At 7:05 p.m. on November 14, Derrick Gordon became the first openly gay athlete to play a game in Division 1 men’s basketball.
The 22-year-old junior, who plays for the University of Massachusetts, came out April 9. He immediately started getting letters of support from Germany, France, Italy, and China, was appearing at GLAAD awards and attended a Tedx talk and Nike LGBT conference.
His campus, however, did not make a big deal about his sexuality. Gordon transferred to UMass from Western Kentucky.
“I definitely did my research,” Gordon said. “I know it’s gay-friendly on campus. I’d see gay flags from time to time, or gay couples holding hands. So I know it was a great place for me to come out.”
His coach Derek Kellogg said he wasn’t going to highlight Gordon’s sexuality, that Gordon had been promoted “about as much as one of your better junior players would be.”
“I’m not trying to exploit his situation or story for the betterment of the UMass basketball team,” Kellogg said. “That’s not really our style as a university, or program, or me as a coach. I want him to be viewed as just another UMass basketball player that’s a good player, a good kid and a good person.”
Ticket sales did go up 7 percent from last year, but executive associate athletic director Tim Kenney said it could because this is the first time the team has been at an N.C.A.A. tournament in 16 years.
“I think the main reason why we’re not trying to make it bigger is not for protection,” Kenney said. “You watch these guys on the court, and you could never tell that one of them is gay. They’re a team, and they don’t want that disruptiveness.”
One CNS reporter thinks his sexual orientation is already putting him in the center of ESPN’s attention, though.
During the UMass vs. Siena game on November 14, ESPN’s Kate Fagan focused on Gordon, even though three other players scored better than he did. The article was also up for five straight days.
“He’s certainly not hiding anymore,” the columnist wrote of Gordon saying he felt like he was no longer acting like a person he wasn’t in the Fagan article. “ESPN has made sure of that.”
Regardless of other media outlets, UMass is working to make sure Gordon is treated like every other player.
Kenney, who was one of the first people Gordon told about his sexual orientation, recruited a professor emerita at UMass and a leading advocate for LGBT sports equality, Pat Griffin, to help with the public announcement.
“I cannot begin to tell you how proud I am of UMass athletics,” Griffin, who was worried Gordon would be pushed by groups trying to have access to him, said. “I feel like they did this the right way. Their priority was to make this a good experience for Derrick. It was not a struggle to get them to that place; they were already there.”
Since coming out, Gordon has comfort in knowing he is not the only gay person on campus. Others are noticing his comfort, too.
“I see a difference in him as a person,” Kellogg said. “He’s not hiding behind anything anymore. He’s just one of the guys.”