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Derrick Gordon is ready for his coming out season

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Derrick Gordon is UMass' starting shooting guard. On Nov. 14 against Siena he will become the NCAA's first openly gay male athlete in one of the big four sports to compete in a game.

Streeter Lecka

A year ago, University of Massachusetts shooting guard Derrick Gordon was contemplating his retirement from basketball. Hiding deep in the closet, Gordon had isolated himself from his teammates, choosing to spend each night alone in the gym or in his bedroom.

Six months ago he came to a crossroads in his life: Quit basketball or come out as a gay man. He chose the latter, making him the first active Div. 1 male athlete in basketball, baseball, football or hockey to come out publicly. As Robert Frost one said, "That has made all the difference."

Since coming out publicly and to his team last April, his relationships with his teammates have transformed. Whereas they suspected he was gay a year ago, Gordon taking the bold step of coming out liberated both him and his teammates. They now spend countless hours together on and off the practice court. Gordon no longer shies away from them, and according to Gordon they embrace him, inviting him to dinner, parties and to spend hours playing video games in their dorm rooms.

"When I see that it tells me they want me to be around and it makes me a lot more comfortable," Gordon told Outsports. "The gay thing doesn't even run through their heads. They don't care about it at all."

As the team prepares for its first game on Oct. 30 - an exhibition against Div. II American International College - the UMass Minutemen are, according to Gordon, a tighter-knit unit than he could have ever imagined last winter.

"Some people say that they still can't believe I'm gay because they say I don't 'act gay.' Girls will like me and then they'll find out I'm gay and they'll be surprised. All around it's just all support from everybody, all over campus. Teachers and faculty members. There hasn't been anything negative at all. From social media to people coming up to me, it's all been positive and people are happy for me and want me to have a great season."

His teammates go so far as to ask him about his dating situation. For several months Gordon dated Gerald McCulloch, a Hollywood actor maybe best-known for his role on CSI. McCulloch happens to be 47 years old, double Gordon's age. Gordon is now dating another older white gentleman in Los Angeles. His "taste" hasn't been lost on his teammates.

"Before, they didn't want to have anything to do with it," Gordon said. "Now they care for me. They know what the deal is. They'll ask me how my boyfriend is doing or if he's coming to any games."

He is.

And yes, Gordon's teammates are showering with him now.

When we wrote our story in April, that wasn't the case. Many of the UMass players kept their distance from Gordon when they had their clothes off. It was a great source of pain for him.

Gordon was ebullient this week talking about his teammates shedding their concerns and finding a willingness to engage in that most basic of bonding moments in men's sports: Shooting the shit and showering together. Nothing sexual, nudity not even an issue. All barriers have been removed.

"They're past that now, which makes it a lot better for me."

The last six months have been a whirlwind of sorts for Gordon. He has spent many weekends away from home, traveling to Los Angeles several times, New York City for the GLAAD Awards and to Portland for Nike's LGBT Sports Summit. It was the latter that had the most effect on Gordon, introducing him to dozens of LGBT current and former athletes for the very first time.

"That was one of the best events I've ever been to, as far as the people I knew and the relationships I made with other athletes and coaches. It was amazing. It was one big happy family when I was there. I wish it had lasted a week."

Gordon and the rest of the UMass players and coaches are now focused on the upcoming season. Last year they were dubbed a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament. Despite a strong regular season during which Gordon was fourth on the team in scoring, they were victims of an upset blowout loss to No. 11 Tennessee in the second round.

The team's starting shooting guard took that loss as a personal affront. Having helped lead two teams - UMass and Western Kentucky - to the Big Dance, Gordon is hungry for a deep run into the tournament. He's committed himself to improving his shot in the offseason, hitting the gym daily for two months straight.

"I want to go deep into the tournament this year. We have the players to win 20-plus games. I hate losing, and I'll do whatever it takes for my team to win."

Above all of that, Gordon is most excited to play in front of his twin brother, Darryl, who has been incarcerated for several years. Darryl will make the trek to Amherst on Nov. 14 to watch his brother play against Siena.

"That will be a little emotional for me," Gordon admitted.

For Gordon, coming out publicly was a must. Without having done so, he may not be playing basketball today.

Still, he knows that college basketball fans can be ruthless. While some schools have no-tolerance policies for anti-LGBT language, others are not so forgiving. As he and the UMass men's basketball team travel to Louisiana, Utah, Virginia and other road games this season, Gordon is well aware that some isolated fans may try to get under his skin. He's ready.

"Things are going to get very interesting when were traveling and we have games on the road. It's going to be fun to see how things are going to be."

Gordon also understands the role his season will play for so many LGBT athletes. Many of them have reached out to him from the biggest sports programs in the nation. They have told him they are watching how his first season as Div. 1's first openly gay male basketball player unfolds. He accepts the challenge.

"I want those people to know it's OK to be gay and be a star in your sport. I hope my story, when all is said and done, can change lives. I know there are a lot of gay athletes out there, and I do wish they would come out. It may take time for them to understand ti, but life does get back to normal after you come out.

"It does get better."

You can follow Derrick Gordon on Twitter @flash2gordon. His first exhibition game is this Thursday, Oct. 30, against American International College. The first regular season game for UMass is at home against Siena on Nov. 14.