Jallen Messersmith of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., has come out and is believed to be the first openly gay player in U.S. men's college basketball.
The 6-foot-7 shot-blocking specialist told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he revealed his sexual orientation to his coach last summer and his teammates before the season. He later told his story to Outsports.com, a website that covers gay issues in sports, and its story was posted Tuesday -- a month after 12-year NBA veteran Jason Collins, a Washington Wizards reserve, came out in a Sports Illustrated article as the first openly gay active player in the NBA.
"He wasn't a buffer for me," Messersmith said, adding that just about everyone at 2,000-student Benedictine knew his sexual orientation months ago. He said he had not corresponded with Collins.
"It's awesome to have another person in my sport to come out (nationally) beforehand," Messersmith said.
Messersmith said he was interviewed by Outsports.com in March. He said he's received nothing but positive feedback since the story was posted.
Though he acknowledged he felt anxious about the reaction, he said he wanted to come out to help other gay athletes feel comfortable about who they are.
"The big thing for me, why I wanted to do it, before the whole Jason Collins thing, is there weren't a lot of basketball-related stories like this," Messersmith said. "When I started coming out, I didn't have anyone to look to for advice or to see how their story went. People can look to see what happened to me -- and there are positive things going on."
Benedictine is affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, which condemns homosexual acts but teaches that gay individuals should be treated with respect, compassion and sensitivity.
Messersmith said he's not a practicing member of any religion now. He said he was raised as a Mormon and, even though that religion also disapproves of homosexual acts, he enjoys the full support of his family.
Benedictine athletic director Charlie Gartenmayer and men's basketball coach Ryan Moody declined comment, referring to a statement the school released Wednesday.
"We support Jallen as a Benedictine College student and as a member of the Raven basketball team," the statement said. "Obviously, it would be inappropriate for us to discuss the private lives of students. As an institution we treat all students with respect and sensitivity."
Brett Fisher, a starting guard and one of Messersmith's best friends on the team, said Messersmith came out to teammates individually. Fisher said some were shocked and others didn't blink.
"I think it takes a lot of courage to come out to everyone you know," Fisher said. "He sort of feels like he had a thousand pounds lifted from his shoulders when he came out."
Messersmith said he couldn't have hoped for a better reaction from teammates.
"A couple came up and told me if I have any issues with anybody, they've got my back," he said.
The 20-year-old from Blue Springs, Mo., will be a junior for the Ravens next season. He appeared in 28 games this past season, starting the last eight, and averaged 4.9 points and 3.6 rebounds. He blocked 53 shots, and his average of 1.89 a game ranked third in NAIA Division I.
Messersmith said he comes from a basketball family. He also plays piano and likes to draw in addition to playing video games and listening to music. He's an accounting major who is involved in student government and serves as manager for the Benedictine women's lacrosse club team.
Messersmith said he's received more than 100 texts, emails and messages through social networks since Tuesday, one from as far away as South Africa. He said he couldn't imagine what the public's reaction would be if he played in a major-college basketball program.
"For sure it would be a bigger story, and this seems pretty big," he said.
Kerri Kos, a fellow Benedictine student and Messersmith's best friend, said she was scared for him when he told her he wanted to come out to the basketball team.
"He doesn't want his teammates to live in the dark about it," she said. "The basketball team is incredibly close. To be part of the team, he needed to be completely honest about it. He took a huge leap of faith, and people responded positively. I'm so happy about it because it shows progress."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.