Ex-Harvard-Westlake teammate on Jason Collins: He was a great, focused leader
Jason Collins became the first active professional athlete in a major sport to come out as gay. Collins made the announcement in an incredibly powerful article written for Sports Illustrated on Monday that will also appear in the magazine’s May 6 issue.
Sports fans from Los Angeles know Collins quite well. He and his twin brother Jarron attended Chatsworth’s Sierra Canyon, Montclair Prep in Van Nuys, and made Harvard-Westlake a basketball powerhouse during the ’90s.
To gain a little more perspective on Collins, LBS spoke with Rico Cabrera, a former All-CIF Southern Section player, who teamed with the Collins brothers to win back-to-back state championships in high school.
Cabrera was in the same grade as Jason and Jarron at Harvard-Westlake School and was a varsity teammate of the brothers in their junior and senior seasons. Harvard-Westlake won back-to-back state Division III championships in basketball in 1996 and 1997. They compiled a 66-4 record in the process, including a 35-1 mark their senior year (their only loss came to Tracy McGrady’s Mount Zion Christian Academy). Cabrera is currently the founder and executive director of Rico’s Get Better Foundation, which aims to use sports and education to inspire kids around the world.
Cabrera told LBS that at first he was surprised to learn that Collins was gay.
“I did not [know he was gay], honestly. I did not at all. I had no idea,” Cabrera told Larry Brown Sports.
Cabrera said despite being a little surprised at first upon hearing the news, his reaction later changed.
“Yeah, a little bit surprised. But then when I started to reflect and read the article, which was very well written, no.”
Collins noted in his coming out article for SI that he had dated women when he was younger and that he once was engaged. Cabrera recalled that Jason had an older girlfriend while in high school (he believes she may have been a senior while he was a sophomore), and that the two “dated for a good amount of time.” He also met Jason’s one-time fiancee, a former Stanford athlete.
Cabrera described Collins as a focused leader and tenacious player.
“I would describe him as a 12-year NBA pro. I always kind of revel in that. 12 years in the NBA and that’s my teammate? Often times I’ll find myself talking to folks and very casually saying, ‘Oh man, that’s my friend, he’s still playing in the league.’
“He was very much a laser-focused leader. That’s the best way to describe his leadership. He was always very focused, very tenacious, he didn’t mind doing the dirty work,” Cabrera said of Collins.
“Jason was a banger. He was a true center. He did not mind doing the dirty work. He would be triple-teamed, fouled beyond belief. Jarron was more of a small forward, but he was a great player. That was our chemistry.”
Having Jason on his side made Cabrera confident entering games against difficult opponents.
“It always made me feel proud whenever we would go into tough games to know that Jason was there. He was ready to go. He had his workboots on and would bring his mental toughness to the table, just like he did in class. Very much a laser-focused guy even in high school.”
Cabrera says the Collins twins were extremely well-known around the high school campus, which was natural considering the tight community surrounding the small school, not to mention the immense success of the basketball team.
“He was very well known. Everybody knew everybody, especially with how well [the team was] doing. He and his brother were both well known before high school,” Cabrera said. “Two 6-foot-9 twins coming to a school like Harvard-Westlake — the school is not that big, so that’s going to amplify the attention — but they were both very well-liked.”
He also described the way he remembered Jason’s personality in high school.
“[Jason] was kind of to himself in high school. Jarron was a little bit more outgoing. Jason was very to himself, but outgoing, he just kept to himself. He [stayed] very focused and very committed. I think that was reflective in our record — we didn’t lose a game in the state of California our last two years.”
Jason and Jarron went on to Stanford where they also had success. Both were selected in the 2001 NBA Draft. Jarron’s NBA career ended following the 2010-2011 season, while Jason is hoping to be signed for a 13th season. Cabrera, whose foundation works in tandem with Mandela Day in South Africa, notes that Collins’ announcement shows another way how sports can break down barriers.