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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to gay NBA ref: ‘You have more courage than anybody I know’

For Bill Kennedy, life has been terrific since coming out publicly.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Denver Nuggets
Bill Kennedy
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Longtime NBA referee Bill Kennedy came out publicly last December after he was called a “fucking faggot” by Sacramento Kings guard Rajon Rondo during a game. In his first game after coming out — Utah Jazz vs. San Antonio Spurs — Kennedy was very nervous as tipoff approached.

As the lights went down for player introductions, [Spurs Coach Gregg] Popovich sidled up beside him -- telling Kennedy that he chose to walk over in the dark because he didn't want to make a scene that everyone could witness. "He said, quote, unquote, 'You have more guts, you have more balls than anybody I know,'" Kennedy says. "'You have more courage than anybody I know. Now, go out there and kick ass.' Then he walked away. He didn't say a word to me for the rest of the game."

This moment, which showed that Kennedy being publicly out would not be a problem, is one illuminating anecdote in a great profile of the referee by Kevin Arnovitz in ESPN the Magazine.

Prior to the Rondo incident, for which the guard was suspended one game, Kennedy lived a bifurcated life. He was not out in any public way, yet at the same time had a circle of people who knew he was gay and he did not lead a closeted life.

Back in Phoenix, Kennedy was a member of an extended circle of young, gay male professionals who socialized, played sports and traveled on weekend getaways together. Though he was on the road more than half the year, Kennedy very much resided at the center of the group. His home was frequently used as temporary housing for anyone in need. Dinner checks that never appeared at the table were often the result of Kennedy's quiet generosity. Yet as central as Kennedy's gay friends were to his life and he to theirs, he often went missing.

"Billy was the original ghoster," says Mike Fornelli, a close friend of Kennedy's who owns BS West, a popular gay club in Scottsdale, Arizona, that Kennedy has frequented and sung karaoke at for years. "Any time a camera would be around, Billy's gone. If there was somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody, Billy was gone. You always expect it. If you're going out with Billy, he might disappear." ...

Still, Kennedy embraced life as an openly gay man in the digital age. Off nights in NBA cities were spent at gay karaoke or country bars, maybe a steam house or flirting on Grindr. (Kennedy's profile photo is what's known in gay parlance as a "headless torso," from the waist to the neck.) He met his current on-again, off-again partner, Scott Fordham, at a karaoke bar in Toronto, where Fordham still lives. The two travel regularly on the road, where many NBA referees have spent time with the couple.

Kennedy had contemplated coming out the way his good friend Dale Scott, a Major League Baseball umpire, did on Outsports, perhaps during the offseason one year. Rondo’s slur, though, caused him to go public days later to Yahoo Sports. It was one of the best decisions he made — he became a role model of other referees in sports and he refused to stand up and be quiet. He also simply did his job all season and his sexual orientation was a non-issue.

Arnovitz does a wonderful job of weaving together the personal and professional in what are Kennedy’s first extended public comments since he came out. It’s a long, detailed article that is well worth your time.