Coming Out & Hooping: The Challenges for LGBTQ Basketball Hopefuls

As the game continues to grow rapidly across the planet, major basketball leagues have a social responsibility to promote inclusion, on every day of the year.

When June crept up on us in 2020, it felt more apt than ever to acknowledge the arrival of Pride month. While nations attempted to draw a roadmap back to post-COVID normality and civilians around the world challenged systems of oppression, following the gruesome treatment of George Floyd, many recalled and were buoyed by examples of successful protests which served as catalysts for change.

Most will know that LGTBQ+ communities celebrate in June because it marks the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, an uprising that took place in New York City in 1969 which played a key role in bringing forward the gay liberation movement. Hugely positive change began 51 years ago, but as we’re learning more regularly than we should in 2020, we still remain far away from a progressive and fair society.

Taking a political stance on any issue can be an uncomfortable move for any brand or organisation in a position of huge influence. As I was recently reminded by American songwriter Willy Mason when revisiting his 2004 track ‘Oxygen’, ‘paper is all that you’re really taught to create’, so it is unsurprising that some major sports teams – we’re looking at you, James Dolan – openly discourage speaking out against injustice in fear of alienating those who disagree with so much bread on the line.

Fuck that self-serving, obstinate nonsense, by the way.

Under Adam Silver, the NBA has positioned itself and is widely regarded as America’s most progressive leading sports league. Globally, FIBA are considered a more liberal body than the much maligned and problematic FIFA. The game itself is celebrated as an ever-moving, international culture which elevates talent from all walks of life and has increasingly provided its players with a platform for personal expression.

LGBTQ+ representation in basketball is way behind schedule. As Jonah Stott wrote for Double Clutch a year ago, there are still no openly gay, active players in the NBA, of a possible 450 individuals in the league. Generally, it appears that the younger generation of players are less burdened by the crippling machismo that has traditionally accompanied the mostly straight sporting landscape, so are there active LGBTQ+ basketball players in the closet or are they simply being forced to leave the game behind?

“I’m sure it still happens. But I’m convinced it’s better than it was” said British basketball legend John Amaechi, who witnessed the use of homophobic language and behavior first hand, during his five years in the NBA. He also recently told SportsNet that he is in on-going, private discussion with some active NBA players who personally identify as gay, but fear the consequences of making it public for a number of reasons. “It’s very clear the environment is less worrying from a player-to-player perspective, and more worrying in terms of certain coaches and certain management,” Amaechi said.

This kind of trepidation is not exclusive to athletes who have reached the top tier of the professional game. In the NCAA, budding talent experiences the same uncertainty and fear around the potential loss of career prospects if they make the decision to come out.

Derrick Gordon is a 28-year-old actor from New Jersey, who spent four years as a college shooting guard. He spent a year at Western Kentucky, then two at UMass and eventually played out his last season for Seton Hall in 2016. In that final year, he won a Big East Tournament title, alongside his fellow Pirates. During his most productive season, he averaged 12 points and 7 rebounds per game, while serving as a nuisance on the defensive end. A multitude of current starting NBA guards were less productive during their time with their alma mater.

He has never played professional basketball.

While at UMass, Gordon came out to his teammates and later in a more public manner, in 2014. He was inspired by the very-public decision of NBA player Jason Collins to do the same and went on to become the first openly gay player in Division 1 to play in a men’s basketball game. In reaction to the efforts of serial aggravators, The Westboro Baptist Church, his fellow students rallied around him and gathered to support his decision. Despite this, his agent’s phone was deadly silent and he suspects that had little to do with his performance.

“I can go on and on about this but I know for sure it wasn’t because on my skills on the court,” Gordon states. “I was a great player and played against some of the best players in college and won those battles. I just wish I were given a shot to show that I can compete at the highest level and hold my own. But I have no regrets in my decision to come out.”

Will Sheridan is a 35-year-old musician from Delaware. In his previous career, he played four years with the Villanova Wildcats as a 6’8 forward. He was not a go-to option on the offensive end, but offered defensive stability and help on the glass. He came out to his roommate and teammate during his freshman year and subsequently to his teammates months later. Sheridan, along with his teammates, decided to keep a ‘wall of silence’, in order to avoid any unnecessary attention that they felt it would cause.

Following graduation in 2007, Sheridan attempted to broaden his horizons by briefly playing with Scafati Basket – a club based in the Campania district of Italy, who were competing in Serie A at the time. After being surrounded by a solid support system in college, he found himself somewhat alienated by the experience. 

“I hated it,” he told me. “I love the game, but I came out and felt like I had to go back in the closet, just to mesh well with the team. That was part me and part wanting to just be a part of an organization and not be a distraction. It was 2007, so there was no way to connect on apps and I certainly didn’t have any gay friends while there. Overall, I’m glad I went — the money allowed me to move to New York!”

Upon his return and move to the city, he came out publicly in an interview with ESPN, at the age of 26. This made Sheridan the second former NCAA Division 1 player to come out, after Amaechi four years prior. Nine years later, Sheridan believes that despite the lack of a significant presence in the game, the respective cultures of basketball and the LGBTQ+ community can co-exist and even align more effectively going forward.

“I think the culture surrounding basketball has changed as the game has changed. LGBTQ acceptance has come along with minimal representation, but still has a long way to go. I enjoy watching top tier athletes express themselves more with wild fashion and playful antics on the court. The community just needs more queer athletes to push for greatness and compete at higher levels.”

Gordon thought and hoped that he could have been a beacon for change, if he had been afforded the opportunity he deserved in the big league. He is at peace with the way it has worked out, but hopes that somebody else can soon serve as a role-model for the younger generation of LGBTQ+ athletes, to empower them as they strive to reach the top. 

“I was definitely hoping that I could be that guy playing in the NBA that people could look up to but it didn’t pan out that way. But I believe, for people who are struggling with their sexuality, I know I’ve saved and changed people’s lives and that’s what is really important. This is much bigger than sports. But I would definitely consider ‘progress’ to be someone who is actively still playing in a professional sport.”

Across the NBA, myriad teams have taken to hosting an annual Pride Night, most of which take shape around a regular season home game. Accompanying festivities take place within the arena to mark the occasion and more weight is being put behind it as the years go by.

As the old saying goes, ‘in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes and basement-dwelling, anonymous Twitter eggs spamming social media posts with reductive nonsense that suggests we’ve gone back in time by a number of decades’.

Unfortunately this remains dishearteningly prevalent, even within the seemingly progressive bubble of the NBA. One depressing scroll through the replies of Magic Johnson’s affectionate birthday wish to his son, Dwyane Wade’s showcase of hands-on fatherhood with his daughter Zaya or pretty much any Pride Night tweet will remind you of the long road ahead, as we work to eradicate the disease of discrimination. There have also been reports of vocal protests in arenas during the games, based on opposing beliefs.

Though strongly pro-Pride, Gordon has some choice words regarding the NBA events.

“It’s funny, I was talking to a friend about that and my honest opinion is that I don’t like it and that’s for one reason. Not one team gave me a shot, or even a try-out to show my game and what I can do on the court. So honestly, I don’t respect it that much.”

Sheridan feels the NBA nights don’t quite live up to events elsewhere, but is glad that they give members of the LGBTQ+ community the opportunity to catch an entertaining night of first class basketball.

“It’s cool that they are giving away tickets to queers that most likely wouldn’t go. I’m always excited to be a part of those nights, but it somehow never lives up to or exceeds my expectations of a PRIDE EVENT. I live in NYC though, so I’m a bit spoiled when it comes to being surrounded by culture.”

Not only has he immersed himself in the culture, Sheridan is a part of it. He produces and performs music under his own name and has played shows across the map, even opening for the likes of Drake and Peaches. His music gained some steam in 2012, when he release his debut album, ‘G.I.A.N.T’. His pivot (forgive me) from basketball to music was largely inspired by the opportunity to act as the kind of figurehead in the rap industry that he longs for in basketball.

“Before, I wrote for The Source Magazine and covered the culture of rap, but never saw queer representation that I identified with. So I wanted to create my own lane and create from my own authentic narrative.”

You’ll find Gordon performing in another corner of the entertainment industry, working as an actor and writer, after a stint of training as a firefighter in San Francisco. He has a notable social media following; he uses it to share his thoughts on topics such as sports, sexuality and mental health via his YouTube channel. He feels equally as impassioned by his burgeoning acting career as he did between the lines.

“Someone reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to get involved in acting and I didn’t think anything of it until I did a pilot in NYC and fell in love with everything. What had me over the edge was the amount of different characters that you can play. I absolutely love it.”

At only 28, he refuses to completely rule out pro-ball, but feels he has just as much to offer as an on-screen performer.

“Of course, if given the opportunity I definitely would return, basketball will always be in my blood and I will forever love the sport. But I’m an actor now and I love that just as much as I love basketball, plus I can do it for the rest of my life, with basketball that wouldn’t be the case.”

As we celebrate diversity and LGTBQ+ rights in 2020, albeit without the large gatherings and marches that normally come hand-in-hand with Pride, personalities such as Sheridan and Gordon are more crucial than ever. No themed sporting event could possibly do as much for the cause as having LGBTQ+ figures share their experience and prove the power of self-expression.