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Jason Collins’ return to NBA inspired Derrick Gordon to come out as gay

Apr 9, 2014, 10:45 AM EDT

Derrick Gordon is why Jason Collins matters.

Gordon, a UMass basketball player, came out publicly as gay. He’s believed to be the first active Division I basketball player to do so.

And Gordon credits Collins – the NBA’s first actively gay player – for inspiring his decision to come out.

“When he came out,” Gordon said, “I wanted to come out the next day.

“It was a relief. I was like, ‘about time.’ Finally, it happened. But I still couldn’t jump the gun, because he wasn’t in the NBA at the time when he came out. But when he went back, that’s when I started to build a little more confidence. I watched his – he subbed into a game, and everybody stood up and started clapping. And I was visualizing myself as that being me.”

Nobody needs to cheer Collins because he’s gay. He deserved cheers for his courage.

Collins ventured into uncharted territory by coming out, and that can always be scary. The reception has mostly been positive, but he could not have know that at the time.

What he surely knew, though, was he’d be a role model for younger gay athletes all over the world. While the NBA has welcomed Collins, lower levels of sports are not always as accepting.

At UMass, a few of Gordon’s teammates suspected he was gay before he was ready to come out. Cyd Zeigler of Outsports.com:

Gordon denied it repeatedly, but that didn’t stop various members of the team from teasing him about it. The snickers and snide remarks carried on for weeks. Slowly, it consumed him.

“That was probably the lowest point I was ever at. I didn’t want to play basketball anymore. I just wanted to run and hide somewhere. I used to go back to my room and I’d just cry. There were nights when I would cry myself to sleep.

“Nobody should ever feel that way.”

When Gordon eventually confronted his team – again asserting he was straight and demanding they stop harassing him – the teasing slowed. Yet the damage was already done. Throughout the season – all the way into the NCAA tournament last month – some teammates continued to wait until Gordon was done in the locker room before they would venture into the showers. The “gay” label lingered. The treatment built distance between him and the rest of the team. Gordon responded by isolating himself, which in turn was met with more distance from various players.

“Most of the time when you see me on campus, I’m alone. I eat alone a lot. Since the school year started in September I haven’t been to one party. I’m always working out or lifting or in my room. I do the same thing over and over every day. I feel like I can’t be who I am or live my life.”

On moral grounds, nobody deserves to live that way. On legal grounds, UMass, a public university, has responsibilities to provide certain protections.

Times are changing, and these issues are getting handled better and better as younger and more-accepting generations grow and take power.

Collins is helping to spur progress.

Gordon, a rising redshirt junior, probably has no NBA future. The starting guard averaged 9.4 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game this season and helped UMass reach the NCAA tournament. It’s a fine season for a college player, but the NBA doesn’t have room for every solid college player.

Whatever his basketball future holds, it seems more personally satisfying for Gordon than it did yesterday.

Collins had a similar experience for himself, and importantly, he’s helped others reach the same level of comfort with their identities. This, as Gordon demonstrates, will be Collins’ legacy.

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