A Monumental Triumph

Derrick Gordon’s coming out says far more about UMass basketball than wins or losses.

It was a disappointing end to the season for the University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. 

A 2013-14 campaign which began with 10 straight wins, a championship trophy at the Charleston Classic, and a No. 13 national ranking ended with losses in four of six games, including a setback to old nemesis George Washington in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals and an 86-67 drubbing at the hands of red-hot 11-seed Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 64.

So even though the Minutemen turned a corner in program history, reaching the Big Dance for the first time since 1998, make no mistake: when the final horn sounded in Raleigh and the Volunteers celebrated, there wasn’t a maroon-and-white-clad soul who was satisfied.

That’s all over now.

On Wednesday, sophomore Derrick Gordon – UMass’ starting shooting guard – became the first Division I men’s basketball player to publicly announce his homosexuality

That fact, along with the stories that have followed, make this group of Minutemen greater champions than any trophy can declare.

None of us can fully understand the struggles Gordon has endured since he recognized himself as gay as a high-schooler in New Jersey. For years, he’s been knee-deep in the hyper-masculine, hetero-normative world of D-I hoops, from the recruiting buzzsaw at vaunted St. Patrick High to his rookie season at deep-red Western Kentucky to his transfer and adjustment to a new home at UMass. That he was able to fight through the “cloud” of self-repression surrounding him – to borrow teammate and roommate Tyler Bergantino’s word – and average 9.4 points and 3.5 rebounds per game says as much about his athletic ability as his mental fortitude.

That he finally felt able to embrace his identity here speaks volumes about UMass as a program.

Listen to head coach Derek Kellogg describe the events surrounding Gordon’s announcement and it’s clear just how lucky UMass is to have this native son leading its program. Kellogg had plenty of doubters as he fought through five up-and-down years to begin his tenure in Amherst, but those voices fell silent during this winter’s run of success on the court. Now there’s a far greater reason to sing his praises. No matter what the wins and losses may say, Derek Kellogg is the right coach – the right educator – for the future of UMass.

Beneath his steady resurrection of the program, Kellogg has instilled in his locker room a bulwark of respect and support which has found its finest hour. Gordon’s teammates know him and love him as the fiery kid with the mohawk who hits big shots and dives over the scorers’ table for loose balls. They’ve run endless lung-splitting reps of Butterfield Hill with him and ridden the bus to Olean, N.Y. and Kingston, R.I. with him. Those attributes and experiences, not his sexual orientation, have shaped their judgments of him. And based on their reactions Wednesday, its clear that they will continue to.

The importance of sports – especially college sports – extends far beyond the results of competition. One of the first things that came to mind after I read Gordon’s story was an interview given by Phil Bowen, coach of the outstanding men’s ultimate frisbee program at my alma mater, Carleton College. After last year’s team fell to Central Florida in the national semifinals, Bowen told Ultiworld.com that he’d be delivering the same message to his team win or lose, namely that their love and camaraderie was the real triumph, that “the victory of this season was the months of hard work we put together.”

For Derrick Gordon, Derek Kellogg, and the rest of the UMass Minutemen, Wednesday’s events are further proof that their team – their family – has triumphed by the deepest of measures.

And nothing that happened on the floor in Raleigh can tarnish that.

Cover photo credit: gazettenet.com

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