieving one's goals, even at the highest levels of professional sports ... Jason Collins is a hero for our own times."
Still, Collins can expect homophobic taunts from NBA game hecklers the way Robinson endured racial insults without fighting back.
"I don't mind if they heckle me. I've been booed before," Collins said.
"Everyone is terrified of the unknown, but most of us don't want to return to a time when minorities were openly discriminated against."
Golden State Warriors president Rick Welts, the highest-ranked NBA executive who is openly gay, said he was confident Collins would not have trouble landing a new contract because of his admission.
"He absolutely will receive more opportunities. More doors will open than close," Welts tweeted. "I'm very proud of him. It was very courageous. This was an important step."
"It still is a big deal today," he added. "There will be a day when it isn't."
Collins said he had no clue how his next NBA teammates might react knowing they share the locker room with a gay man, adding he would be willing to talk to any of them about the issue.
"Openness may not completely disarm prejudice, but it's a good place to start," Collins said. "I'm a pragmatist. I hope for the best, but plan for the worst. I'm a veteran and I've earned the right to be heard."
"I'll lead by example and show that gay players are no different from straight ones. I've taken plenty of showers in 12 seasons. My behavior wasn't an issue before and it won't be one now."
Former US president Bill Clinton, whose daughter Chelsea was a friend of Collins at Stanford University, lauded his disclosure as historic.
"Jason's announcement today is an important moment for professional sports and in the history of the LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) community," Clinton said.
NBA commissioner David Stern, meanwhile, said "we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue."
Collins also earned support from fellow NBA players, teammates, celebrities and other gay athletes, such as retired NBA player John Amaechi and tennis legend Martina Navratilova.
"Character is found in those who lead," retired NBA star center Shaquille O'Neal tweeted. "I am so proud of my friend, Jason Collins, for showing all of us what leadership looks like."
While the vast majority of views expressed in the sports world backed Collins, there were dissenters -- notably NFL Miami Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace and NFL Detroit Lions cornerback Alphonso Smith.
"All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys," Wallace tweeted. "I'm not bashing anybody don't have anything against anyone I just don't understand it."
Wallace deleted the remarks and later apologized, while the Dolphins distanced themselves from the comments in a statement, saying in part, "We believe in a culture of inclusiveness and respect."
Smith sent a series of tweets saying, "It's a shame I have to apologize for my TRUE feelings" and "I have the RIGHT to not give that behavior any applause."
Collins, who helped New Jersey reach the 2002 and 2003 NBA Finals, has averaged 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds over 713 NBA games, most recently for Washington.