Long before Derrick Gordon revealed to his teammates he was gay during a team meeting last Wednesday afternoon, UMass coach Derek Kellogg suspected his sophomore guard was unhappy about something.
"There were a few occasions where he'd roll off by himself rather than with the rest of his teammates or he'd leave the Mullins Center looking like something was on his mind," Kellogg said. "We'd ask him and he'd say he was fine, but he clearly had some things he was wrestling with in his life."
What Kellogg has learned since Gordon's announcement is the 6-foot-3 New Jersey native was more isolated and depressed than he'd realized.
Tired of hiding who he was from his teammates and coaches yet unsure if they would accept him, Gordon avoided going to parties or meals with his teammates, regularly sequestered himself in his room or in the weight room and often cried himself to sleep at nights. He even pondered giving up basketball, quite a statement for a kid who credits the sport with lifting him out of a dangerous neighborhood and putting him on track to earn his college degree and perhaps play professionally someday.
Everything has changed for the better for Gordon since he revealed his sexuality to his team last Wednesday and became the first openly gay male Division I basketball player a week later. Kellogg said Gordon has been noticeably happier for the past week and he's hopeful that sharing his story with Outsports.com and ESPN.com on Wednesday will help inspire other closeted athletes to have the courage to come out of hiding.
"It seems like a big weight has been lifted off his shoulders," Kellogg said. "He seems a lot more energetic and upbeat. He gives you a harder high five or a bigger hug when he sees you, and I do believe one of the reasons for that is his teammates were so supportive. I think they had an idea or an inkling and they were relieved he came to them and told them."
If "Why is this news?" is the question most frequently asked when an athlete publicly reveals he's gay, the answer lies in Gordon's story and others like it.
This is still news because the machismo-drenched culture of male team sports often makes gay athletes afraid of how their teammates will react to their sexuality. This is still news because the fear and isolation closeted gay athletes often feel can lead to depression and even thoughts of suicide. This is still news because the courage of Gordon and the supportive reaction of his teammates can inspire other closeted athletes to feel comfortable being open about themselves too.
One of Gordon's confidantes as he was trying to decide whether or not to come forward was Jason Collins, the NBA center who revealed he was gay last April. Seeing the NBA community back Collins after his announcement and the New Jersey Nets offer him a contract in February gave Gordon the belief that he too could follow the same path.
"When Jason came back to the league, that's when I started to build a little more confidence about myself," Gordon told ESPN.com. "If the NBA can accept him, then everything is going to be fine in my book."
If Gordon too is destined to become a role model the way Collins is, it's a role for which he is well suited.
A shared passion for basketball brought twin brothers Derrick and Darryl Gordon together growing up in Plainfield, N.J., but it also split them up too. Whereas Derrick's desire to play in college led him to attend prestigious basketball powerhouse St. Patrick in nearby Elizabeth, N.J., Darryl was neither as tall nor as talented as his brother and remained in Plainfield, where he fell in with the wrong crowd.
Darryl has been in prison since May 2009 after being convicted of aggravated assault stemming from a non-lethal shooting. Derrick regrets not doing more to keep his brother out of trouble while they were in high school, but he has a tattoo that reads “My brother’s keeper” on his back and intends to live up to those words once Darryl is released later this year.
In the meantime, Derrick has emerged as a model student and an excellent basketball player. He started for UMass this past season and averaged 9.4 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals, helping lead the Minutemen to their first NCAA tournament berth in 16 years.
"Derrick is definitely mature beyond his years," Kellogg said. "He has had a lot of adversity in his life but he has persevered. He's a high achiever, whether in the classroom or the court. He has been exposed to a lot of things already, so if there was anybody his age that I think could deal with it, he's about as close to ready as anyone I've been around."
Kellogg intends to help as much as he can, whether by bringing in sports psychologist to speak with Gordon and his teammates, or by counseling him not to worry about any jabs or taunts he hears from opposing fans, or by simply sitting him down once every few weeks to see how things are going.
On Wednesday morning, not long after Gordon revealed his sexuality publicly, both he and his coach took to social media to share how they were feeling.
Wrote Gordon, "This is the happiest I have ever been in my 22 Years of living. No more HIDING!!!"
Wrote Kellogg, ""I have the most profound respect for Derrick and the decision he has made to come out publicly. He is a model student, a terrific competitor, but most importantly, he is a wonderful human being."
Soon afterward, Kellogg's phone rang.
"I got a call already from a person who told me, 'You don't realize but you probably helped save somebody's life today with the way Derrick went public and the way you handled the situation,'" Kellogg said. "When I heard that, I actually was somewhat moved to be honest. I thought that was really an important statement."
That, more than anything, is why Gordon's story is worth telling. It has the potential to empower others not to hide in silence any longer.
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