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Why did Derrick Gordon make history and then suddenly shun the spotlight?play

Being A Gay Athlete Is Complicated (3:04)Pablo Torre and Kate Fagan discuss the story of openly gay college basketball player, Derrick Gordon and the challenges openly gay athletes encounter. (3:04)FacebookTwitterFacebook MessengerPinterestEmailprintcommentThis story is part of ESPN’s ongoing series exploring what it means to be an openly gay athlete in the post acceptance world. Look for stories on Gus Kenworthy, Megan Rapinoe, Chris Mosier and others in ESPN The Magazine’s Being Out Issue, on newsstands Oct. 30.

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. 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.

Gordon was all smiles after his April 2014 announcement, which made college sports history. Steven Senne/ AP ImagesFOR 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. “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,
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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.

Gordon initially welcomed his advocacy role, attending several events and meeting Jason Collins at the Final Four in Indianapolis. Ralph Russo/AP ImagesHONEST 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 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,
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” Davis tells me. “He didn’t even realize the school was Catholic.”

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