The 2013 LGBT Sports Summit was a life-changing weekend for me. I was introduced to new friends who inspired me to be more authentic after struggling for years with who I was.
There isn't anyone I wanted to feel the same freedom more than Chris Burns. Chris had been the most important person in my life for years, and when he agreed to come to Portland for the following year's Sports Summit, I believed it would have the same impact it did on me. It did not. He wasn't ready. After the weekend he was inspired, but he could not pull the trigger on telling the world who he really was.
This morning, 16 months later, he becomes the first publicly out gay men's college basketball coach, and I could not be more proud of him.
Chris and I met when he was an athlete and I was coaching college. We became friendly while hanging out at games, watching my former team play. Over time we connected and our friendship blossomed into something more.
Being closeted can be the toughest thing in a gay person's life. It was for me. Being alone is destructive. Somehow Chris and I had found each other. We were inseparable. He spent entire summers with me in New York. As his college career developed I rarely missed a game. I would coach on a Friday night and head to Rhode Island Saturday morning. This became a way of life for five years.
The amazing thing was that no one knew about us.
Chris cried in my arms after missing a shot to send Bryant to the Elite 8 in 2004, and I spent the night in Lowell, Mass., snowed in during a blizzard. I flew to Minnesota and drove five hours with his dad to watch him play for the national championship in 2005. We hung out in my room, and once again no one had any idea we were dating. Coaches, administrators and his teammates were oblivious. Maryland, Syracuse, Las Vegas were just a few of my treks to watch him light up the scoreboard.
On the flip side, he got to know my players. He often attended my practices, games and team functions. Once again, no one knew. We somehow hid everything. I'm sure some suspected, but we were great at lying.
Gay high school coach comes out to his team
Two weeks ago, the Saunders High School basketball coach with a big heart could have never imaged he would tell his team and principal that he's gay.
We spent the night together after his graduation party with friends scattered throughout the house. We did the same at Disney World with my family in the rooms next door.
We experienced pretty much every "gay first" together, and were the only thing gay each of us had for years.
Then something changed. For whatever the reason, the fairy tale ended. Over time decisions were made that essentially ended our relationship and stuck a thorn in our friendship.
At this point, I was tired of living a lie and made my own decision to come out. I never imagined the fanfare that came with it and wished that Chris had been by my side. I wanted to share the story of our bond, but I couldn't. Chris was still closeted. Reporters asked questions about my relationships and I was forced to lie. Here I was becoming clean about my life, but I still had to be dishonest. This was his story to tell, not mine.
As I started to attend events as an out gay man, I always believed he should be at my side. We had begun a journey together but were unable to travel the most important segment - life open and honest - arm in arm.
Eventually we reconnected. The road has been tough with a lot of heartache along the way.
This I can say, having been there for so many of his accomplishments, this is the most proud that I have been of Chris. His coming out will knock down another door. Others will see that you can be successful in another facet of the sports world. Others will follow, citing Chris as their reason.
Following the summit 16 months ago, Cyd so poignantly summed up the weekend. He talked about why the weekend existed and how it changed lives. Ironically he used Chris and me as the example. He talked about how one of us would lead to others following. Tears flowed as Chris and I embraced in the middle of the room. It felt that we had finally connected again.
Coming out made me a better person. It empowered me in a way that I could not have imagined. Sharing these feelings is one of the toughest things I've had to do. It brings up emotions and experiences I still try to suppress. I'm not sure what happens between Chris and me in the future, but I know this: It is now his turn to feel the same way. We've known each other for 15 years, an extremely long time. He now gets to begin the rest of his life.
Anthony Nicodemo is the head boys basketball coach at Saunders High School in New York. He's on Twitter @CoachNicodemo.