He hate me   

Updated: February 16, 2007, 3:54 PM ET

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Tim Hardaway hates me.

The former five-time NBA All-Star has never met me. He doesn't know me. But he hates me.

I swore a long time ago that I would never write a "coming out" column. And believe it or not, this isn't intended to be one. It's just that this is the first time I've been provoked to the point of a certain ancillary admission. I've never had an inclination to disclose anything to anyone really. Sure, the frequent inaccurate assumptions can be frustrating, but in an age of too much information I prefer to err on the side of less rather than more. This isn't to say that I live out an especially clandestine operation, but I've never actually said those three declarative words to a boss or a coach … or even to my parents.

Tim Hardaway

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Professionals aren't supposed to let personal beliefs inhibit their play.

But this column is not a partiality disclosure -- or worse, an Internet announcement to my mom and dad (my father has passed and my poor mother doesn't know the Internet from her elbow).

This column is about athletic professionalism.

While I believe Tim Hardaway's comments were tactless and hurtful, especially because they were stridently directed at me, I still believe them to be permissible. We can say whatever we want in this country. That's generally a really good thing -- with freedom comes variety. But inherent in that privilege is a regrettable truth: Free, unfiltered speech sometimes brims with hate.

And sometimes frightening messages are projected through very large microphones.

And sometimes the result is devastating.

Still, just because Tim Hardaway's comments were so bluntly hard-hitting and happened to be uttered on a sports radio show doesn't necessarily make them of automatic interest to the general sports consumer. A professional hoopster who makes a forthright statement of hate is just that -- a basketball talent with a vengeful agenda and loose lips. Even coming from a basketball player, personal beliefs shouldn't necessarily interest you, the sports fan …

… until the player proclaims that his hate is so severe it would affect his ability to play his sport.

That's when it becomes relevant to the sports consumer. (Just as an athlete's sexuality can be a dormant nonissue until it affects him and the sport he plays.)

You may react any way you choose to this issue, which is by many counts politically and religiously charged. Like with all personal differences, you may choose to tolerate, accept or support unreservedly. Or you can roll your eyes, close your ears and throw up your hands in exasperation. You can disapprove with abandon and hope it never happens in your family (then look the other way when it does). Or you can hate -- absolutely and unconditionally. You are entitled to that. Tim Hardaway is entitled to that. Hate is a filthy and disgusting emotion that is yours for the taking.

Tim Hardaway said, "I hate gay people." You may hate gay people too. You may respect Tim Hardaway more because he is willing to unshakably declare his hate for people like me.

Those sentiments make you and Hardaway unequivocally homophobic, which is personally disheartening to me but nonetheless irrelevant to some sports fans.

But what if a professional athlete claims hate and homophobia affect his or her ability to play? As a sports fan, don't you question the mental toughness of an athlete who allows himself to be affected by off-court matters (that aren't even his own)? Personal ideology -- even hate -- should never inhibit job performance, especially in an elite profession.

Which I suppose makes Tim Hardaway unprofessional at best.

He says he just couldn't do his job next to someone he doesn't like or believe in. Shoot, it sure would be great if we didn't have to work with people we didn't like. And maybe our co-workers could all lead upright and respectable private lives too! (Workplace euphoria? That's right up there with the dreamy idealism that someday this will all be a nonissue and nobody really hates gay people these days anyway. It's all in our heads.)

Bottom line -- you don't have to agree that Tim Hardaway's homophobia makes him a bad person. You can stick to your hidebound guns. But you have to admit, as a sports fan, that Tim Hardaway's homophobia is a weakness that detracts from Tim Hardaway the professional basketball player.

An apparent unwillingness to roll off a pick set by a teammate he hates, or D-up an opponent who personally disgusts him, is evidence of an indisputable lack of focus on the objective. An athlete who allows himself to be distracted by anything outside of the objective is inferior. Stats, salary, divorce, injury … the hot bartender from last night … the fact that the sixth man is gay -- none of them should cross his mind in the workplace. Ever. Because he should be in a zone far above that.

We preach focus in athletics. We are taught to block everything else out. It's that ability that allows elite athletes to regroup and successfully compete hours after the death of a loved one. But Tim Hardaway couldn't play basketball on any given night if his power forward was spending his life with a dude.

I had a coach in high school -- a big, gruff, gray-haired purist who loved to bark at us. He would call us together and open every single practice and game with the same forceful speech.

"We're on this field right now OK. Right now we're all right here. Right here! We are all blessed to be out here OK. I don't care about your tests or your teachers out here. Right now I don't care about your problems or your periods. I don't care about your boyfriends OK … hell I don't care about your girlfriends [which he said just like that, not to be inclusive but only to re-emphasize the absolute and far-reaching tenets of his coaching doctrine]. A bomb could go off behind this bench and damnit you better not turn around! Get your minds off everything else that's not on this field OK. Let it go and get your head in the game. This is all that matters right now OK …"

So for a few hours every day we blocked out riotous teenage emotion and focused on the game.

You'd think professional athletes could figure that out.

Mary Buckheit is a Page 2 columnist and can be reached at marybuckheit@hotmail.com.


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