AMHERST — Miserable, isolated, frustrated, and confused, Derrick Gordon boldly changed the frame around his life in April when he chose to come out as gay to his family, friends, and basketball teammates at the University of Massachusetts.
He figured he wasn’t the Derrick Gordon they all knew.
But he figured incorrectly, and it’s that miscalculation that now brings Gordon, the only self-identified gay man in Division 1 NCAA basketball and the
UMass Minutemen’s best player, a broad smile, an easy laugh, and a boundless sense of relief.
“Come to find out, when I came out, all of them knew I was gay,’’ Gordon, 22, recalled last week, his words and manner conveying a delightful, near-comical sense of disbelief. “I was like, ‘Why didn’t y’all say anything? Y’all at least could have been asking, ‘Are you all right?’ ”
UMass is angling for a return to the NCAA Tournament with the talented 6-foot-3-inch Gordon essential to its success, and his story is squarely at center court. In recent weeks, the redshirt junior guard has retold his story time and again to inquiring media, opening up his life for public perusal. It was a part of his life that only a short time ago he dared not tell even closest friends.
He has gone from an angst-ridden life of self-isolation, afraid to discuss his sexuality, to living as an open book, with people curious to know about his life, his game, and perhaps most of all, how he feels to be “Gay Derrick Gordon, The Division 1 Basketball Player.”
Turns out, he feels fine. He is happy not to be hiding anything. Happy not to be lying. Happy that his game, like his life, feels “freer,’’ to the point that he sometimes feels he can “fly’’ on the court.
He also is happy to be, he believes, on track to be drafted by an NBA team. Happy to be in a committed relationship with another man, a 50-year-old banker in Beverly Hills whom he met at a club in August, and firmly of the belief the two eventually will “do the whole nine’’ and live together as a couple.
“I was definitely in a hole, I would say, before I came out,’’ Gordon said. “I was struggling as far as what I wanted to do. And I was going to quit basketball. It was either I was going to quit or I was going to come out — one or the other.
“So after I came out, I mean, it was weight lifted off my shoulders, how happy I am, just smiling every day, just living life very happy.
“I mean, I wish I would have did it a couple of years ago. But everybody has a timetable as to when they are going to come out, and mine just happened to be April 9 and I don’t regret anything about it.’’
The team gets the news
Derek Kellogg, coach of the Minutemen, says he would not have allowed Gordon to quit, not without first having a long, heartfelt discussion. None of that was necessary, however, when Gordon first told his parents he was gay after last season’s NCAA Tournament, then rang Kellogg from New Jersey to inform him.
“I wasn’t really surprised,’’ recalled Kellogg, who employs Gordon primarily in a shooting guard role. “He was stuttering on the phone a little bit, he was nervous, and I said, ‘DG, come on, just tell me.’
“Then he just came out and said it, and I said, ‘That’s great. I am glad you are able to trust me enough, and the team and family enough, that you came out and told us.’ ’’
Three days later, Gordon was back at UMass, and Kellogg held a team meeting. He defused the tension, and then told them Gordon wanted to talk to them.
“Then they were like, ‘OK, got it, DG is gay,’ ’’ said Kellogg. “It was lighthearted and fun. It’s also an education piece for us, you know, why a young person has to come out and explain his sexuality. And when he explained it, we understood, that he felt kind of entrapped.’’
Tyler Bergantino, the club’s 6-foot-9-inch center, said Gordon’s news was not a shock to the players, but for some it added context.
“It was kind of like, ‘OK, now it makes sense why he’s not hanging out with us and stuff,’ ’’ said Bergantino.
Being gay, noted Gordon, typically left him with nothing to say when teammates discussed their dates with girlfriends or made plans to party. Typically, when they went their way after games or practices, he went his, which was often back to his dorm room to study (he is a sociology major) or to play video games.
“I used to lie about girls and stuff,’’ said Gordon. “Then it was just like, ‘Why am I lying? Why am I lying?’ First of all, I am older than most of my teammates. So it just felt weird.’’
Over the last year and a half, basketball player Jason Collins and football player Michael Sam, two higher-profile athletes, announced they were gay. Today, Gordon counts them as close friends.
Once out, said Gordon, he was surprised by the outpouring of support. To this day, he said, he has yet to suffer so much as an ugly word.
“People from overseas, different countries, reached out to me by Twitter, sometimes Facebook — Germany, Italy, France, and China — and it was just like, wow, I wasn’t expecting it to blow up that big.”
Gordon has a twin brother, Darryl, who hasn’t seen him play in years. Darryl Gordon, convicted five years ago of attempted murder, was released from jail and will be able to watch his brother play for the first time since their high school days.
Darryl, Derrick is delighted to say, figures to make a few trips to see him play this season at the Mullins Center, along with their parents, Sandra and Michael, and older brother Michael Jr., who is a high school basketball coach in Piscataway, N.J.
Darryl, said Derrick, “just got into the wrong crowd, started hanging with the wrong people.’’
When the time came to tell his family he was gay, said Derrick, it was Darryl who initially had the hardest time accepting it. For Derrick, it remains perhaps the biggest surprise of the entire experience.
“He was like, ‘Get counseling,’ ’’ recalled Derrick. “I said, ‘Counseling? What, because I am gay? What are you talking about, counseling? I am gay. This is who I am.’
“You are always gay and it is just a matter of time till you find out. It just happened to happen to me at 22 years old, I just happened to come to grips with it.’’
‘I’ll just smile’
The great unknown remaining for Gordon is how his story will play out in arenas away from UMass. When the Minutemen take the court in, say, Baton Rouge to play LSU on Dec. 2, will his reception be one of open arms, indifference, or otherwise? Or at the Dec. 23 game in Provo, Utah, how might the BYU crowd receive the only “out” Division 1 player in the country?
Gordon has considered the possibilities, readied himself for them.
If there are slurs directed his way, he said, “It doesn’t mean much to me. I am very happy that I am gay.
“You want to call me [slurs], I’ll do one thing — I’ll just smile.’’
Miserable. Isolated. Frustrated. Confused. That’s the old Derrick Gordon, a young man who found the courage to tell everyone what they already knew.