AMHERST, Mass. -- On April 8, Derrick Gordon was just a shy young kid from Plainfield, N.J., a former high school teammate of NBA stars Kyrie Irving and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and a central figure for the burgeoning UMass basketball program. Getting four words out of him was a journey.
A day later, getting four minutes of his time was an adventure. Gordon was in headlines worldwide after telling ESPN he is gay, making him the first openly gay Division I men’s basketball player. Anderson Cooper was giving him shout-outs. Tyra Banks was sending him direct messages on Twitter.
Gordon can only sigh, “Gosh,” as he reflects on his overnight celebrity.
The starting off-guard for a UMass squad that ended a 15-year NCAA tournament drought last month isn’t just a public figure now. He’s a culturally significant one, a voice for social change, part of a first wave of openly gay male athletes in team sports alongside Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins and Missouri defensive end Michael Sam.
And with it, he has been thrust into new, unfamiliar waters as a public speaker.
Sunday afternoon in the Mahar Auditorium on the UMass campus, Gordon was the last of 10 speakers in the school's annual TEDx series, an independently organized local version of the popular global conference series. The subject of his speech was written across his black Nike T-shirt in a rainbow pattern, the same shirt he wore in the picture he tweeted of himself announcing his coming out -- “Be True.”
“Honestly I didn’t expect this at all,” Gordon told ESPNBoston.com before his 15-minute speech that concluded the day’s events. “I’ve been doing so much. Now I know how those celebrities feel when they’re always on the move and can’t be at certain places. I kinda know it a little bit now. I’m a public figure; everywhere I go everybody knows me. I gotta make sure that I’m keeping my head on straight.”
Proudly sporting his “Be True” shirt, along with a rainbow-colored rubber bracelet from the Stonewall Center, the school’s LGBT-geared resource center, Gordon said he has felt a new bounce in his step. Even in simple pickup games, he says he “could feel it,” a newfound confidence and even keel.
“I might even surprise myself next season,” said Gordon, who averaged 9.4 points per game and 48 percent from the floor last season, his sophomore year.
Gordon says support from his team and student body has been 99 percent positive since he came out.
“I don’t have to hide nothing anymore,” he said. “My teammates want to ask me a question, ‘Where you going?’ I’m going to the gay club. Back then, I couldn’t say that. I had to say, ‘I’m going home with friends to hang out.' Now I can finally be able to tell them and not have to worry about me being nervous or anything like that.”
It wasn’t always that simple.
In his talk with the capacity crowd in Mahar, Gordon let his emotions out, at times pausing as he held back tears while he told his story.
He recalled his time as a freshman at Western Kentucky when he first began to experiment with gay-oriented social networking apps. Gordon said he began dating a female cheerleader at WKU as a cover-up and in retrospect felt bad about the way he treated her.
“I used her to hide my sexual orientation,” he said.
Gordon transferred to UMass after his freshman season with the Hilltoppers in 2011-12 and began to explore more. One pivotal moment came last year, when he revealed to a few teammates that he was at a gay nightclub.
Telling his own mother? That might have been the toughest. Gordon choked back tears talking about his mother.
“Every day I talked to her on the phone, I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. She didn’t know I had to cry myself to sleep every night,” he said, struggling.
When he finally revealed to his mother that he was gay, he says she froze. When he revealed it to his team, he recalls teammates having “a shocking look on their face,” though noting “nobody was surprised.”
“It still wasn’t enough,” he said. “I felt that it wasn’t there yet. I needed to go to the next level. We needed to go public with this.”
Gordon reached out to a good friend at the You Can Play foundation. Soon, interviews were set up with ESPN and Out Sports. The rest is history.
“If I’d have known this before, I would have came out as soon as I came out of my mom’s stomach,” he said, laughing.
Gordon ended his speech with a message he’s learned to embrace: “Stay true to yourselves.”
He then thanked the audience and invited dozens in the front rows on stage to join him in what he loves doing best these days -- dancing.