Anthony Nicodemo thought yesterday would never come. Growing up in a traditional New York Italian neighborhood in the Eighties, the high school basketball coach heard jokes and gay slurs. Sports, where he has worked all of his adult life, was a place to hide your sexual orientation, not declare it.
Yet there he was Monday afternoon, standing before his Saunders High School basketball team in Yonkers with sweaty palms and butterflies churning his stomach, about to come out to his players. While Nicodemo had decided long ago his sexual orientation couldn't mix with his professional life, that was suddenly about to change.
It's been only the last couple months that this moment was remotely possible. Nicodemo had finally found people in sports like him while dabbling online at Outsports and with the Equality Coaching Alliance. Last week, surrounded by 100 LGBT athletes, coaches and advocates at the Nike LGBT Sports Summit, he was, in his words, "speechless."
His two disparate identities were suddenly colliding. His reaction was to inch out of the closet with a subtle tweet 10 days ago from Portland:
Holding him back from leaping out of the closet has always been a nagging fear that someone would prevent him from working with the very kids to whom he'd dedicated his life. The fear is common among coaches like Nicodemo; Out gay high school coaches are few and far between largely due to misrepresentative images of the pedophilic boogeyman painted by some.
"All it takes is one parent to make a lot of trouble," Nicodemo said last week before telling his team. "The school board can always find a reason to fire you if one parent with too much time on their hands wants to take you down."
Nicodemo isn't just a coach for many of the kids on his team; He's family. Henry Sassone is head basketball coach and athletic director at North Salem High School. Sassone said many of the students in Westchester County, where he now coaches against Nicodemo, are from broken homes with few role models and no father figures.
For some high school coaches, their work with youth is an in-season-only job. High school basketball games start in November and end in February or March; The other seven months of the year are spent in other capacities. Yet Sassone said if the Yonkers community surrounding Saunders High School could write a prescription for a model coach, it would be Nicodemo.
"You don't find many coaches willing to extend himself for kids the way Anthony does," Sassone said. "The kids are very fortunate to have a caring coach like him. He's coaching kids 24/7. Anthony works the kids 12 months a year. He's there for the kids no matter what their problems are, personal or in basketball. He works with them on the academics. He's more of a mentor and a father figure."
Nicodemo got his start as an assistant coach with Sassone shortly after graduating from high school 17 years ago. From there he saw short stints at various high schools mostly in Westchester County, at one point coaching at Div. III Plymouth State University in New Hampshire.
When he took over the boys basketball program at Saunders Trades & Technical High School in 2009, the team had won only a handful of games over the previous four seasons combined. Visiting teams came into their gym expecting an automatic win.
"We always went into games and did whatever we wanted," said Matthew Clayton, who played basketball for Saunders before was named the team's coach. "We never ran plays before coach came along. We basically had five guys just playing street ball. No chemistry. My teammates were good, but it just wasn't there. We were known as a losing program. Nobody believed we could win. It had been 15 or 20 years since the basketball program went to the playoffs."
The Saunders basketball team was so bad that Nicodemo took his original interview for the position with no intention of accepting the job. But after talking with administrators at Saunders, and taking advice from Sassone and other mentors, Nicodemo saw an opportunity. An inner-city school with almost 1,200 students, Saunders would give him access to a trove of talent. If he could change the culture of the team and recruit the right players, he could have an inside track at a very good team down the road.
Nicodemo's coaching record his first two seasons was 9-29. In absolute terms that number would mark a disaster; For Saunders, it was an improvement. In his next two seasons, spanning 2011-2013, the team posted winning records and even hosted a state-tournament playoff game.
For the 2013-14 season, Nicodemo returns most of his key players including three who started last year as freshmen and sophomores. He's optimistic, taking the team to the big leagues next season including a trip to Kentucky to play in the Toyota Classic.
"I don't want to get ahead of myself," Nicodemo said, "but our team could be pretty good the next couple of years. It's important for the kids to go to showcase events like the one in Kentucky."
It's no surprise Nicodemo has found success at this once cellar-dwelling program. His style has broken through to the kids who five years ago were left adrift in both life and on the hardwood.
"You can learn the X's and O's, but to get kids to go on the court and get them to give everything they have, that's what everyone is looking for," said Sassone, whose storied coaching career spans three decades.
For Nicodemo, building a family around the team is key. More important than coaching these kids to play basketball for Nicodemo is coaching them for life.
"We talk about being on time, about putting in the work," Nicodemo said. "There's so much to teach these kids about life, stuff they don't get at home or in the classroom. I try to prep them for college, for life in the real world."
Clayton is a prime example. When Nicodemo arrived at Saunders, he was told to kick Clayton off the team; The kid, according to reports, was a lost cause. One of his first actions as coach was to meet with Clayton, tell him what others had suggested, and assure him he wasn't going anywhere. Nicodemo wasn't going to kick him to the curb, and he wasn't going to make sure the high school senior graduated.
"When coach came along my senior year, I'd already gone through two coaches," Clayton remembered. "From day one, he walked in and told me I was going to get through the season, I'd pass all my classes and I'd graduate. From that day, we started running practices, everybody got along with him. He knew what he was doing. The way he treats these kids, he gives them whatever he can. He takes them on trips. He's doing everything he can to make these kids better. He made it a wining program."
Nicodemo's basketball role in Westchester County is more than just head coach at Saunders. He's director of the Lower Hudson Basketball Coaches Association and is the Section One representative to the Basketball Coaches Association of New York. If you remember the famous half-court "buzzer beater" between New Rochelle and Mount Vernon High Schools last March, Nicodemo was the man standing guard over the referees, escorting them to the locker room after they confirmed shocking ending (check him out in the video below).
None of this, however, prepared him for his sudden coming out.
Last week he told the Saunders High School principal that he's gay; The news was met with open arms. He shared it with the superintendent, who offered Nicodemo his personal and professional support. He called a couple of his former captains and came out to them while watching Game 7 of the NBA Finals last Thursday. Clayton, whom Nicodemo gave the team's "Mr. Hustle" award in 2010, was among them that night.
"It was very surprising," Clayton said. "I just basically told him, at the end of the day he's still my coach. Nobody would have ever known. I told him what he does in his personal life is his personal life. It's his life. Whatever he does behind closed doors is up to him, nobody can judge him. I told him, 'coach, if you ever need me, if you ever get into any trouble, I'll be there. I've still got your back.'"
Yet his biggest fear remained: The reaction of his current team members. Would someone take them away from him? Would he suddenly be unable to reap the rewards he'd sown with this team for four years?
Yesterday, he took the final step. He called the team together with a couple parents, past captains and the school principal. He admitted to them that, despite preaching the importance of honesty, he had not been forthright with them.
He told them their basketball coach is gay.
The reaction was like that experienced by every gay male athlete and coach we know to have come out to his team in the last 15 years: They literally embraced him.
"It was humbling," he said. "Very quickly the kids started to speak. A couple of the kids said, 'Who cares? Coach has done more for us in our lives than anyone else. We love him and we've got to focus on our goals.'"
Two of the team members quickly took to Twitter to express how they felt about his coach's revelation:
Saunders just became a stronger team love my team #SAUNDERSBASKETBALL— Yung_Leaf__3 (@DerrickFelder1) June 24, 2013
Saunders Basketball isnt a team. Its a family. Playing basketball here is a honor and i wouldnt trade it for the world.— Errrb Hardaway (@ERRRB_OTWL) June 24, 2013
Emails of support streamed in all last night. Nicodemo called the team meeting "the most satisfying moment of my basketball career."
He is now, to the best of Sassone's knowledge, the first boys high school basketball coach in the New York City area to ever come out publicly as gay. Dan Woog, the openly gay Staples High School boys soccer coach in Westport, Conn., knows of no other publicly out boys high school coaches of any sport in the Tri-state area.
Woog, who has been embraced by his community for 20 years, isn't remotely surprised by the reaction Nicodemo has received from the basketball community.
"I might have been surprised if it was 1993, but in 2013 I'm not surprised at all," Woog said. "Everything we hear is that kids today get it. They know gay people. They see it and hear it. And the adults get it too. But this is more great affirmation of that."
Nicodemo is no wallflower. With his bigger-than-life personality, the coach shatters stereotypes that still fuel "faggot" and "sissy" comments in the locker room and on the court. He's ready to challenge the long-held beliefs in sports about what a gay man is and what he can accomplish. While headlines of Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers have flooded the New York area for months, a real-life fixture of the local high school sports world has emerged amongst the masses; His potential impact could be game-changing.
He also may bring some institutional change. It's been hard for LGBT advocates to institute sensitivity training for high school coaches and administrators due to various elements from interest in the topic to financial resources. Nicodemo will explore bringing that kind of training to the counties of Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and others in the area just north of New York City in the coming year.
While Sassone was surprised by Nicodemo's coming-out phone call last week, he said it doesn't change how he feels about the man who has, at age 35, already given so much to high school basketball and athletes in the area.
"A man is measured by what he does for others, not by his sexual orientation," Sassone said. "He has such a big heart and he wants t o help, he finds the time to do it. He's working 24/7 on basketball. It's how he identifies himself. He does work with Coaches Vs. Cancer. He does a tremendous amount for kids in his program and for kids in Westchester County. He's an asset to high school basketball coaching in our area."
Now with a weight off his shoulders, his own expectations of what he can accomplish in high school basketball have never been higher.
Buzzer-beater video: Nicodemo walks into frame from the right at 1:19 and stands watch over the officials.