IN THE YEAR after he made history, it seemed like the most amazing thing that happened to Derrick Gordon was that nothing really did.
There was the initial spike in exposure on April 9, 2014, when he became the first openly gay player in Division I men’s basketball. And there was the predictably toxic faction of the Internet that derided his quotes to ESPN (“I feel so good right now”), Outsports.com (“I can finally breathe”) and The New York Times (“I didn’t want to keep hiding”). But Michael Sam had come out only two months before Gordon; Jason Collins 10 months before that. In a country on the verge of legalizing same-sex marriage, news of a University of Massachusetts Amherst guard with an indiscernible pro trajectory almost felt routine.
The record shows that Gordon’s teammates — to whom he’d come out at a meeting led by their head coach, Derek Kellogg — responded with support. “You’re our family; we love you,” one player told him. Gordon’s actual family said the same. Come basketball season last fall, any strains of intolerance at otherwise hostile arenas proved categorically mute. “At the beginning, people were saying, ‘Fans are going to heckle him,'” Gordon recalls. “But I went to LSU, to BYU, to St. Bonaventure. Nobody said anything at all.”
By then, Gordon had already changed the header of his Twitter account to a rainbow-colored logo reading #BETRUE. He’d Instagrammed grinning, shirtless selfies for his thousands of followers. And he’d kissed his date, an older white actor, on the flashbulb-lined red carpet of the 2014 GLAAD Media Awards in New York. In the absence of comparable case studies — Sam never survived the NFL preseason; Collins played 172 minutes in 22 games before retiring — Gordon’s coming out and then, at long last, being out as an active athlete, was a signal. To countless young people, LGBT or not, he exemplified the progress America had made.
Which is why, this past spring, when Gordon vowed to transfer out of UMass in favor of a higher-profile D1 basketball program, his confidants had to flinch. Why risk losing such historic equilibrium? Being blissfully yourself while averaging a middling 9.8 points and 4.9 rebounds at a school you already attended was one thing. But finding a high-major team to opt in to an underperforming shooting guard who is also openly gay was, in its own way, more fraught than coming out. “For me, those variables are scary,” says ex-NFL player Wade Davis, Gordon’s mentor and an openly gay activist. But he adds: “Derrick is f—ing fearless.”
Or, as Gordon puts it, “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.”
It’s a crisp night in mid-May, and Gordon and I are sitting at the TGI Fridays in his hometown of Plainfield, New Jersey. He is 6-foot-3 with a mild mohawk and a bright smile, the sort of bass-voiced college kid who gets hit on upon entering a restaurant, as I can now officially attest. The hostess who shows us to our table caresses Gordon’s muscled, tattoo-sleeved right forearm before asking if he thinks she’s cute. The 23-year-old Gordon just grins until she leaves. “But if she’d stayed here,” he says, “I would’ve been like, ‘Uh, sorry to say it, but I’m gay.'”
Gordon’s reason for transferring is wholly preprofessional. (“Derrick wants to play in the NBA,” Davis told me. “Derrick is going to mention the NBA to you 10 times.”) At UMass, he bristled under a limited offensive mandate, going 1-for-16 from behind the arc in two years. That stat — both the accuracy and the attempts — is hardly how he sees himself. At St. Patrick High School, Gordon played with Kyrie Irving and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, both future lottery picks. At Western Kentucky, he was named to the All-Sun Belt Conference third team before transferring in 2012. Now he wanted an expanded role at an even bigger-name program. He wanted, as he announced on Twitter a few days before tonight’s dinner, Seton Hall University: a Big East, Roman Catholic school in South Orange, all of 25 minutes from this table.
But as often as Gordon will mention his NBA ambitions — 14 times at dinner alone — he must also be painfully aware that his professional stock is fading. And as both a player and a proxy for our collective progress, the very last thing Derrick Gordon wants to do is disappear.
FOR A LONG time, Gordon planned on coming out only when his college career ended. He had a bogus long-distance girlfriend and could keep a secret, so he figured he could survive. But everything changed one night during his first winter break at UMass, at about 11:30 p.m., while Gordon was dancing at his favorite gay club in Asbury Park, New Jersey. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says. As his favorite song, “Sweet Nothing” by Calvin Harris, thumped over the speakers, he received a peculiar call from one of his teammates wanting to know which club he was inside. “Paradise,” Gordon replied truthfully, praying no one would recognize the name.
Cue a roomful of voices cackling in the background of the call. Cue the teammate hanging up. Cue a panicked Gordon taking a photo with two random women and texting it to his teammates, in an effort to pre-empt further inquiry.
Gordon soon realized, however, that a picture he’d Instagrammed earlier that night had inadvertently been geo-tagged, triggering the teammate’s question. Weeks later, the locker room also discovered that Gordon had liked an Instagram photo in which he was posing alongside a man who was, as the team suspected, his boyfriend at the time. When confronted, Gordon repeatedly denied he was gay. “I’ve never run away before,” he says. “But that’s the time I really wanted to.”
No, Gordon’s teammates did not use slurs in their teasing. And yes, once he came out to the team in March 2014, they awkwardly explained that they were challenging not his sexuality but his denial.
But for over a year before coming out, most everything he did — eat, work out, play Call of Duty, cry — he did alone. Within the macho ecosystem of elite athletics, Gordon felt the sting of every smirk and every joke about going clubbing in Jersey. “Derrick needed community,” says Davis, who became a sounding board. “He needed to talk.”
At TGI Fridays, it turns out, there is still so much to talk about. Gordon speaks candidly, for hundreds upon hundreds of uninterrupted words, about what it’s been like to learn to be himself. He discusses losing friends who don’t approve. He recounts conversations with family members who embraced him immediately (his mother, Sandra, with whom he’s “very close”) as well as those who needed more time (his fraternal twin brother, Darryl, who was released from prison last fall after serving time for aggravated assault). He observes the tensions of interracial dating. He marvels at the frequency and forthrightness of lingering stares from interested men. “I didn’t know how the gay world worked,” Gordon says, shaking his head. “That was the old Derrick.”
In this community, the new Derrick was also pretty famous. After going from a rough part of Jersey to rural Kentucky to a Massachusetts college town, he couldn’t help but relish the time pop star Kylie Minogue danced atop his table at the GLAAD Awards; the time he was an ambassador at Miami Beach Gay Pride Weekend; the time he was feted at a Nike-sponsored LGBT sports summit in Portland, Oregon; the time he was a guest at a celebrity-studded Black AIDS Institute gala in Los Angeles; the time he wound up befriending Anderson Cooper, who once tweeted that watching Gordon “speak about being out and proud” was “incredibly courageous and inspiring.”
“If I knew that all this stuff was going to happen to me,” Gordon says now, “I would’ve come out as soon as I came out of my mom’s stomach.”
At dinner, Gordon keeps repeating how genuinely ecstatic he is — he will declare himself “happy” 16 times — even if he is currently crashing on a couch in his parents’ house, a modest place with white siding and a wooden cavity where a doorbell once might have been. “Now me and my boyfriend, we hold hands,” Gordon says. “In public, we do everything like a normal couple. I’ll give him a kiss on the cheek or on the top of his head. And if I get drafted next year, I’ll have my partner there with me, and it’s going to be very respectful. Little half-second kiss, hug, go around the table, hug my family, go up onstage. That’s how it’s supposed to be. It’s 2015!”
This dream — however unlikely for a prospect of his caliber — is why Gordon is off to Seton Hall, which cracked the Top 25 last season before its record plummeted to 16 — 15. “They want me to be a leader, to take control, to let me play freely and help them win games,” he says. Just four days earlier, he committed to coach Kevin Willard on his first visit to campus and then proudly shared the decision with the world.
HONEST AS HE is — Gordon will invoke that adjective 23 times over three hours — there are two subjects he prefers not to discuss. First, as an aspiring draft pick, he figures he should steer clear of political issues — those related to LGBT civil rights activism, specifically — that could make him look like he’s “worried about more than playing ball.” And second, as an incoming student at Seton Hall — aka the Catholic University of New Jersey — Gordon knows to steer clear of the story of the Rev. Warren Hall. “I’m here to play basketball,” Gordon says, when asked about it. “That has nothing to do with me.”
Exactly two days before Gordon’s visit, Hall, a popular campus chaplain, made national news when he tweeted that he’d been fired from his post by the Archdiocese of Newark, which founded and operates the school. According to Hall, who taught a class titled Spirituality and Sports, the given reason was a Facebook photo he’d posted in support of NOH8, an LGBT civil rights campaign, last fall. The archdiocese, for its part, denied this connection, as well as a student petition to reinstate Hall, who would come out as gay to Outsports.com in late May. The archdiocese simply said Hall’s assignment was ending.
At dinner, when I press Gordon on how much he knows about the Hall story — it had been covered by outlets from the Asbury Park Press to The New York Times — he shrugs. “None of that was a factor in my decision,” he says. “All this outside stuff didn’t cross my mind.”
This sounds implausible. But when I ask Gordon what his second-choice school was, my skepticism drops. He did not have a second-choice school. Gordon’s whole goal was to upgrade to a high-major conference, but only a few mid-majors — Bryant University, for instance — had cared to call.
“I was shocked,” he says. “If Seton Hall didn’t come after me, I’d be in a tough situation right now. That’s just flat-out honesty. I don’t know where I’d be.”
Through texts and phone calls, Willard clearly wanted him when no one else did. That’s what a devastated Gordon cared about the most. “Derrick didn’t even realize the Catholic piece was there,” Davis tells me. “He didn’t even realize the school was Catholic.”
In general, Davis, the executive director of You Can Play, a nonprofit representing LGBT athletes, does not fault his mentee for turning away from larger political and religious debates. “It’s just unfair for anyone to expect Derrick to be super engaged,” Davis says. “He’s gotta play well. He’s not reading Audre Lorde and bell hooks and James Baldwin.” The lesson Davis imparts to Gordon, for now, is more basic: Your visibility is your activism. His public presence is his platform. It’s how he can inspire change.
Gordon is reminded of this every couple of days, when he invariably gets a message online from a young person asking for advice or wanting to thank him. Over Twitter (nearly 10,000 followers) and Facebook (more than 1,300), he’s heard from closeted players in Division I and in top pro leagues overseas who all want to know whether the coast is really that clear.
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.”
TWO WEEKS AFTER our dinner, Gordon Instagrams three new photos of himself in Florida, cheerfully posing with a new boyfriend — the types of pictures he once tried to hide from view. I take the opportunity to ask, via text message, if Gordon would want to be photographed for this story. “Oh wow sounds great,” he replies.
Just two days later, though, Gordon sends another message, unprompted, with a request that a journalist is not permitted to grant: He wants to review and edit the story I’m working on before it’s published. I ask why.
“I might not want some things in there,” he writes. “I want the article to be about basketball and not about me being gay.”
When I first scan this, I assume that the word “not” is a typo. Other than his detailed visions of being drafted, actual basketball constituted only a fraction of our conversation. And given that Gordon steered clear of hot-button political and religious issues, I’m curious as to what he’s suddenly afraid of.
My assignment, I tell him, has always been to find out what it’s like to be an unapologetically gay player, this historic figure, in 2015.
“That side isn’t going to help me,” Gordon texts. “It will only hurt me.”
KEVIN WILLARD, NOW in his sixth year at the helm of Seton Hall basketball, initially studied Gordon when the guard was at St. Patrick and a solid 20 pounds lighter than his current 205-pound frame. The coach’s first thoughts: Boy, that kid can really defend, he plays really hard, he’s a great teammate. Gordon’s biggest basketball strengths five years ago, in other words, remained the same as they are now. But Willard’s second thought was about the main weakness that also remained: Boy, he really can’t shoot — where am I going to play him?
It’s a hot Thursday morning in mid-June, and the 40-year-old coach is sitting behind his giant brown desk inside Seton Hall’s athletic building, a brick fort guarded by a bronze statue of a flag-hoisting pirate with a knife in his teeth. Willard tells me he finally got the answer to his question in April, when his own Jersey-made guard, Sterling Gibbs, announced he was transferring. “Thirty-two minutes opened up,” Willard recalls. “My thought process was, ‘All right, if I’m not going to be able to replace 17 points a game, which Sterling gave us, then I want to find somebody who can stop 17 points a game.'”
Enter Gordon, a skilled stopper who in the previous two years averaged 1.5 steals per game. “We weren’t doing this for fun,” Willard continues. “It just wasn’t like, Hey, we want to bring Derrick home, and this is going to be great.”
In truth, Seton Hall was struggling. Besides the loss of Gibbs, Jaren Sina, another starting guard, had transferred in the middle of the season. Suddenly the school had precisely one guard on the roster, Isaiah Whitehead, who’d cracked even nine points per game. The job security of Willard himself — a Rick Pitino disciple who hasn’t made an NCAA tournament in five years at Seton Hall — was at stake. “I know that Derrick being one of the first college basketball players to come out to be gay seems to be the big story,” Willard says. “But for me and everybody here, it’s always been about basketball.”
Upon my arrival, Willard directs Thomas Chen, the communications staffer who’d scheduled the interview, to join us and sit next to me. As we talk, the coach stresses that Gordon’s sexuality has not been a focus for his staff or his school. “Not once,” Willard says. “This university is unbelievable. They welcome everybody. I don’t think anybody judges.” We talk about how a handful of Gordon’s new teammates have publicly welcomed him on Twitter already.
“Every kid that’s played for me, everyone that will play for me, I love them, no matter who they are, what they are, what they do,” Willard says. “I guess that’s why, for me, this is almost a silly story. He’s on my team, I love him and he’s gonna be part of my family now.”
When I ask about the firing of Warren Hall, Willard interrupts to offer no comment. And when I ask whether the coach was surprised that there wasn’t more interest in Gordon from other schools, there’s no comment. And when I ask whether Willard is going to say anything to his team about how to approach LGBT topics, there’s no comment. And when I ask whether he talked to anyone at UMass before recruiting Gordon, there’s no comment. “I’m not trying to be an a–hole, which I’m being a little bit right now,” Willard says, in the middle of so much self-censorship. “But it’s a dance I gotta dance.”
As we begin to wrap up our 45 minutes together, I pose the question that’s been lodged in my brain ever since I got those self-contradictory texts from the newest member of the Seton Hall family. Would the school mind if the first and only openly gay man in Division I hoops talks about topics beyond the game?
“I don’t think you’re allowed to tell a student what you can say or what you can’t say,” Willard says. “But I think I know what his focus is, and I think his focus is on becoming known as Derrick Gordon the basketball player again, instead of what last year was about.” Before I walk out of the room with Chen, Willard offers one final observation.
“To me,” he says, “this is a nonstory.”
I tell him it sounds like he’s suggesting that in a perfect world, this story wouldn’t exist.
“Yeah,” Willard replies, chuckling. “But I don’t think we live in a perfect world.”
BY AUGUST, THAT exchange with Gordon — It will only hurt me — remains the last communication I’ve received from him in nine weeks. Tweets go unacknowledged; messages, sent via both Davis and Facebook, unrequited. Then, Gordon’s disappearance swiftly goes multiplatform. Comprehensively so.
Four days after that June interview with Willard, Gordon deletes his Instagram account, erasing far more than the three new photos of him posing with his boyfriend. And while Gordon still tweets — July 29: “Train like an animal, play like a beast. Can’t wait for this upcoming season at Seton Hall” — he soon switches his Twitter account to private and takes down the rainbow-colored #BETRUE logo. When I call Gordon’s cellphone, an automated voice interrupts to proclaim that the number dialed is not in service anymore.
Gordon, Davis says, changed his number because he was getting calls from people he didn’t know. But it’s not just Gordon who vanishes. Through email and in person, Seton Hall’s Chen had agreed to arrange an interview with Shaheen Holloway, an assistant coach involved in Gordon’s recruitment. But after my trip to campus, I never hear from Holloway or, for that matter, Chen. My follow-up emails about Gordon to Seton Hall go ignored. The idea for that photo shoot seems like a million years ago.
And so, on a sunny mid-August afternoon in Plainfield, worried about what has happened to Gordon, all I can do is knock on the screen door of the house with white siding and a wooden cavity where a doorbell once might have been. The asphalt driveway, culminating in a basketball hoop on the left side of the building, is empty. Overhead, a small air conditioner softly rattles a second-floor window frame.
When no one comes to the door, I place a handwritten letter inside the mounted metal mailbox, asking Derrick to please call or text or email. And then I walk away.
IT IS EXTRAORDINARILY difficult to blame Gordon for his silence. If he doesn’t make an NBA roster, it will surely be because he’s a marginal prospect with outsized ambitions. But if those ambitions mean everything to him, and if those ambitions require him to somehow blend in at his new school, and if they are the key to not only getting off his parents’ couch but also getting his family off that block entirely, then risk aversion makes sense. It becomes easy to feel a fear that many of us, in our eager desensitization to coming-out stories, presume obsolete.
Consider the trajectory of Gordon’s closest analogue, Michael Sam, a far more accomplished college player. The defensive end went from the last round of the 2014 NFL draft to the Cowboys practice squad to the Canadian Football League this past spring to out of the sport altogether. Not unlike Gordon, Sam was an increasingly public figure who seemed to relish the concept of visibility as activism. Then, for one reason or another, he disappeared.
There might one day be a young, elite athlete in a major American sport who has so much leverage over his future that he can be as honest and unswervingly out as he wants. But for now, we are left with imperfect, self-contradicting case studies to decode. We are left with a screen door in Plainfield that will not open.
Until, to my surprise, it randomly does. I have one foot in the dirt parking lot across the street from Gordon’s house when I look back at the porch and notice a woman standing in the doorway, unfolding my letter. After I wave and approach, she introduces herself as Sandra, Derrick’s mom, and asks me to hold on for a second while shutting the door. When it opens again, she politely extends her cellphone across the transom.
Derrick, at long last, on the line.
Sandra — who will kindly decline to be interviewed — watches through the screen as I ask her son what changed for him after our interview. Gordon’s voice, once bursting with defiance, is so monotonous in my ear as to sound unfamiliar. “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,” he tells me, with all the enthusiasm of a printed talking point. “I came out a year ago, so I want this to be about basketball. This will not add value to my basketball career.”
I ask what prompted him to delete his Instagram account. “I took it down just to take it down,” he replies.
I ask if anyone — coaches, family, advisers — urged him after our interview not to be so open about certain aspects of himself. “No,” Gordon says. “That was my fault.” And then, as if to pre-empt further inquiry, he offers an unforgettable bit of retrospective self-appraisal: “I was just babbling to you.”
Standing on that porch, handing the phone back to Sandra, I cannot help but remember a 23-year-old’s searing monologue about the urgent reasons society still needs stories about uncloseted athletes in 2015. Months earlier, before we parted ways at TGI Fridays, such passion had moved me to tell Gordon, in awe, that the first, and only, openly gay man in Division I basketball seemed to love the visibility he had gained.
“Who wouldn’t?” he replied then, smiling brightly. “Who wouldn’t?