AMHERST, Mass. — So the telltale statistic in this landmark instance would be zero. It was zero for the game at Louisiana State, zero at Brigham Young, zero at Saint Louis, zero twice in Philadelphia, zero amid the cozy wilds and gifted hecklers of St. Bonaventure.
The first regular season for the first openly gay Division I men’s basketball player nears its end pending a trip to George Washington on Saturday, and it has managed to yield zero anti-gay slurs, taunts, barbs, jeers or insults.
It did, of course, see other attempts at discombobulating.
“They would talk about my mohawk,” University of Massachusetts starting junior guard Derrick Gordon said, then he laughed as he does serially, being pretty much 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds of bursting happiness these days.
In a land chockablock with studious fans prone to learn the names of opposing players’ girlfriends, zero fans seized upon a detail 20th century fans might have relished.
“I think that’s pretty impressive, and I think it says something about where we’re heading that maybe those aren’t the things college students are going to make fun of,” said Anthony Nicodemo, the basketball coach at Saunders High in Yonkers, N.Y., and a friend of Gordon who came out two seasons ago. “They’re going to pick other things to make fun of. It’s great for college athletics, it’s great for LGBT people and it’s great for the institution [U-Mass.] that has had so much acceptance.”
Instead of whatever worries lined many imaginations after Gordon came out publicly last April 9, the season has brought a lot of routine, a measure of frustration (U-Mass. stands a rickety 17-13) and a heap of good will. A woman at LSU approached and said she felt honored to meet Gordon. Rainbow flags turned up here and there when U-Mass. played at Virginia Commonwealth. A St. Bonaventure fan tweeted pregame that the tribe should seek its degradations elsewhere (such as mohawks). Gordon surmised that even the odd agitator in bleacherland might hush to avoid public rebuke.
All the while his college experience grew rarefied in that key college place: online. In his friend Christian Fuscarino’s verb of choice, Gordon’s announcement “propelled” him briskly through multiple rungs of the usual, gradual coming-out, smack into the public. Teenaged gay athletes continue to contact and thank him on Facebook. Strangers ask clunkily for dates on Twitter. A few “big-time” college players, he said, have contacted him as they wonder about their own prospective comings-out.
On campus as he walked obliviously with earphones, one admirer stood behind him, then tweeted a photo about following around “my baby.” In Los Angeles, a photo from the GLAAD media awards last April propelled Gordon onto the TMZ celebrity gossip Web site alongside an actor identified as his boyfriend, an atypical college complication. The Miami Beach Gay Pride event set for next month invited him as an “ambassador.”
It’s all heady stuff for Gordon, a former New Jersey high school teammate of Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving who is averaging 10 points, five rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.5 steals per game in 30 starts this season for U-Mass.
“There has been no worrying,” said Gordon, 23. “Every day I’m always happy, smiling, playing the game that I love. It’s just like, honestly, I haven’t felt like this in a long time — ever, to be honest with you. . . . Ever since I came out, the places that I’ve been, the people that I’ve met, it’s just like, man, I should have come out in high school! It’s just a whole new world out there. I love it.”
“There’s a lot to be said for someone who every single day of life had to make sure that their truth is not found,” said Fuscarino, 24, the Brooklyn-based founder of the nonprofit The Pride Network. “When that stress is released, I think it impacts their energy and outlook on life. He’s almost more vibrant and colorful, so it’s really been an interesting process to watch.”
It also might free up his basketball, which Gordon considered quitting because of his two-world agony.
Said teammate Tyler Bergantino, a junior center: “It’s hard to compare because it’s the first time anything like this has happened, so it’s hard to compare this to something that people can grasp — or anybody can grasp, really. But overall, I don’t think the team has really been impacted that much. Of course, we all support him. We’re all there for him, but he’s still just D.G. to us. He’s a teammate. He’s a brother. You know, he’s a guy that we practice with every day, we hang out with, we don’t even think about, not even in the back of our minds, that he’s gay.
“So I think the team has been more than supportive, and I think you can tell there’s a big difference with him, too. I think he’s a lot happier now than compared to last year, the year before that. He’s definitely made tremendous strides just being more like himself around us. I know that’s hard to do. I mean, I can only imagine. Other than that, it’s really just normal for us now.”
That goes ditto for U-Mass., home to the nation’s third-oldest LGBT campus resource center (founded 1985) and to various gay athletes in various sports in various years. “This is not a new conversation for the folks over in athletics to be having,” said Genny Beemyn, director at the Stonewall Center. “It’s something they were not unprepared for.”
The school and men’s basketball Coach Derek Kellogg have treated it publicly as a non-issue, neither hyped nor avoided, as a player who happens to have a story. Gordon, in turn, enters daily a locker room where non-basketball chatter tends to run from women to women and then to women. He listens. He laughs. He enjoys. Teammates don’t tend to ask him about his dating life — one did ask once — but he can spot a respect in that, a trepidation about an unfamiliar subject.
“Some of my teammates, it was new, new to them, so they weren’t like, ready for that,” Gordon said. “It was a whole new thing. And then once it went public and the whole world knew, and then it was like, Now they’ve got to worry about talking to their friends back at home, like, ‘Oh, you’re playing with a gay basketball player; how does that feel,’ or whatever it may be. They really didn’t like it at first when I came out in public, because they just wanted me to keep it between the locker room,” but he explained why that couldn’t work in a camera-laden world.
“And I think as time went on” — three months, four months — “they knew they weren’t my type anyway, so once that got out there, and they know they’re my teammates and y’all are like my brothers, and I look at none of y’all like that. And even if y’all were my types, I wouldn’t, because this is like my job. I’m not gonna bring my sexuality into my job like, ‘Oh yeah, I like this player.’ No. I don’t do that. I just don’t do that.”
Near the end of an hour of uncommonly open talk about happiness and disbelief and TMZ and the significance of zero, Gordon said, “Yeah, I figured out a lot. . . . And it’s like one time I was like an amateur, and it’s just like now I’m a veteran. And a veteran at 23. Wow.”