Monday, May 12, 2014
AMHERST — When Jason Collins became the first American male team-sport athlete to announce he was gay April 29, 2013, University of Massachusetts guard Derrick Gordon praised the NBA center on Twitter:
“Jason Collins comes out...Much respect...Just be yourself!!!”
Less than a year later, Gordon is following the trail Collins blazed.
The Plainfield, N.J., native who is completing his sophomore year at UMass, revealed Wednesday that he is gay, becoming the first Division I men’s basketball player to make such a revelation publicly.
With the help of You Can Play, an organization dedicated to supporting gay athletes and ending homophobia in sports, Gordon made his announcement through ESPN. He did both a SportsCenter segment and ESPN.com story with Katie Fagan, an ESPN columnist and author of the book “The Reappearing Act: Coming Out as Gay on a College Basketball Team Led By Born Again Christians.”
Gordon told ESPN that he had gotten tired of waiting.
“I just didn’t want to hide anymore, in any way,” Gordon said in the story posted Wednesday on ESPN.com. “I didn’t want to have to lie or sneak. I’ve been waiting and watching for the last few months, wondering when a Division I player would come out, and finally I just said, ‘Why not me?’ ”
Gordon told ESPN his secret had made him a loner.
“Before, I usually just kept to myself because I didn’t want to lie or be fake,” Gordon said. “But not anymore. I feel so good right now. It’s like this huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders.”
UMass coach Derek Kellogg said the team’s players and coaching staff were supportive when Gordon came out to them last week.
“They understand that this is a big moment in D.G.’s life. They were supportive and respected his decision. We’re going to move forward with him just being Derrick Gordon, the guy we’ve always known,” Kellogg said. “I’m impressed with the way my team has handled the situation and how supportive it’s been of D.G. I think they look at him as a family member and respect his decision.”
Gordon told ESPN that his teammates, who had teased him good-naturedly in the past, suggesting he was gay, were supportive when he finally came out. Gordon said teasing him about his sexual orientation isn’t off limits.
“Nothing is going to change. I want them to do what they do. The teasing, the name calling. Do it even more now,” Gordon said, grinning. “It’s not like they were trying to hurt me. I think this is going to make us more of a closer team.”
Gordon told his parents, his two brothers and Kellogg on March 30 and his teammates on April 2. Working with a support team of people he trusted from You Can Play, they planned Wednesday’s announcement.
Gordon expected attention, but it extended well beyond what he would have predicted.
“I didn’t know it was going to be this big. I knew it was a big deal, but not as big as it has been,” Gordon said. “I’ve been hearing from so many people.”
He said he was prepared to be a role model for other people considering revealing their sexual orientation..
“I’m changing lives right now. At the end of the day that’s the most important thing. There’s a lot of people that are killing themselves because they can’t be who they are,” Gordon said. “I can’t even imagine how it is for kids whose parents kicked them out of the house. With my family, I’m truly blessed for the way they accepted it.”
He said he’s already heard from someone.
“There’s a kid from Utah State that hit me up. I don’t know if he plays sports or not,” Gordon said. “I’m willing to help anyone whether they play sports or not.”
Gordon, who played high school basketball at New Jersey powerhouse St. Patrick, began his college career at Western Kentucky before transferring to UMass in 2012. Gordon sat out the 2012-13 season before becoming eligible this season under NCAA transfer rules. He started every game for the Minutemen and averaged 9.4 points per game.
Kellogg said he sees Gordon, 22, as well-prepared to stand up to the scrutiny that will likely accompany him after his announcement.
“Not knowing how everything is going to play out, I do think he’s mature for his age. With the support he has from his family and the team he has here, I think he’s a person who can handle it. I think he’ll be a good role model for someone in his situation,” Kellogg said. “Having the courage to do this is something that hasn’t happened before. Some years from now, it might have a place in history. This is something that’s important for him to get his message out and hopefully it helps other people in a similar situation so that they feel comfortable coming out.”
Gordon said he wasn’t worried about what opposing crowds might yell at him. He said opposing crowds had previously taunted him about his incarcerated twin brother.
“I have a tough skin for that. People have called me the worst things. Just this thing of me being gay, (taunts are) not going to bother me. They can say whatever they want,” Gordon said. “They said a lot of things about my twin brother and that didn’t affect me at all. It’s not going to affect me one bit.”
Kellogg believed Gordon’s decision will reflect well on the UMass program.
“I think people will realize how strongly we treat our players and our team,” Kellogg said. “I think this will be beneficial to our program. We’re all supportive of D.G. and his decision just like we would be with a lot of things players go through.
“I think kids in this day and age are pretty open-minded,” he added. “We need to respect each other for who we are. College is a great time for learning to respect people with a lot of different things going on. I feel pretty good that one of our players felt comfortable enough with me to do that. The message hopefully helps other people.”
UMass Athletic Director John McCutcheon released a statement Wednesday saying: “UMass is proud to have Derrick Gordon as a member of our athletic family and to honor his courage and openness as a gay student-athlete. UMass is committed to creating a welcoming climate where every student-athlete, coach and staff member can be true to themselves as they pursue their athletic, academic and professional goals.”
Several teammates voiced support on Twitter.
Junior Cady Lalanne: “I support DG, it takes a lot of courage to come out publicly with something as sensitive as this. On behalf of me and my teammates, we have your back. #brotherhood.”
Freshman Seth Berger: “DG is my brother and like a brother he’ll have my support through anything and everything.”
Tyler Bergantino, Gordon’s former roommate, said his opinion of his friend hadn’t changed.
“The fact that he’s gay doesn’t change anything,” Bergantino said. “We didn’t know he was gay before. We know he’s gay now. But he’s the exact same person.”
Gay athletes have been common in women’s sports and not uncommon in men’s individual sports for decades. But prior to Collins, no gay athlete in the NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball or Division I football or basketball had appeared in a game after revealing they were gay publicly during their playing career. Several athletes have come out following the completion of their playing days, but none made the admission while still active. Eric Lueshen was an openly gay kicker for the Nebraska football team in 2004 and 2005, but never appeared in a game.
After coming out to Sports Illustrated in 2013, Collins, a free agent, was not signed for the first half of the 2013-14 NBA season causing many to speculate it was due to his sexuality. The Brooklyn Nets signed Collins in February for the remainder of the season.
Michael Sam is expected to be the next gay athlete to play professional sports. The Southeastern Conference defensive football player of the year at Missouri is expected to be a mid-round selection in next month’s NFL draft.
Sam tweeted support at Gordon: “Many congratulations to you Derrick Gordon @flash2gordon - you have so many in your corner and we’re all proud and rooting for you #courage.”
Collins had a similar sentiment: “I’m so proud of @flash2gordon. Another brave young man who is going to make it easier for so many others to live an authentic life. #courage.”
Gordon told ESPN he was inspired by Collins, whom he spoke to before coming out.
“When he came out I wanted to come out the next day. It was a relief. Finally it happened, but I still couldn’t jump the gun. He wasn’t in the NBA at the time when he came out. When he came back (to the NBA) I started to build a little more confidence,” Gordon said. “He’s a great guy. I got a chance to talk to him. He was really giving me advice and let me know if I ever needed anything or to talk to anybody. He really gave me the boost of confidence that I needed.”
Gordon started a new Twitter account to mark the milestone — @flash2gordon — with a picture of himself in a black Nike T-shirt that says “#BETRUE” in rainbow letters.
Gordon tweeted out a link to the same picture on Instagram, sharing his joy.
“This is the happiest I have ever been in my 22 Years of living...No more HIDING!!!...Just want to live life happy and play the sport that I love...Really would love to thank my family, friends, coaches, and teammates for supporting me.”
He added a thanks to his support team that included Collins and Wade Davis, a former NFL player who is the executive director of You Can Play, among others.
Gordon thought coming out would become less of a big deal the more time passed.
“I hope so. I have no idea. I guess because I’m the first one it’s a big deal,” he said. “As time goes on it’s going to be accepted. It’s going to be a lot easier for other kids.”
Matt Vautour can be reached at email@example.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage