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Celebrating LGBTQ sports history: Derrick Gordon finds his freedom

Every day in October we’re looking back at the athletes, coaches and events that made LGBTQ sports history.

Derrick Gordon celebrates
Derrick Gordon

Every day this month, we’re looking back at our pioneers, the mark they left on our community and on the sports world, plus landmark events and stories that show Courage Is Contagious. Today, a look back at 2014 and the trailblazing coming out story of Derrick Gordon.

Derrick Gordon finds his freedom

By Cyd Zeigler

After a year of isolation, gay UMass basketball player Derrick Gordon discovered the strength to share his truth with family and teammates. He becomes the first active male NCAA Div. 1 basketball player to come out publicly.

Last Wednesday, at the request of redshirt sophomore shooting guard Derrick Gordon, University of Massachusetts men’s basketball head coach Derek Kellogg called a team meeting. Two weeks after his team’s upset loss to Tennessee in the NCAA tournament, Gordon had a secret he wanted to share with them, one that in a week’s time he would share with the world: He’s gay. No active male athlete in Division 1 college basketball, football, baseball or hockey had ever said those words publicly. After years of waiting for someone else to break the barrier, Gordon wasn’t going to wait any longer.

With the players and assistant coaches gathered in a room, Kellogg addressed the team. Gordon sat to the side, along with two confidants he had recruited for support: You Can Play’s Wade Davis and high school basketball coach Anthony Nicodemo. The two men had been instrumental in guiding Gordon through the coming out process.

Kellogg regaled the men with talk about the importance of diversity. Everyone on the team comes from a different background, he said; everyone brings something different to the court. Then, Kellogg broke the ice.

“I just wanted you all to know,” Kellogg said, “I’m gay.”

The team sat silently in disbelief. Since Kellogg had been married to his wife for almost nine years, the players knew something was up.

Gordon took stock of the quick reactions. For the last eight months he had distanced himself from the team, struggling with teasing from teammates and internal torment that nearly drove him from basketball. Gordon had locked himself away, separate from the team and the rest of the campus, since September. But in the last month, spending time with other gay people in sports, something different had suddenly driven him to share his secret: Hope.

His legs literally shaking, Gordon stepped in front of the team and shared his truth. It had been a long journey to that team meeting, defined by both struggle and triumph, so much of which revolved around the basketball court.

The transfer from Western Kentucky University nearly quit basketball last autumn after sitting out the previous season due to NCAA regulations. He was a big acquisition for the Minutemen, “instant offense” with the ability to shoot the jumper or drive hard to the basket. Fans – and Gordon himself – were excited by the prospects of his next three years in Amherst.

That was all nearly derailed when Gordon’s then-boyfriend last summer posted a photograph on Instagram of the two of them in front of a gay bar on the New Jersey coast. Gordon was wary of the post but figured there was little chance someone would stumble across the photo on a random Instagram account and identify him and said gay bar. Shortly after the post, almost as though he wanted to be discovered, Gordon “liked” the photograph online. Within hours, some of his teammates asked him if he were gay.

Gordon denied it repeatedly, but that didn’t stop various members of the team from teasing him about it. The snickers and snide remarks carried on for weeks. Slowly, it consumed him.

“That was probably the lowest point I was ever at. I didn’t want to play basketball anymore. I just wanted to run and hide somewhere. I used to go back to my room and I’d just cry. There were nights when I would cry myself to sleep.

Most of the time when you see me on campus, I’m alone. ... I feel like I can’t be who I am or live my life.”

“Nobody should ever feel that way.”

When Gordon eventually confronted his team – again asserting he was straight and demanding they stop harassing him – the teasing slowed. Yet the damage was already done. Throughout the season – all the way into the NCAA tournament last month – some teammates continued to wait until Gordon was done in the locker room before they would venture into the showers. The “gay” label lingered. The treatment built distance between him and the rest of the team. Gordon responded by isolating himself, which in turn was met with more distance from various players.

Getting to the point where Gordon considered quitting basketball is a powerful statement. He has been defined by basketball much of his life. After all, it was sports that lifted him out of what he calls a “bad neighborhood” and an ailing public school system.

From Plainfield, N.J., 25 miles west of Manhattan, he was a standout at basketball superpower St. Patrick High School where he played with the likes of future No. 1 NBA Draft pick and current Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving. His senior year with the St. Patrick Celtics was special. They were ranked No. 1 in the country for much of the season, with Gordon the No. 2 man behind Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the second pick in the NBA Draft a year later. That season, which ended in a loss to the nation’s No. 2 team, St. Anthony, was documented in the HBO film, Prayer for a Perfect Season.

The very sport of basketball Gordon nearly quit last autumn had opened up opportunities for him that young men in his community rarely find outside of sports. His twin brother, Darryl, wasn’t so lucky. Invitations to play sports at a private school didn’t come his way.

Until high school, the twin brothers were inseparable (Gordon wears No. 2 in honor of his brother). With Gordon headed to St. Patrick, Darryl was sucked into the public school system where he got involved with a very different crowd.

Gordon had been involved in a gang in middle school, but moving to St. Patrick saved him from it. Darryl’s involvement with a gang led to a first incarceration for drugs; He’s currently serving four years for shooting a man in the chest.

Derrick and Darryl
Gordon looks at this photo of himself (right) with brother Darryl before every game.

“I always blame myself, even though he always tells me it’s not my fault,” Gordon said. “If I had done more talking with him, maybe he wouldn’t be in the situation he’s in right now. I didn’t take it into much consideration when I was in high school. I didn’t realize it was going to reach this point.”

The permanent message on Gordon’s Twitter account reflects the personal penance he feels he needs to pay every day: “Everything I do is for my twin brother Darryl.” Darryl hasn’t seen his brother play basketball since his sophomore year in high school. Gordon keeps a picture of Darryl in his locker as a reminder every time he steps foot on the court. He takes the photo with him on road trips. Darryl is set to be released from jail several weeks before UMass’ season opener this November.

“I’m just so motivated, I’m not going to stop until I’m able to take care of my family and my twin brother.”

This past season was a roller coaster for the Minutemen. Starting the campaign on a 10-game winning streak, and winning 16 of their first 17 games, they climbed as high as No. 12 in the nation. But as Gordon found his stride on the court, the team hit the skids. They split their final 16 games, going 8-8, losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament to 11-seed Tennessee.

Gordon’s personal season was hit-and-miss as well. A highly touted transfer from Western Kentucky, where he led the team in scoring his freshman year en route to an NCAA tournament berth (and lost to Kidd-Gilchrist’s Kentucky Wildcats), Gordon struggled to start the season. He shot 5 for 20 in his first two games. As the season marched into the new year, his offensive game took off, finishing the season with a 47.8% field goal percentage and 9.4 points per game. He was second on the team in steals and fourth in points, leading all UMass underclassmen in both.

Through it all, Gordon kept to himself. No parties. No celebrations. The fire and energy he brought during games crept back into the closet once he stepped off the court. He was constantly looking over his shoulder, wondering if someone had seen him do something that could tip them off. He kept his phone with him at all times, always angling the screen away from others in case they might see a message from his ex-boyfriend.

“I was just afraid that if I was to go to a party or a gay club in Boston, someone might spot me. I was well-known in the Massachusetts area. I didn’t want to do anything where someone could recognize me.”

Gordon did feel safe in New York City, where he would venture out to gay clubs. He spent this past New Year’s Eve in the gay clubs of Manhattan – getting no sleep and taking two trains to get there – simply to be in an environment where he felt he could be himself, anonymously. A couple times in the last year someone did recognize him in a gay bar, driving him deeper into the closet and depression.

“It was the worst four years of my life,” Gordon said, despite the accolades and opportunities he’s received in those four years. “It was torture. I was just going around faking my whole life, being someone I’m not. It’s like wearing a mask because everyone else was wearing that mask. Now that I’m taking the mask off, people can finally see who I really am.”

The first cracks in the straight façade came last year when a mutual friend introduced Gordon to Davis, a gay former NFL Player and You Can Play project executive director. Gordon was struggling with the isolation that drove him to the brink of quitting the sport he loved, and their mutual friend didn’t want to see Gordon go that route.

“He seemed lost and confused,” Davis said. “He was searching for family, searching for a space where he could be himself. I don’t think he had that on his team, and he hadn’t met other gay males whom he could connect with. He was trying to navigate his love of basketball with his need to be his authentic self. He was bordering on depression.”

Over the last four weeks, as the season waned and his conversations with Davis became more frequent, Gordon’s outlook changed dramatically. In that time he has gotten a unique glimpse into the lives of gay men in sports who are living life openly. The depression waned, replaced by hope.

It was the night of Friday, March 14, that changed the course of Gordon’s life forever. UMass had just lost a heartbreaker to George Washington, 85-77, in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic-10 tournament in Brooklyn. Gordon had a fine game, shooting 4-for-9 with three steals, but the loss stung.

Sitting courtside was Davis, who comforted Gordon with a night out on the town in Manhattan. Joining them were former ESPN radio host Jared Max and Saunders High School basketball coach Anthony Nicodemo, who had come out as gay himself a year earlier. Suddenly Gordon found himself surrounded by openly gay men in various corners of sports, all of whom were publicly out. Two weeks later, Nicodemo and Gordon headed to Philadelphia to visit friends. Both entrenched in the basketball world of the Northeast, they ran in some of the same circles. On that trip Gordon met Brian Sims, the Pennsylvania state legislator and former Bloomsberg University football captain, who was out to his teammates in 2000, and Anna Aagenes, executive director of the national LGBT athlete network GO! Athletes.

While Gordon said he had read about gay athletes on Outsports for years, meeting these people – talking with them and laughing with them over the last month – has been a revelation. He had long felt he would come out to his family and friends after college, maybe a few seasons into his NBA career if he heads that direction. After that trip to Philadelphia, coming out and living his life authentically suddenly became urgent for him. He wasn’t going to live in the closet another day. While he had been waiting for another active big-time college athlete to come out publicly, he decided if he had to be the first then that’s what he was going to do.

As soon as he arrived at his parents’ home from Philadelphia the evening of Sunday, March 30, he told his family that he’s gay. Gordon said it was the hardest thing he’s ever had to do. While his father struggled a bit, his mother wasn’t surprised.

“Mom says I had gay tendencies growing up. In elementary school, I did ballet. I don’t know why I joined that, but back then I thought it was just fun. The girls would always pick on me because I was the only boy. My mom said we’d go to a football or basketball game, and I’d repeat the stuff the cheerleaders were doing.”

Gordon laughed.

“Back then people didn’t really catch on.”

The next morning, he was headed back to Amherst on a train, full of anxiety about telling his team. As his father drove him to the train station, their light chatter rolled around to their conversation the night before when his father struggled to speak with his son about the revelation.

“Are you sure about all this?” His father asked.

“Are you sure you’re straight?” Gordon replied. The two laughed. Dad hadn’t thought of it that way.

As the train rolled toward Massachusetts, Gordon’s stomach tied in knots thinking about talking with his team, an unexpected message from his father gave him new confidence: “I love you and I’m proud of you. I’ll always be there for you. Everything’s going to be fine.”

Last Wednesday, after coach Kellogg broke the ice with the team, Gordon stood before them and revealed that he’s gay. As he shared with them his story of isolation, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. While it had been easy for some of the young men to tease someone they thought was gay – and someone who denied it – the impact of their actions hit home when Gordon revealed the speculation was true, and that the teasing nearly drove him from the team.

“It was powerful for these players to see one of their brothers be so vulnerable,” said Davis, who said he had to turn away from the group in the room lest they see him get emotional. “These are some inner-city kids, some rough, tough kids who Derrick wants to be friends with. They understand who he is a little bit better now.”

The team responded well. Some of them lamented that Gordon had pulled away from them. It wasn’t their intent: The teasing had hit home in a way that landed wrong with him. In the locker room, guys tease one another for everything from penis size to haircut. Even your mama is fair game. They didn’t know how to talk with Gordon about their assumption that he was gay, so they relied on locker room teasing.

Of course, without that teasing, Gordon wouldn’t have pulled away. But it wasn’t just the teasing. So much of the conversation on the team was about girls. It’s a conversation Gordon has never felt part of. While he acknowledged that all of the perspectives in the room have some truth to them, he’s hopeful that now that he’s out to them he’ll be able to share his real dating experiences with them. It will be a true test for the team.

“It was powerful,” said Nicodemo, who was in the room. “Even Wade and I got a little teary-eyed when he started to choke up. I thought it went as well as it could go. His teammates listened, they pledged their support to him. I was really impressed with how coach Kellogg handled it. As coaches we have our own philosophy of what ‘program’ means. This showed some real strength in his philosophy. Nobody is going to be left out of the mix.”

Derrick Gordon celebrates on the sideline

Shortly after the team meeting, Gordon was over the moon, spending this past weekend in New York City. Dancing at Industry, a gay bar in Hell’s Kitchen, Saturday well past midnight, Gordon said he had found something indescribable.

“‘Happy’ is not even the word,” Gordon said. “It’s a great feeling. I haven’t felt like this. Ever. It’s a lot of weight lifted off my shoulders. I can finally breathe now and live life happily. I told all the people I need to tell.”

Davis cut in with the word – Gordon had found “freedom.”

Pat Griffin, often called the grandmother of the LGBT sports movement, has been working with UMass – her alma mater – and Gordon. She has noticed a measurable shift in Gordon’s attitude and behavior in just the last week when she first met him.

“It’s been fun to see how excited he is about just living his truth,” Griffin said. “It’s like watching someone start the first day of the rest of his life, to take a deep breath and say, ‘here I am.’ it’s very exciting to watch this young man who has had such a lonely experience just come into his own and feel so good about who he is.”

Now that the transformation of his personal life is nearly complete, he’s looking ahead to the rest of the week, year, and his burgeoning career. Gordon said the 2014-15 UMass basketball season has the potential to be special on the court. They should return three starters plus key reserve Trey Davis, a sophomore. Gordon won’t be satisfied until he hears the Minutemen in the conversation for a national championship.

Off the court, Gordon feels he now has a responsibility to other young gay athletes. He never expected to come out publicly now. Somewhere in the back of his mind he thought maybe after graduating from UMass or, if he plays pro ball, maybe after a few seasons there.

“God put me in this situation for a reason, so I have to take advantage of it. Maybe he wants me to be the starter of something big. Maybe he doesn’t want me to feel the way I felt anymore. Whatever he has in store for me, I’m ready.”

One of the areas he is taking aim at is stereotypes often saddled on gay men. Gordon is no “pansy.” From a rough-and-tumble neighborhood, he has added 25 pounds of muscle to his frame since high school. This isn’t gym-bunny muscle, it’s the hardened body of a warrior.

“People think gay men are soft,” Gordon said. “I’m not. Especially my background growing up, I was never a soft kid and I’ll never be a soft kid. People think gays are very delicate. That’s not the case at all. I know Michael Sam and Jason Collins aren’t delicate. My strength coach compares me to a pit bull. There’s no softness in this body.”

While Gordon will be laser-focused on basketball, he also understands his potential role in helping LGBT people avoid the depression and isolation he experienced. It’s not something he is going to shy away from.

“When kids aren’t able to come out, I know why. It’s a scary thing. That’s one of the reasons I’m doing this. I want to give kids some courage and someone they can look up to. If I can come out and play basketball, then why can’t they do it? I want to be able to help those people.

“I truly believe this year is going to be very special.”

Last month, Cyd wrote a happy update about Derrick Gordon: he signed to play pro basketball in Cyprus, once again carving himself another slice of history.

You can find Gordon on Twitter @flash2gordon.

We’ll have another LGBTQ Sports history story tomorrow and every day through Oct. 31.