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Gay former pro baller found the courage to be himself before it was too late

Ajay Rutledge played college and professional basketball for years before accepting himself as a gay man.

Ajay Rutledge played college and professional basketball for about a decade.

I always knew I was “different,” but not something I would ever accept. I told myself “I can’t be gay, I play basketball and I’m black. How could I be gay? I’ve never seen anyone like me.”

It didn’t make any sense to me. It went against everything my peers said. The media too. And most importantly it went against my own thoughts about me.

I have traveled the world playing basketball professionally, in Mexico, Europe, even as far as Singapore. I even had some NBA D League interest after a major tournament in Los Angeles in 2013. Basketball has always been my passion. Nothing better than showcasing your God-given talent in front of thousands.

Imagine being in the newspaper and your game article is bigger than Spurs vs. Lakers.

Yet something was always missing through the years with ball as I pursued it with all I had.

I never ever had a girlfriend. Everyone around me had girlfriends in high school, college and after. I wanted that. I repeatedly told myself that no girlfriend means I can’t get anyone pregnant at an early age, something I feared.

My mother would ask about where was my girlfriend. “I don’t know,” I’d say. “I haven’t met anyone yet.” I’d talk to girls on the phone, but nothing ever came of it.

Every holiday during college if I went home, family would ask me about a girlfriend. I would kill that question by telling them I was focusing on school and basketball, and I had no time. I would get so annoyed being asked about it by my family every time I visited home.

By college I had messed around with a guy, but it was never something I felt I needed. After each time it happened I felt completely terrible about myself. I never romantically wanted a guy and couldn’t see myself ever wanting to date a guy. Something mentally wasn’t right about it for me.

I went through my college years playing ball and focused on that. I tried to pursue one or two girlfriends, but I could never make it work. Basketball was my only girlfriend.

My first year playing internationally was 2011 in Mexico. My career professionally ended after my 2015 season in Singapore. The previous year I dealt with losing my mother to breast cancer. She was my world. The year before that I lost my step-father. Many emotions and thoughts ran through my mind daily.

In 2015, I moved to Miami. That was the first time I had ever seen so many openly gay male couples. This was so new to me. I had never really seen it or paid attention to it growing up back in Rochester, N.Y., or in any of my international travels. As I took notice more I began to question myself more. I never once identified as gay despite previous experiences at this point. In my head I wanted and needed a girlfriend, because that’s what I should have. But realistically I never knew how that would happen.

My depression settled in hard thinking about my mom daily and thinking my mom would not have accepted me as gay. Even more so, I didn’t even accept myself. How would I even have told her or any family or friends?

I began to think about guys a bit more. I wanted someone to talk to about things and just understand where I was mentally and emotionally. I honestly just wanted a guy to tell me I couldn’t be gay. I ended up quitting basketball for fear someone would find out about me.

It was a dark period. I cried every night. I wanted to end it all multiple times. I stopped talking to friends and family more and more. I was embarrassed and just wanted to die. I really wanted to disappear from everyone because I couldn’t accept who I was. In my head it was embarrassing and not OK for me to be gay.

One night in 2016 my best friend — who was also my college teammate — hit me up and said let’s go to Wynwood.

As we drove we talked about life and what not. I told him how depressed I was, and how I wanted to die. I remember my stomach turning inside out. I could never tell him I was gay. He was not gay friendly. I couldn’t say those words. I wasn’t ready for someone that close to me to know.

He continued to ask questions as we sat in the car. Finally, he dropped the hammer.

“What is it? You like men?”

I literally cried right there as he said the words. I was so embarrassed and felt I’d lose him as a friend. We talked a little more about it, but I could tell he was very uncomfortable. He joked a bit after that.

“You’re probably the best gay basketball player ever,” he said. “How’d you do it?”

I laughed a bit too, but I was hurting inside still.

Throughout that year I came out to a few other best friends back home, then eventually my dad who was very accepting and loving. He told me he loves me no matter what and wants me to be happy.

“Screw everybody else,” he said. “Live your life. Ajay is the only one who has to be happy with Ajay.”

I had to tell my siblings and aunts. It was extremely hard to do, and I cried for hours after I texted them. I even turned my phone off after sending the text. They thought I might hurt myself because I wouldn’t answer any calls. At that point I surely could have, but something stopped me.

The responses, for the most part, were supportive, especially from my younger brother. We are a year apart. He took it hard because he wasn’t around me to support me. Being far from family and friends was hard as I went through this alone. I ended up making a few friends, whom I could talk to about my feeling and thoughts. We are still very close to this day. I consider them some of my new best friends.

February 2017, I decided to come out publicly with a Facebook and Instagram post after attending my first pride. The responses were very positive from friends. It was a hard moment for me. But a year later I’m doing better than I had been.

Although I still struggle, I’m “fighting the good fight.” In the end, all I want is to be happy and loved for me. I have yet to date or be in a relationship, but I’m optimistic it will come.

I’ve been able to make friends through the National Gay Basketball Association where Mark Chambers brought me to my first tournament last April. I’m now looking forward to playing basketball at the Gay Games in Paris this August.

I hope by telling my story I can help someone out there relate and live their true life and pursue things even harder than I did. Plus, telling my own story may help me just as much, honestly. I can say now that I am still surviving and striving to be the best man I can be.

Things do get better. I don’t conform to any stereotypes. I’m just me, and there is power in that. I’m going to keep doing my best in everything I do and surrounding myself with people who lift me up.

Ajay Rutledge played basketball for NCAA Division II Mansfield University, Finger Lakes Community College and Daemen College, where he graduated majoring in history and government. You can find him on Instagram @d.oppelganger, or on Facebook. You can also reach him via email at Rutledge.ajay@icloud.com.