Sports

Openly Gay Basketball Player Makes NCAA Tournament History

CREDIT: Frank Franklin II, AP

Seton Hall's Derrick Gordon (32) celebrates with teammates after Isaiah Whitehead (15) made the game winning shot against Villanova during the Big East men's tournament Saturday, March 12, 2016, in New York.

March Madness just became a bit more inclusive.

When the Seton Hall Pirates take on the Gonzaga Bulldogs on Thursday night in Denver, Colorado, Derrick Gordon will become the first openly gay basketball player to take the court in a NCAA Tournament game.

Gordon accomplished this milestone after Seton Hall stunned No. 2 Villanova in the Big East Championship on Saturday.

However, this will actually be Gordon’s third appearance in the NCAA tournament. In fact, he is the first player in NCAA history to make the field of 64 with three different teams: He also made it as a freshmen with Western Kentucky in 2012, then again two years later as a redshirt sophomore at the University of Massachusetts.

But Gordon didn’t come out to his teammates or to the public until a couple of weeks after UMass was upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament by Tennessee.

At the time, Gordon spoke candidly about the isolation he felt while he was in the closet and trying to hide his true identity.

“Most of the time when you see me on campus, I’m alone. I eat alone a lot,” Gordon told Outsports in 2014. “Since the school year started in September I haven’t been to one party. I’m always working out or lifting or in my room. I do the same thing over and over every day. I feel like I can’t be who I am or live my life.”

But once Gordon did come out to his teammates, he received a flood of support, and as the first active Division I men’s basketball player to come out, he also received a lot of attention. For the most part, he embraced it.

Gordon surprised even those close with him when he decided to transfer away from UMass after the 2014-15 season, but he was clearly looking for a bigger platform.

“I want other people to look at me and say, ‘OK, damn, he plays for a top school, he’s one of the top players on his team and he’s openly gay.’ That’s one of the main reasons I came out: to be myself,” Gordon told ESPN’s Pablo S. Torre last October for a feature in the magazine’s “Being Out” issue.

In the piece, Gordon talks openly about the need for visible LGBT athletes:

But being a public figure has its hazards. Some people Gordon once trusted want to use him for his platform. And online, total strangers cut him down. “I’ll read comments, and people will say, ‘Why is this story up here? Why is this a big deal?'” Gordon says, his voice rising, sharpening. “Why is it a story? People are killing themselves just because they feel like they can’t be themselves. That’s why it’s a big deal. You got kids running away, people taking their lives at a young age. Because they feel like people like you aren’t going to accept them for who they are.” He takes a breath. “If it wasn’t a big deal, everybody would be out. But I’m the only one right now. And I want that to change.”

However, Torre observed a decided shift in Gordon after he transferred to Seton Hall, a Catholic university that allegedly fired a New Jersey priest for supporting same-sex marriage last year.

Gordon sent Torre texts asking that the feature focus more on Gordon as a basketball player than Gordon as an openly gay basketball player, and subsequently shut down his social media accounts, which he had used to display his gay pride since coming out.

“I have a year left to make an impact, and I don’t want anything coming back at me as far as me being openly gay,” Gordon told Torre.

But in the months since that article, Gordon has reemerged on social media, and though his posts now are mostly about Seton Hall basketball, it’s not like he’s gone back in the closet — #Equality and #BeTrue are right there in his Twitter biography.

Gordon is the only senior on a team of underclassmen at Seton Hall, and even though he’s not even a starter on the team, his teammates and coaches say his leadership and experience are huge reasons why the Pirates are dancing in March. To them, the fact that he is gay is a non-story.

Considering the fact that no other Division I basketball players have come out since Gordon did two years ago, and there are currently no openly gay athletes in any of the major sports in America, that might be the most significant part of his story. Gordon has not been a distraction. In fact, he’s been the opposite — he’s been a unifying force.

Come Thursday, Gordon will be focused on making another type of history: winning his first NCAA tournament game. He certainly hopes that the third time is the charm.