KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With each passing day, the closet becomes a little less crowded, a little less scary, a little less dark and sheltered. Jallen Messersmith isn’t doing this for applause or a shoe deal or a reality show or martyrdom. This isn’t about being the wrecking ball; it’s about being another link in the chain that swings it. It’s about a cycle in which the news isn’t news anymore.
“I think it’s just inevitable for it to happen everywhere,” says Messersmith, a 6-foot-7 sophomore forward at Benedictine (Kan.) College, believed to be the first active openly gay player in U.S. men’s college basketball.
“At this point, it’s just going to happen (where) it slowly becomes less and less of a (newsworthy) thing, and people are becoming more and more comfortable with it. And I think it’s just a matter of time before it happens in every sport.”
Messersmith, a native of the Kansas City suburb of Blue Springs, Mo., came out to his teammates last fall, and then to the rest of the world on Tuesday, via Outsports.com, a story that has since gone national. To Jallen, the point wasn’t the trailblazing, but the trail itself. After all, what good is carving a path that nobody else has the stones to follow?
“It think it’s because, a lot of the time, you hear horror stories about it,” says Messersmith, who ranked third in the NAIA in blocked shots per game (1.89) this past season at Benedictine, a private Catholic university in Atchison with an enrollment of roughly 1,700 undergraduates. “You hear some negative things. And they don’t necessarily happen anymore.
“Like a big thing, for me, was you’d hear all these things like, ‘The locker room is really masculine, and if someone were to do something like this, everybody would turn against you,’ that kind of thing. It’s definitely one of those things where you don’t feel like you can be yourself.
“Especially, with me, you can be yourself, and be as close as you can be. And it doesn’t matter with your teammates, as long as you’re putting in the work and (putting) as much as they’re putting in, and you’re playing this sport just as hard as you can play.”
Basketball was always the release, the escape. To some degree, it still is. Jallen Messersmith was raised in a Mormon household, but in a basketball-loving Mormon household. So much so, in fact, that his first name is a combination of his middle one, Allen, and that of former Michigan guard Jalen Rose.
He also grew up shy, awkward and gangly, as so many kids do. He took dance lessons. He liked to tap. Jallen was an easy target, a big target, and the bullying got to a point where the family decided to home-school him for two years during his early teens.
But when Messersmith enrolled as a freshman at Blue Springs High School, he was 6-foot-4. And he could ball.
Once the rock went up, the teasing stopped.
“I could go and I played, and my teammates never said anything to me, and it was never an issue,” the 20-year-old says. “I could go and be myself and play as hard as I could.”
As a senior at Blue Springs, he averaged 12.5 points, 10.5 boards and 5.5 blocks. He was voted the Wildcats’ MVP, Mr. Basketball, Mr. Defense and Mr. Hustle. Jallen’s best friend and teammate, Benedictine guard Brett Fisher, likens the big man’s game to that of Ben Wallace — a selfless garbage man who crashes the boards, sets screens and relishes raising hell on the defensive end.
“I love being physical; that’s my thing,” says Messersmith, who played in 28 games last season, starting eight, averaging 4.9 points and 3.6 rebounds. “I love getting in the post, and just playing hard defense against somebody. I love, after a game, when an opposing coach came up to me and is just like, ‘I’ve never seen anybody play defense like you play defense, or play as hard as you have.’ And that just makes it all worth it. I have always been that player, and I will always be that player.”
Because hoops wasn’t just the oasis; it was the impetus, the litmus test, and the rock of assurance. Messersmith’s Benedictine teammates are central to the journey to this point, along every step. One of Jallen’s closest friends on the squad, R.J. Jones, was killed in an auto accident in December 2011 while driving home from Christmas break.
In one fell swoop, Messersmith lost a sounding board, a confidante. And his fears.
Life, he realized, is short. Too short for secrets. Too precious for shame.
“We had talked about a lot of things,” Jallen says of Jones. “It was one of those things that just hit really hard at home. I don’t know. It just kind of jolted me and made me look at things differently.”
He resolved to tell his peers quietly, one by one, rather than make a show of it. Fisher found out at the start of this most recent school year — at the very start, during move-in day. Jallen’s mother informed Brett’s mother, who, in turn, relayed it to Brett.
“At first, I was a little shocked,” the younger Fisher says. “I mean, once I realized it’s what he wants, I can’t really take that away from him. I’ve just sort of taken him for what he wants to be. I think I could notice a couple (signs), maybe, earlier, (in hindsight), after when he came out. They weren’t too noticeable.”
Still, word got around, and teammates who had yet to meet Messersmith — freshmen, mainly — were wary, unsure. This was someone, they figured, who was either very, very brave or very, very cool.
As it turns out, he was both.
“Once you know me, it’s not a big deal,” Jallen says. “I don’t draw huge attention to it. That’s not what defines me. It’s just a part of me, I guess. It’s just something that happens to be. So it’s been really good.”
He says he originally approached Outsports.com with his story in March, before NBA center Jason Collins came out, very publicly, to Sports Illustrated (“I thought it was awesome,” Messersmith says). And despite the university’s philosophical roots — by Catholic doctrine, homosexual acts are a sin — Jallen says coach Brian Moody has remained supportive; so, too, have Benedictine administrators, running all the way up the food chain.
“We support Jallen as a Benedictine College student and as a member of the Raven basketball team,” the school said in a prepared statement. “Obviously, it would be inappropriate for us to discuss the private lives of students. As an institution we treat all students with respect and sensitivity.”
Of course, opposing teams and fans — especially fans — may not adhere to the same code once a new season gets underway. Messersmith is hoping for the best but bracing for the worst.
“I’m not worried about it, honestly,” he says. “The reason that I got into basketball and the reason I worked so hard to go somewhere with it was because people were taunting me, making fun of me, stuff like that. So the more someone makes fun of me, the better I’m going to play. So people can poke and prod all they want, and make fun all they want. It’s just going to make me play better and it’s not going to affect me. It rolls off my back. I’ve had it all said to me, at some point in my life.”
So, what the heck? Push him. Goad him. Go on. Try.
“If somebody is going to try and battle me that way (and say), ‘Just because he’s gay, he can’t do this, or this,’ I’ll show them,” Jallen says. “I’m going to prove them wrong. But it isn’t necessarily going to be something I’m going to be thinking about the whole time. I’m going to play basketball. I’m going to play my game.”
He’s going to live his life. Messersmith is an accounting major, a youth basketball coach, a manager with the Benedictine women’s lacrosse club team, a video gamer and a piano player. He brings dates to his games. He talks smack.
In other words, he’s a dude. He is, as he puts it, a dude who just happens to be into other dudes.
“It’s just one of those things where I didn’t necessarily see it as such a big deal,” Messersmith says. “And now that it has been, it’s been a really good experience to see that it’s going places, and that a lot of people are responding to it really positively. And it’s been a good kind of publicity. And a lot of people are getting helped by it, and I can help as many people as possible (through) this, so that’s great.
“That’s kind of why I wanted to do this. The more that people see that it’s happening and the more stuff like this that happens, the less news it’ll be. It won’t be, ‘Oh, you’re gay, you can’t do this. Or, ‘You’re straight and you have to do this.’ It’ll just be another thing.”
Jallen Messersmith may have been the first. That isn’t his legacy, his victory or his comfort. The comfort is that he won’t be the last.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.