(Editor's note: From Hoosiers like Wooden, Robertson, Plump, Bird and Bailey to the thousands of kids who dream of achieving their likes, Indiana and basketball seem indivisible. The state has such a profuse history, perhaps obsession, with the game that we commonly associate the nickname "Hoosiers" for a basketball player, rather than with the mostly rural citizens of Indiana it was originally intended for. Basketball is certainly at the core of life in Indiana. But what is it like to grow up a closeted gay superstar basketball player in a small, homophobic town? For the purposes of this story, we have allowed the athlete to be anonymous.)
This article first appeared in 2003
By Eric Anderson
The wood floor of the high school gym creaks a bit as Blake shuffles his 6'4" 190 pound body up and down the court. He stays very late after practice. Although the rest of the team has gone home, Blake remains, shooting basket after basket, buying insurance against suspicion.
Blake, as he will be known until he comes out, has a mean jump shot. He is one of the best guards in Indiana high school basketball, the subject of town talk and media coverage, yet he is only in his junior year.
Blake learned long ago that athletes are commonly perceived as incapable of being gay - a veneer he has taken advantage of. And in the dead of a Midwestern winter, the fans come out to cheer their up-and-coming, yet reluctant, closeted superstar.
Blake grudgingly picked up the ball in the 4th grade, as the sport seemed to him the way to fit in with the other boys. He had no interest in things round, he was solely interested in books and learning. "I was actually more interested in reading," he says over the phone at 3 a.m. so his parents can't hear him talking about gay issues.
"I really hated basketball, and would much rather read, but other boys didn't do that. Everybody played basketball, and I wanted to fit in," he pauses, "so I did too." At the time he began playing ball, he possessed no dreams of superstardom, he simply desired to blend in, but today he hopes that putting a ball through a hoop will take him far from a place he ambivalently calls home.
Surprisingly, the game didn't come easy for a boy who was a foot taller than the others. "I remember my older brother saying, ‘Dad I can't have my younger bro being that bad.' " His older brother, a player in college, was the family hero, a basketball superstar, and the pressure for Blake to follow his path was inescapable from the moment he began to play.
But by the sixth grade his coordination caught up to his height and he began to be able to do things on the court that other boys couldn't. And by the time he reached his sophomore year he was "the man," making his parents and brothers proud.
"Oh yeah, I am the man all right," Blake says. "Even back in sixth grade I was. I would, like, score 25 points a game as a sixth grader." At the time he felt little pressure to win, but he grew increasingly worried over an identity that he seemed to recognize as gay.
How Do You Mourn When You Are Closeted?
By the eighth grade Blake had learned to play the game. On the court he learned that when you're the best, everyone wants a piece of you, and that every victory brings an added pressure of yet another victory.
Off the court he learned to balance his gay identity with his heterosexual facade. The Internet became his cyber-home, as he met and talked with other gay bois from around the state and nation. And near the end of his eighth grade year, Blake ventured out to meet young gay men.
"I had my first boyfriend in the eighth grade," Blake said. "I was 14 and he was 21, but I told him that I was 16 and I got away with it because I was so tall."
Having a boyfriend as freshmen in high school helped Blake immensely. "Actually meeting gay people was so amazing," he said. It helped him realize that he was not alone, and that he could love another boi. He talks of his first boyfriend with a fondness not usually heard amongst gay teens.
"There was this guy named Chris, and he had a profile that was really attractive. I finally worked up the nerve to meet him, thinking that a public space would be best, we met at McDonalds. He pulled up in his yellow mustang, and he was every bit as attractive as he was online. We hung out, dated, and grew to know each other. We slowly became boyfriends and I really loved him. He was kind, gentle, and loving."
"We dated for a few months, which at 14 seemed forever, and then one day he just stopped calling. I couldn't figure out why he wasn't returning my calls, or my e-mails."
Blake began dealing with the taxing emotion of being rejected. But with no one to turn to, dealing with his first break-up would be more difficult than normal. He couldn't say, "Hey mom, I'm upset because my boyfriend isn't calling me back." So Blake returned to vent online. "I was talking to a friend, asking him if he had heard from Chris. " ‘Didn't you hear?' he said. ‘Chris was killed in a car accident.' "
Walls of water pooled in his eyes, the gates opened, and the emotions began to flow. Whereas people in grief normally seek the comfort of another, Blake was alone. Isolated by a homophobic society, he had nobody to turn to. What's worse, he would have to hide his sorrow from others, he would have to mourn his first major loss in secret. "I took the radio upstairs and played it in the bathroom as loud as I could," he said.
The blaring music cloaked his loss but it couldn't change the emptiness. "I tried to tell myself that it didn't matter to me. But it did. I loved Chris. He was my first love, and I was young, and it hit me twice as hard. I only wished I could have told others, to someone, but I didn't have anyone I could talk to about it."
"I made a reference to him in a paper my freshman year but I couldn't tell my teacher or my parents why the guy died, or who he was, or why I was upset. Hell, I couldn't even tell them that someone had died at all.
"I just wish I could have talked to someone... If it had been a straight friend it would have been easy, but he was my boyfriend, and now I was all alone."
There is no I in Team
Superstars can be the loneliest of people. They perform in front of scores of admirers, yet few truly know them. The public, the praise and prestige necessarily remain superficial. Athletes often report feeling like they don't belong on a team, even when the other players feel that the team is all about them. The adage, "There is no I in TEAM," falls far from reality.
Worse, the subtext, the underpinnings of team sports is homophobia. In sport, homosexuals are absent, and homosexuality a pariah. The combination of the alienating affects of superstardom, combined with cultural homophobia can make a closeted gay athlete feel awfully alone, not part of a team.
Blake walks the hallways of his rural high school symbolically alone. The school can be called a jockocracy, in which jocks sit atop the hierarchy of respect and masculinity. It should, by all accounts, be a great position for Blake. But it isn't. From where he stands, towering above the others literally and physically, he is but an island. There are no openly gay students at his school, and Blake isn't even sure if there are any from his community at all. "If there are, I certainly don't know of them." And in a small town, word travels fast enough that he likely would.
Blake is daunted by the insistent fear of being discovered gay. "I fear all the time, that others will find out. That people's opinions of me will change if they find out that I'm gay. Like my teachers, they won't think the same of me; they make gay comments and say them in a derogatory manner. Even my own bro will say stuff about gay people. It makes it hard, I'm always thinking in the back of my mind, would you feel this way about me if you knew I was gay."
"My friends, it's the same thing with them.. I have a lot of good friends, but a lot of them are religious, which strikes quite a bit of fear with me."
Compounding matters, there is now some suspicion on his parents' part that Blake might be gay. "They don't want to think about it. Mom says, ‘Blake you need to get a girlfriend." I tell her, ‘Mom I don't want to. I don't have time.' "
Basketball then becomes the salvation and the damnation - a well of homophobia that becomes the excuse and a refuge. It not only provides him with a veneer of heterosexuality but it gives him something to do, so he has an excuse not to date women.
Shooting hoops occupies his time for hours a day, and it also gives him some solitude. The combined stress of being closeted in a homophobic community, of longing for love while feeling alienated from his identity, from having to win one for the family, all while maintaining an academic standing of first in his class is intense. But the gym helps mitigate the stress. "When I'm in the gym, by myself, it calms my nerves," Blake said. "If I'm upset I'll go shoot by myself."
Blake almost never talks about his team's wins and losses. This is uncharacteristic for teen athletes, who often wrap their identity in their performance. Blake tells me that it's because his academics are more important to him, and his discussion of it clearly shows where Blake's true identity lies.
"My grades are the most important thing to me. I love learning. I eat it up. I love writing papers. I write 15 copies before turning them in. I just love doing them." It's the kind of boasting that most superstar athletes do about their athletic performance. He also says he loves basketball, but he doesn't speak of it in the same enthusiastic tones of his discussion of academics.
Indeed, Blake seems to rationalize why he plays basketball at all. He constantly refers to the unsavory pressure on his athleticism, and the stresses he has with his coaches and teammates. He tells me about his brother's expectations, his parent's desires to see him succeed in basketball and not academics, and the social drama created when everybody is trying to live through you.
"My parents care about my basketball," he said. "They acknowledge it a lot more than my academics. They are much more concerned that I represent the family well in basketball than in academics, because they can go to a game and point and say, ‘That's our son.' "
Blake readily acknowledges that he is also using basketball as a way to gain a scholarship out of Indiana. "My parents want me to stay around here, and they don't have much money. But I want to leave, I want to go to a big school, a big city, where I can come out and have a real gay life."
Blake knows that out-of-state tuition is expensive, and that a scholarship would help immensely. But he is mixed about whether he truly wants to play college ball or not.
Asked what he would do if he couldn't play basketball, Blake has a ready answer. "I would devote everything to my grades. I would hang out with my friends more too, maybe volunteer in the community, but I'd have a lot more time on my hands and could really use that time to make my academic life better. Grades are definitely Number One, learning comes easy to me, but I just can't get enough of it."
Whereas most athletes fantasize about shooting the winning shot in the district or state championship, Blake's moment of glory would be in the academic realm. "It's always been my dream to be valedictorian. Ever since I saw the valedictorian speaker at my brother's graduation, I said, ‘Mom, I want to do that.' "
Blake has thought long and hard about coming out. "I want to make a difference. I want someone out there, in the same situation as I to read this article and be inspired - at least one person. Gosh, knowing I could make a difference in someone's life, that inspires me," he said.
He prepared himself for coming out by telling one of his older brothers (the one he suspected wasn't homophobic) that he is gay. "He was somewhat upset when he found out," Blake said. "In fact, he was in denial a bit ... 'There's no way you're gay.' Nevertheless, he eventually mellowed out and assured me that he will love me regardless." Coming out is certainly something Blake ponders daily, but he just can't bring himself to come out yet.
He is unsure of the reaction a public declaration of his homosexuality would have. "In all honesty, there will be some people who are not OK with it," he said. "But at the same time, I think it might open a lot of people's eyes. Like the people at my school, they don't have any gay friends. They don't know any gay people at all. They might just look at me and say Blake has been my best friend since I was little, and he's gay, and he's cool. I just hope they see me as the same goofy Blake."
Blake's decision to postpone his coming out can be questioned, but not criticized. Out-of-state tuition is expensive, and a scholarship for playing ball would help. Blake fears that coming out would hurt those chances.
For now, Blake goes about being the best he can be, in case he does come out. He works hard to be the best student and athlete in his school. By doing such, he is really buying insurance against the reaction to his coming out. By being the best, he hopes to prevent others from messing with him.
"I definitely plan on coming out when I'm in college, there is no question about that."
Blake can be reached via e-mail.
Eric Anderson, aka Coach Gumby has an extensive Web site devoted to his study of gay athletes.
Jan. 31, 2003