AMHERST, Mass. (AP/WWLP) –Derrick Gordon had kept his secret for too long.
He couldn’t be himself. He considered giving up the sport he loved. Because he was gay, he distanced himself from teammates.
“I was living life in shame,” the UMass guard said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “It took a toll on me.”
Gordon became the first openly gay player in Division I men’s basketball on Wednesday, making the announcement on ESPN and Outsports. Now he hopes to inspire others in similar situations.
“It’s crazy that I’m the first,” he told the AP. “I didn’t know that it would be this long, but if I’m the first, then I’ll start it off.”
Previous announcements by NBA player Jason Collins and Missouri All-American defensive end Michael Sam made his decision easier. Gordon said he talked with Collins several times before making his announcement.
“There was a time that I didn’t want to play basketball anymore and that’s the worst feeling ever,” he said. “Right now I’m happy. I’m free just to live my life.”
Gordon was the Minutemen’s fourth-leading scorer with 9.4 points per game last season. UMass went 24-9 and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998. It lost its first game to Tennessee on March 21.
Nine days later Gordon told his parents, who have been supportive. The sophomore informed UMass coach Derek Kellogg the next day.
“He said it didn’t matter. He’s still going to love me for who I am,” Gordon said. “He said ‘It just might make you play a lot better next season than you did last season.’ So we joked around a lot.”
Two days later, he told his teammates at an emotional meeting. They, too, supported him.
Center Tyler Bergantino roomed with Gordon as freshmen.
“The fact that he’s gay doesn’t change anything,” Bergantino said. “We didn’t know he was gay before. We know he’s gay now. But he’s the exact same person.”
Gordon said some teammates at the Amherst, Mass., school probably have known since last summer. He sat out the previous season after transferring from Western Kentucky to be closer to his family in New Jersey, where he played at high school powerhouse St. Patrick.
“They could sense it because I kind of separated myself from the team,” Gordon said. “I didn’t really hang out with them as far as going to parties and stuff. I really kind of kept to myself, kept quiet. We went on road trips — I’d sit by myself and they were always wondering why. I did it because I didn’t want to put myself in a situation where maybe something happens and they end up finding out. Then what? I’m not going to know how to handle the situation.”
Gordon held off making the announcement to keep from diverting attention from the NCAA tournaments, which ended Monday night for the men and Tuesday night for the women.
“I’ve been getting tons and tons of support,” Gordon said. “I’m barely getting anything negative.”
That may be coming, but he’s confident he can handle it.
“I’m not too concerned about any away games in terms of the crowd. I have a tough skin for that,” he said. “They can say whatever they want.”
During the year he sat out, he considered giving up the sport but changed his mind “just because I don’t want to feel like I can’t be myself because our society doesn’t accept it,” Gordon said. “I want to be able to live my life happy and play the sport that I love.”
And help others who haven’t come out.
“I just hope I can give kids in general the confidence to just come out and live their lives and be free,” he said.
Collins made a trailblazing announcement last April when he came out in an interview with Sports Illustrated. In February, he became the first openly gay male athlete in the four major North American pro sports leagues when he signed with the Brooklyn Nets.
He tweeted that he was “so proud” of Gordon: “Another brave young man who is going to make it easier for so many others to live an authentic life.”
Sam, projected as a middle-round prospect in next month’s NFL draft, came out in interviews with ESPN, The New York Times and Outsports in February after his college career ended.
Sam also tweeted congratulations to Gordon: “You have so many in your corner and we’re all proud and rooting for you.”
Current NBA players Kyrie Irving of Cleveland and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of Charlotte played with Gordon in high school.
“I thought it was a great day for him and his family,” Irving said before the Cavaliers hosted the Detroit Pistons. “I’m proud of him. It’s a big step, not only in his life but in his career to get the weight of the world off his shoulders.”
“Derrick was a great teammate and is an even better friend,” Kidd-Gilchrist said before the Bobcats’ game in Washington. “I admire his courage and willingness to share his story.”
Kellogg praised Gordon’s “courage” and hopes the announcement will help others feel comfortable coming out.
“Some years from now, it might have a place in history,” he said.
For now, Gordon has a more immediate goal — returning to the court with his teammates.
“They’re ready to get back in the gym just as much as I am,” he said. “I can’t wait to get back with them and get ready for this upcoming season.”
UMass Amherst Athletics responded to Gordon’s revelation on Twitter:
“UMass is proud of the courage and the example shown by Derrick Gordon today as well as his teammates and the basketball program #UMassProud!”
Gordon’s announcement is historic, as no current male athlete in NCAA Division I athletics has come out as gay. University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam received nationwide attention after revealing that he was gay, but the likely NFL draftee had finished his run in college athletics at the time of his announcement.