Former UMass guard Derrick Gordon has no regrets as he walks away from basketball

  • Former UMass guard’ Derrick Gordon, who was the first openly gay Division I college basketball player, is no longer pursuing his NBA dream. AP

  • Former UMass guard Derrick Gordon said he has no regrets as he puts his basketball career behind him to become a firefighter in San Francisco. AP

Published: 7/27/2016 11:35:20 AM

Derrick Gordon is stepping out of the spotlight. He’s content with his place in the world, proud of his history and regret-free as a new future beckons without basketball.

Gordon, who played two years at UMass, was the first openly gay Division I athlete in either basketball or football. He hoped to be the NBA’s first openly gay draft pick and rookie.

Well before he announced his sexual orientation in 2014, Gordon wasn’t shy about his expectations for an NBA career. He was so confident in its eventuality that he even mentioned the possibility of leaving school early to enter the draft.

When he left Amherst to transfer to Seton Hall after the 2014-15 season, it was to improve his chances of playing in the NBA. He dreamed of taking care of his parents and creating opportunities for his brother who recently had been released from prison.

As a 6-foot-3 shooting guard without a reliable 3-point stroke, Gordon was never really on the NBA’s radar. But many, if not most, college players believe that someday their NBA dream is going to come true, no matter how obviously futile their hopes seems to everyone else.

The lucky ones realize soon enough and can build a nest egg with lucrative overseas contracts. Too many others stay stateside cashing paltry checks from the NBA’s D-League to stay close enough to be ready for the NBA call-up that never arrives.

Given how public he was with his NBA aspirations, Gordon seemed like a candidate to get stuck in D-League quicksand. But he announced last week that he was hanging up his high-tops to become a firefighter in San Francisco.

“I wasn’t expecting to stop playing basketball at 24, but some things aren’t meant to happen,” he said. “As much as you want them to it’s not meant to be.

“I’m glad I have a plan B. I’m pursuing it just as much I was pursuing being a professional basketball player,” Gordon added. “I didn’t get any workouts or anything like that. I didn’t want to keep waiting around. I wanted to see how things would play out and nothing changed. In a way I was given a sign that this was not going to happen. I had to come to grips with that. I had to put the ball down and pursue plan B. I’m totally happy with this decision.”

Gordon was 9 years old when the Twin Towers fell across the river from his New Jersey home on Sept. 11, 2001, and his middle school coach was a firefighter. The nobility of the profession appealed to him, and Gordon said it was always the unstated backup plan if basketball didn’t work out. He liked the idea of helping people and being part of a team.

“It’s something I thought about when I was little. I like to help people,” Gordon said. “I talked to my parents about it. It’s the best decision for me to move on with my career.

“It’s a lot different than basketball. But it’s still working as a team and I’m doing it in the best city. It’s a great opportunity and a great situation. At the end of the day as long as I’m happy that’s all that matters.”

That happiness extends to walking away from the game he’d been focused on since he was young. It also means stepping out of the public eye for the first time since he was a teenager.

Gordon’s St. Patrick’s High School team, which featured NBA players Kyrie Irving and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, was part of an HBO documentary “Prayer for the Perfect Season.” In college he was a key contributor to three different schools’ trips to the NCAA Tournament.

His announcement that he was gay made him a celebrity in and out of basketball. As a firefighter, he’ll fade back into a level of anonymity he’s never experienced as an adult.

“I did something that nobody has done in college basketball history. I was a risk-taker. I don’t regret anything. I left my mark on the court and off the court at the end of the day. Hopefully what I did can help the younger generation,” he said. “I’m happy with the way I’m leaving basketball.”

Gordon is in the early stages of training right now before heading to a firefighting boot camp in August. He’s not abandoning basketball altogether. Gordon is still planning to play for fun and the San Francisco Fire Department enters a basketball team annually at Firefighter Olympics (an event featuring departments from western states in various sports).

“If they want me to play, I’d play of course,” he said. “I’m still going to play for fun. Definitely.”

That, he promised will be enough.

“It’s a major happy ending. It wasn’t the ending that I wanted,” he said. “But it might be the ending that was meant for me all along.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.




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