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Sixers' Message of Inclusivity Goes Beyond Pride Night

Jason Collins rang the bell as the Sixers celebrated Pride Night Thursday, but the team's presence in the LGBTQ community, led by openly gay employee Lee Cary, is much bigger

Even at 41, Jason Collins is imposing at seven-feet tall - that is until you see his warm smile and personality. His 13-year career ended in 2014. He played in 735 games and made two NBA Finals appearances.

Lee Cary, on the other hand, is not a former NBA player. A clear foot shorter than Collins, Cary's resume doesn't boast playing with the likes of Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin.

Yet, these two have a special bond. They're both openly gay men navigating the world of professional sports.

And Thursday's Pride Night at the Wells Fargo Center was a night for both to celebrate the diversity, inclusion and unity the Sixers have provided.

Jason Collins ringing the bell before Thursday's Pride Night game (Philadelphia 76ers)

For members of the LGBTQ community, coming out is personal. In the case of Collins, his became as public as it gets.

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In May of 2013, Collins came out as part of a Sports Illustrated cover story. While there had been professional athletes who'd come out after their careers were over, Collins was the first male athlete in the four major sports that was still active at the time of his announcement.

While it became part of the news cycle for the day, it wasn't about that for Collins. It was freeing. It allowed him to be his true self and not have to play a character to placate his teammates and the NBA world.

"When I was first thinking about coming out," Collins told NBC Sports Philadelphia, "it was about being able to go out on a date and not have fear that someone with a cell phone can take a video and then I wouldn't be reacting to a story. I wanted to be the one to out myself. But then when you think of the bigger picture, the macro level of like the impact, I guess that hit me when I got back-to-back calls from Oprah Winfrey and President Barack Obama - name drop [laughs]. So then it was like, 'OK, this is how big it is.'"

Cary didn't have to come out to the sports world, but that didn't make the process any less difficult. The Sixers Social Responsibility Manager made the decision to do so in June of 2015. A moment he thought would be joyous quickly soured when he shared the news with his mom.

Sadly, this is the reality for many who make the decision to come out. Even if the timing is perfect for them, there are those who have difficulty accepting that someone they're so close to had been living in the closet.

Still, Cary believes he chose the right time for him.

"If I came out in high school, my life would have been totally different," Cary said. "And I firmly believe it wouldn't have been to the positive. So I think that's an important message for the LGBT community. A lot of folks kind of feel like that it will get better and it certainly will, but there's a very important message to kind of come out when you're ready. And that's something that I've kind of learned. I was scared to come out and didn't wanna come out when I did. But when I did come out, it was the right time for me. That doesn't mean it's the right time for everybody."

Collins mentioned Cary's coming out story unprompted, describing it as "incredible."

For Collins, people frequently tell him how much his coming out has meant to them.

"I remember one gentleman telling me that his mom loves sports, but when he came out, that relationship ... they [grew apart]. But then because of my story, and she sees this basketball player [come out], then she reaches out to her son and starts to mend that relationship. So it has affected a lot of people in a lot of different ways. I think that's the power of the coming out story. Especially if you're someone in the world of sports."

Thursday was an opportunity for those in the LGBTQ community and advocates to celebrate and also continue to spread messages of equality and inclusivity. Instead of a traditional forum, the team opted for something more free-flowing.

Leaders of the Philadelphia LGBTQ community were on hand and it was more a networking event. Pennsylvania's first openly gay elected state legislator, Rep. Brian Sims, was on hand. As were 6ABC meteorologist Adam Joseph and NBC10 meteorologist Steve Sosna, both of whom are openly gay.

But it's about more than just one night. It's about making the messages of Pride Night organizational messages.

"It's not about us just slapping a logo on it," Cary said. "We actually really do care. And we have a lot of programming that isn't part of this night that our fans are part of. We had a program with Jason Collins. We had an event in June, where he came out and did a close community conversation with a group of LGBTQ youth. So it's really about just having multiple touch points for us, and that's what we're hoping to do and showing the community that we're really trying to get this one right."

Lee Cary (left) and NBC10 meterologist Steve Sosna (Philadelphia 76ers)

While it can be difficult for the LGBTQ community to avoid discrimination in any space, sports can be especially tough. That's another message Collins and Cary hope to get across.

Collins and Cary hope any member of the community contemplating a career in sports can look to them as examples.

"If you want to go into sports, but maybe you don't know if you can be an athlete," Collins said, "but you can definitely go into the front office in some roles, which is why it's so cool. You see Lee with his coming out story. I remember Rick Welts, the president of the Golden State Warriors, him coming out and now he's in the Hall of Fame. There are examples for people in the world of sports, and not just players, for kids to look up to, for the next generation to look up to. And it's all about making the path easier for them. Just like the path was made easier for me by [tennis players] Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King and [former NBA player] John Amaechi. Hopefully I'm making the path easier and Lee - we're all making it easier for the next generation."

Nights like Thursday's weren't always common in professional sports. The Sixers are one of several NBA teams now leading the charge in being advocates for the LGBTQ community.

Collins' coming out has surely made an impact. Perhaps someone like Cary wouldn't feel so empowered. Maybe the NBA world wouldn't be as inclusive as it has become.

It's opened doors for someone like Cary, who didn't think an opportunity like the one he's had with the Sixers would arise.

"It's really surreal, honestly. It's tough for me to kind of take a step back sometimes," Cary said. "I think I actually had a moment today where I was looking at Zack, my boyfriend who also works here, and I was like, 'This is crazy.' It's amazing to see how far I've come and how far this team has come, too. I think that it's really hard sometimes to put everything into perspective, for sure. But it's really amazing when you just kind of take a step back and you realize the people and the lives that you're impacting."

With Cary helping lead the charge, the Sixers' presence in the LGBTQ community goes well beyond one night.

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