UMass basketball player Derrick Gordon is happy now. He uses words such as "free" and "fun" to describe his coming-out process after he became the first openly gay player in Division I college men's basketball on Wednesday.
"Why now? Because I'm comfortable with myself," Gordon told USA TODAY Sports in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon. "I didn't feel like hiding anymore. It was killing me, eating me alive. No one should have to go through that. I want to help kids who don't know how to handle (being gay). I want to show you can be an athlete and be gay."
Gordon told USA TODAY Sports he currently is not dating anyone but had a boyfriend in the past.
First the sophomore guard had to get past the "nerve-racking" feelings that derived from years of hiding. Gordon came out to his family Sunday, he told his coach Sunday night and his teammates Wednesday before making the news public Wednesday inOutsports and on ESPN.
"When I came out to my parents, I was shaking the whole time," Gordon said. "My parents kept guessing what I had to tell them. My mom got it on the fifth try. Mothers know best. My father was shocked but came around and is supportive of who I am. That's the comfort level I needed."
UMass coach Derek Kellogg said Gordon was audibly nervous when speaking to him over the phone late Sunday night. After Gordon delivered the news to his coach, Kellogg's response was quick and to the point.
"I told him we loved him, and he's a part of our family no matter what," Kellogg told USA TODAY Sports. "I said, 'We'll be here for you through everything.'
"I'm proud of him for coming out, I think it's really courageous what he's doing. … I think this kind of thing can unite us more than anything. And now it's out in the open so I think that helps make it more comfortable. ... He wanted to finally be himself. He didn't want to hide anymore. We support him 100%."
Kellogg helped Gordon when he struggled to tell his teammates.
"I got choked up a couple of times," Gordon said. "It's not an easy thing to tell somebody. It's a serious situation because you're worried about how people are going to respond."
Gordon said the reception from his teammates has been a "weight lifted" off his shoulders.
"It's a relief to know they've got my back, and I've got theirs," he said. "Now that's out of the way, I can play more freely, and we can work to have our best season next year."
Gordon, who started all 33 games in 2013-14 for the Minutemen and averaged 9.4 points, said he isn't scared to visit opposing teams' gyms and their heckling fans.
"If someone calls me a name, I've got thick skin, man. I'm out there focused on winning," said Gordon, a Plainfield, N.J. native who played at St. Patrick's High School — a powerhouse program where Kyrie Irving played.
Gordon decided he wanted to come out publicly after UMass' season-ending NCAA tournament loss to Tennessee in March. Gordon said he drew inspiration from Jason Collins, who came out to Sports Illustrated last year and became the first active openly gay player in NBA history in February. Gordon said he speaks to Collins on the phone regularly for advice, he said.
Gordon spent two weeks working with his support team before announcing the news. That support staff is led by former NFL player Wade Davis, who is openly gay.
"I was deeply moved watching Derrick open his heart to his UMass basketball family," said Davis, who is the executive director of the You Can Play Project, a group that works to ensure respect and safety for all athletes without regard for sexual orientation. "His desire to invite his teammates into his life speaks to how athletes view their teammates as their family."
After Gordon broke his own news Wednesday morning, he posted a photo of himself in a #BETRUE T-shirt on Instagram with the caption: "This is the happiest I have ever been in my 22 Years of living...No more HIDING!!!...Just want to live life happy and play the sport that I love...Really would love to thank my family, friends, coaches, and teammates for supporting me."
Gordon realizes he'll be on a national platform, along with UMass, based on his decision. And he's embracing it wholeheartedly.
"When someone who's in a similar situation looks at someone like me, I want them to realize that they can do this too," he said. "You'll hear, 'gays aren't allowed in sports.' I don't believe that. Not one bit."
Contributing: Nicole Auerbach