First openly gay college hoops player salutes UMass guard Gordon
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Before he came out to the world, Derrick Gordon came out on Facebook. Quietly.
In fact, Jallen Messersmith didn’t connect the dots until much, much later. It started when Gordon, a guard at the University of Massachusetts, joined a Facebook group for gay basketball players that Messersmith also belonged to.
When Messersmith, the first openly gay college hoops player in America, then became Facebook friends with Gordon, the light came on. Slowly.
"I knew," the Benedictine (Kan.) College forward tells FOXSportsKansasCity.com when asked about Gordon, who on Wednesday became the first active Division I men’s hoops player to come out of the closet. "I didn’t realize I knew, that I was on the ‘in,’ apparently.
"I had looked him up beforehand, because he was in the group, and I just hadn’t heard anything of it, except he went to UMass. And I was like, ‘Well, all right, this would have been a big deal somewhere.’ I looked it up and just saw his basketball stuff and said, ‘OK, well, I guess I don’t know what the deal is.’ And then it happened (Wednesday) and I was like, ‘Oh, now it all makes sense.’"
And here we are. Another few months, another wall shatters, another stigma melts. Last April, it was NBA center Jason Collins. Last May, it was Messersmith. In February, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam. Now Gordon.
The novelty is wearing a bit thin now. Which, more or less, is exactly what Messersmith and many of his LGBT peers want.
"This is probably one of the last steps that needed to happen before it’s just another ‘thing’ that happens," the Blue Springs, Mo., native says.
"And it’s a really cool thing that it happened so quickly. Because when I came out, I didn’t know if it was going to be this year, or two years, or three years down the road (before another college basketball player did the same), or even five, 10 years down the road, that it would ever happen. So you never know. So it is a milestone, and it’s really cool that it’s happening this quickly."
Even cooler: In his first full season as a college hoops player out of the closet, Messersmith says that incidents, taunts and the like weren’t just rare — they were nonexistent.
"Nobody said anything," he says. "The first game we played, I was really nervous that somebody was going to say something.
There is no better feeling than being comfortable in your own skin. And you’ll be a totally better player for it.
"And later, down the road, I didn’t even think about it. It just became such a nonfactor.
"Even like the really crazy crowds in our conference — we played Culver-Stockton, and they had a huge crowd. I thought they were going to say something. And no one said anything."
The 6-foot-8 post standout averaged 7.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, both career highs. He ranked third among qualified NAIA Division I players in blocks per game (2.59) and second overall in total swats (75). His Ravens took off, too, notching 23 victories, capturing the Heart of America Athletic Conference crown and claiming the school’s first win at the NAIA Division I national tournament since 1967.
It’s interesting, isn’t it? Missouri, with Sam terrorizing opposing quarterbacks, won its first-ever SEC East division title last fall and knocked off Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl. Gordon’s UMass bunch won 24 games and reached the NCAA tourney for the first time since 1998.
Hmm. Sense a pattern here?
"All those (squads) that have gay athletes on them, their team is doing really well," Messersmith laughs. "When you’re comfortable with everything, you can kind of just be the person that you are. It makes a huge difference and it kind of brings your team closer together — you all know about something, and you all have to deal with it. It can make you stronger or it can make you weaker, and I think with both (Mizzou and Benedictine), it just makes you stronger."
Time marches on. Old mores are disproven, forgotten or adapted to fit new paradigms. Gay is the new black, and as more and more Americans are treating same-sex couples with a shrug, team sports are following suit.
"This is one thing I thought about a lot — there’s this ‘Wow, big man,’ masculinity (ideal) in sports, that kind of thing," Messersmith says. "And I think that’s changing, overall, in lots of different aspects.
"It’s just a mixture of a change of culture … people are a lot more open to a lot of things, more accepting of a lot of things, and I think that’s where it’s going. And with my generation, I think the whole viewpoint has changed."
One man stands up and bares his soul. Then another. Then another. Eventually, the adjective in the sentence moves, or gets eliminated altogether from the narrative as a whole. You’re not the gay forward; you’re the forward who just happens to be gay.
"I’m not sure what the next step is," Messersmith says. "I think once there’s an active (gay) person in each of the ‘Big Four’ (professional American) sports, then it’ll be just another thing that happens."
It will happen again. There will be more Sams, more Gordons, more Messersmiths, perched on the shoulders of giants.
"It’s really kind of cool to be one of those first people that is kind of setting it up for everybody else around us," the Benedictine forward says. "Showing people that (it’s) all right and you can do it."
The truth will set you free. Or something along those lines.
"Just be really comfortable with yourself," Messersmith says. "That’s honest-to-God what I would tell (Gordon). No matter what you do, you’re going to have people that support you. Your team will support you. Your coach will support you.
"There is no better feeling than being comfortable in your own skin. And you’ll be a totally better player for it."
So the inexorable trickle continues, and there’s probably no turning back. With each passing week, the closet gets a little less crowded, a crumbling way station of the past.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.