Derrick Gordon openly smiling
Derrick Gordon sat waiting outside the film room, his knee bouncing furiously up and down. He had wanted to tell his teammates something for more than a year, and now he was about to say it. And he knew that once he did, a lot of things would be different.
A minute later, the sophomore shooting guard stood and walked into the room, accompanied by University of Massachusetts men's basketball coach Derek Kellogg. Gordon faced his teammates, a group of guys he liked but had always kept at arm's length.
That was about to change.
Kellogg spoke first. "We're all here together, and we need to love each other for who we are," he said. "One of your family members, your brother, wants to let you know something about himself."
There was a pause. And then Kellogg tried breaking the ice. "I wanted to let you all know I'm gay," the coach said. His players all looked at him, stunned. What?
Gordon took his cue and spoke up.
"No, he's not. But I am."
Gordon told his team April 2, a few days after telling his parents and Kellogg. That same week, he sat down to share his story with ESPN and OutSports, becoming the first openly gay male player in Division I basketball. The decision to step forward publicly was a long time in the making for Gordon, a starter who averaged 9.4 points and 3.5 rebounds a game this season.
He had closely watched the news around NBA veteran Jason Collins and NFL prospect Michael Sam, both of whom are active players and have publicly acknowledged being gay. About a year ago, Gordon befriended former NFL player Wade Davis, who is now the executive director of You Can Play. Davis introduced Gordon to Anthony Nicodemo, the boys' basketball coach at Saunders High School in Yonkers, N.Y., who came out as gay last year. Davis and Nicodemo, along with several others, including Collins, mentored Gordon behind the scenes.
Gordon says that when the Minutemen returned home from their round-of-64 loss in the NCAA tournament, he began seriously considering coming forward publicly. He had accepted his sexuality during his freshman year in college, and in recent months had started checking OutSports to see who would be the first Division I men's basketball player to step forward.
"I was thinking about summer plans and just being around my teammates and how it was going to be," Gordon said. "I just thought, 'Why not now? Why not do it in the offseason when it's the perfect time to let my teammates know and everybody know my sexuality?' "
Once Gordon made that decision, he leaned heavily on his network of mentors.
"It was a rough process, actually, leading up to this. Those guys just helped me get to where I am right now," Gordon said. "If it wasn't for them, I'd be stuck. For this to be happening right now, me coming out, it's an indescribable feeling, honestly. I couldn't be any happier. I feel like I can fly."
Kellogg had called an impromptu team meeting, but no one knew why. "Before DG even said anything, I could sense that a weight was lifted from him," sophomore center Tyler Bergantino said. "He looked like a different person -- happier, stress-free, like that was the real him. Before, when he would walk into the locker room, there was this cloud around him, like you couldn't quite get to him."
Gordon's teammates had felt that distance, a wall they couldn't explain, ever since he transferred from Western Kentucky following his freshman season to be closer to his family in New Jersey. Now, it all made sense.
Inside that film room, only a second or two passed before someone spoke. Richie Hogans, the team's strength and conditioning coach and former linebacker at Memphis in the late 1990s, jumped in first. "You're part of our family," he told Gordon. "We're going to be there for you, and this doesn't change anything."
The first teammate to respond was sophomore guard Trey Davis. "We got you, DG," he said. "You're one of us."
Next up was junior center Cady Lalanne. "You're our family," he said. "We love you."
In quick succession, each of Gordon's teammates offered some version of the same sentiment. Nothing changes. You're our brother. We got this. We got you.
I don't want to hide in front of my parents or relatives or anybody now. I want to be myself, be who I am, around everybody.Derrick Gordon
"It ended up being kind of a short meeting," Kellogg said with a laugh. "The guys were like, 'We're behind you 100 percent. We cool?' "
For Gordon, it was the moment he had both wished for and feared. He had wanted for so long to tell his teammates and coaches, to live his truth, but he was scared they would view him differently -- or, worse, reject him. He wanted them to still see him as the player with the pretty floater and explosive first step, a key contributor for a program that made the NCAA tourney for the first time since 1998. He wanted to be that guy to them.
What if the truth creates a divide between me and my teammates?
That thought had nagged at him. But over time, Gordon came to realize the gap already existed. "I've lived my life hiding behind somebody who I wasn't," he said. "I wasn't really that close to anybody on this team because there was something I had to hide. So I distanced myself as soon as I got here, and nobody knew why I was doing that."
Bergantino roomed with Gordon two years ago, during Gordon's redshirt season, watching him keep to himself. As Bergantino tells it: "At first, we all would say, 'Come on, come on, come out with us tonight! Come out to eat.' But he would always say, 'Nah, I'm just going to chill here. I'm tired.' It got to the point where that's what he said every time. And we just thought he wasn't the kind of guy who wanted to do stuff in a group."
Gordon recalls how he used to talk about women around his teammates, pretending he had a long-distance girlfriend. He says he has known the truth about himself ever since childhood, but only in the past two years has he embraced it. "I don't want to hide in front of my parents or relatives or anybody now," he said. "I want to be myself, be who I am, around everybody."
Two days before coming out to his team, Gordon went home to Plainfield, N.J., to talk with his parents. The three of them sat in the living room, but he couldn't find the words he wanted. He grew up in an environment where people rarely discussed sexuality and the issues surrounding it. And as a teen struggling with his identity, he didn't know where to turn for reassurance.
By the time he was ready to tell his parents, Gordon had little practice actually saying the words "I am gay" out loud. So he told them he needed to share something important, and that he needed them to guess what it was. He listened and waited as they cycled through worrisome scenarios.
Are you in trouble? Are you sick? Have you been kicked off the basketball team?
Finally, on the seventh or eighth guess, his mother, Sandra, asked the question he was hoping she would ask.
"Are you gay?"
"And I hopped on it real quick," Gordon said. "I said, 'Yes, that's it.' And she just looked at me and froze. She was shocked a little bit, but she also said she knew a little bit, too. That's what surprised me, honestly. But, like they always say, mothers know."
Derrick's father, Michael, said little at the time. He seemed to be processing the news, and didn't reach out to his son (the two usually text frequently) for about 24 hours after Derrick returned to UMass. But when Michael did call, his message was this: I will always love you and support you, no matter what.
Meanwhile, Derrick still had to tell his two siblings: his fraternal twin, Darryl, and their older brother, Mike. Derrick says Mike responded well to the news, telling him nothing would change between them. But things didn't go quite as smoothly with Darryl. Not much has been easy with him ever since he entered prison in 2009, convicted of attempted murder at age 16. He shot a man at point-blank range after the guy pulled a knife during a neighborhood altercation. The man survived, and Darryl is now serving the final months of his sentence.
Derrick dedicates everything he does to his twin brother, on and off the court. The two were closer when they were younger, but their paths diverged when Derrick enrolled at St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth, N.J., focusing more and more on hoops. While Derrick grew to be 6-foot-3, Darryl topped out at 5-5; he also stayed behind in Plainfield and started running with the wrong crowd.
After Derrick came out to his parents and older brother, he called Darryl in prison to tell him. Darryl sat with the news overnight, and it was clearly eating at him when he called Derrick to talk about it some more the next day. "I've been crying," Darryl told his brother. "This is something I can't believe. This can't be you. Maybe you need counseling?"
Derrick rejected that idea outright. No way. "This is who I am," he said to Darryl. "I'm happy with who I am, and I just want you to support me."
During the next few days, Darryl thought on it some more, eventually telling Derrick he would give him his full support.
One of the common refrains surrounding gay athletes, specifically their decision to go public, is they will somehow become a "distraction" to their teams, a sideshow for media and fans. But Kellogg says he thinks this news might galvanize his UMass squad and finally allow Gordon to play with more freedom and ease. "I'm looking at this as something that brings our team closer together," Kellogg said. "From speaking with Derrick, I realized the pressure he had, the weight that was on his shoulders."
With that weight lifted, Gordon wants to improve on the court and pursue his dream of playing in the NBA. He is close friends with Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving and Charlotte Bobcats forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. But he says his greatest inspiration came when the Brooklyn Nets signed Collins in February, making him the first openly gay active player in NBA history. "When Jason came back to the league, that's when I started to build a little more confidence about myself," Gordon said. "If the NBA can accept him, then everything is going to be fine in my book."
Gordon and his teammates know there might be moments next season when an opposing fan says something cruel. Bergantino says if that happens, it will only make them all stronger. "We will bond together and pick our teammate up," he said.
For now, Gordon isn't thinking about the sliver of meanness that might come. He isn't thinking about the darkness he has left behind, either. "I'm just so happy and excited to finally put this out there," he said. "And I'm interested in seeing the support I get from different states when I go play in those other arenas. Hopefully I'll finally see a gay flag in the stands, which I've never seen before. It's going to be interesting. It is."
And then he smiles -- something he has been doing a lot lately.