Rob Smitherman didn’t know what to expect when he sat down in 1998 and searched the Internet for “gay basketball.” After all, it was an inherent contradiction—merging a sport dominated by flashy machismo with gay male culture stereotyped for lacking masculinity—one that had defined his entire life. A closeted player for Division III Washington and Lee University from 1977-81, Smitherman didn’t think his sexual identity could ever coexist with his identity on the court. It was a generation ago, when the idea of an NBA player coming out on the cover of Sports Illustrated and continuing to play was inconceivable.
“I never knew there was gay basketball out there, I just thought it was basketball,” he says. “I felt very isolated thinking I was the only one.”
Through online exchanges, Smitherman met Tony Jasinski, the leader of the nascent San Francisco Gay Basketball Organization who invited him to travel west and suit up for a team. He would then make his way to Chicago for the Windy City Roundball Classic, the oldest gay basketball tournament in the country, and find that he was far from the only one exploring gay basketball. Boasting more than 300 participants, the Roundball Classic was only the beginning of a movement that made space for athletes to continue competing without a façade.
“I HAD TO HIDE WHO I WAS”
“Look at this, scabs and cuts all over me,” All-Star Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone told reporters before a preseason game against the New York Knicks back in October of 1992. “They can’t tell you that you’re not at risk.”
Malone was expressing fear of physical contact with Magic Johnson, the famous Los Angeles Lakers point guard who was attempting to come back to basketball after announcing a year before that he’d contracted HIV and would retire. His comments weren’t nearly as malicious as other mumblings about Johnson and the LGBT community, but the star big man represented the often-misinformed views of players—and much of the general public—at the time.
“It wasn’t easy to be on a team when you were gay, because you really had to be in the closet or you weren’t accepted,” Smitherman says. “You just supplemented that part of you, you tried to fit in. I had to hide who I was.”
Every sport has a documented history of homophobia, but it’s been especially difficult in basketball, some athletes say.
“You’ve got a much smaller team, maybe 10, 12 guys. The locker room is a lot more intimate in that setting,” says Paul Ridgway, who was not out when he played and coached basketball at Xaverian High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. He’s now open about being gay. “At the end of a game, you’re there and you’re naked. In football or other sports with more players, you can find your nooks and crannies in the locker room. But in basketball, everyone knows everything about everyone.”
Like Smitherman, Ridgway tried to mask his sexuality during his days in the game. He introduced a platonic acquaintance as a fake girlfriend because he knew that being gay could make players, other coaches or school administrators uncomfortable. Keeping up with the lies over the course of an entire season proved to be tiring.
That sheltering not only influenced relationships with teammates but also extended to performance in games, Smitherman says. In a sport like basketball, where preparation is equal parts mental and physical, not being entirely honest with oneself and sequestering identity has consequences.
“You really don’t know what you could have been otherwise,” he says. “You’re not your complete self, you were not completely honest with your teammates.”
Pausing, he adds, “There was a little bit of self-hatred.”
“I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT”
That 1998 Roundball Classic, where Smitherman could be openly gay and still play the sport he loved, was more than an opportunity to snag rebounds and block shots again. It was also a chance to escape the conventions of the false persona he’d created and find community through shared gay identity. As the annual tournament continued to grow, Chicago started to build up a reputation for its openness to gay athletes.
In 2006, the city was chosen to host the seventh installment of the Gay Games, a national sporting festival for LGBT athletes and fans. Led by Sam Coady, Smitherman’s best friend and an integral coordinator of the Roundball Classic, Chicago was suddenly a home for gay basketball players.
“The diversity, the level of talent was amazing,” says Ross Forman, a columnist for the Windy City Times who covered basketball at the Games. “Some were former college athletes, some had never played basketball in their lives … It’s a big shock to see just how good some of these players are. I didn’t know what to expect.”
Smitherman says that many of the participants at the Chicago Gay Games were more talented than the players he matched up against at Washington and Lee. While their sexuality had previously hindered them in pursuing a college or even pro career years before, these players were now able to play openly, meeting other gay athletes who weren’t reserved about who they really were.
With three levels of play—“A” competition featured former college athletes while “C” competition hosted those who had never played the sport—the Gay Games were the ideal forum for showcasing the power of openness in basketball. The event wasn’t solely a celebration of LGBT culture or a kitschy gay gathering. As Smitherman points out, locals looking to return to competitive ball played in the Games regardless of sexual orientation. About 20 percent of the players in both the Chicago Gay Games and the Roundball Classic were straight.
And the momentum didn’t stop in Chicago. Niche gay basketball communities continue to pop up around the country. Localizing gay basketball became the mission of Mark Chambers, who returned from the 1998 Gay Games in Amsterdam to find scattered teams with no cohesion.
“Basketball was running without direction,” he said. “Now it’s more than I ever thought it would be.”
Shortly after returning from Amsterdam, Chambers cofounded the National Gay Basketball Association, a league featuring players at amateur and semi-professional levels from across the country. Just three months after Chicago flourished hosting the Gay Games in 2006, Chambers brought the NGBA to Salt Lake City, Utah, a conservative city that lacked a dynamic gay culture before basketball rolled in.
“The backlash was just crazy. You would have thought I was trying to kill everyone’s firstborn. I got emails from people acting like I was Judas,” Chambers says of his Salt Lake City tournament.
But the criticism and opposition Chambers faced had nothing to do with the “G” of his NGBA. Despite the conservative environment, Chambers says he encountered little to no homophobia from media or protesters. The bulk of criticism was about making the game more fair and competitive.
As the NGBA was in its initial stages of development, teams were distinguished less by geographic borders and more by relationships and connections. Participants would recruit their friends, looking for a competitive advantage. The best players had often been friends since their college playing days.
“If you had a roster full of Division-I players against guys who just like playing basketball, you’d win 100-30,” Chambers says, laughing. “People were picking up players from all over the country.”
Realigning based off regional proximity in the Salt Lake City tournament not only made the games fairer; it also fed the desire for community. Despite complaints from players who wanted to keep the original rosters, Chambers stood firm.
“The spirit of gay basketball, when I came in, was you represent an area. If you win and you bring that trophy back, your community celebrates,” he says.
While many questioned his political motives in bringing gay basketball to a conservative city, Chambers insists it was solely to build a new culture. He has since expanded to cities like Memphis and Fort Lauderdale, growing NGBA membership to more than 70 local teams.
With cities from coast to coast touting incipient gay basketball teams, players no longer need to travel hundreds of miles for a once-a-year festival to feel open and honest about their sexuality while playing.
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
As LGBT players tip off in the NGBA, the Gay Games and countless other tournaments around the country, LGBT basketball fans still grapple with loving a sport ridden with homophobia at the professional level.
“It’s a culture based in very heteronormative machismo. As somebody who identifies as gay, it’s hard for me to identify with that,” says Daria Hoey, a recent graduate of Loyola University and a passionate hockey fan.
Donning a Blackhawks jersey and bellowing cheers, Hoey watches the NHL playoffs at Crew Bar & Grill, Chicago’s premier gay sports bar. As her Blackhawks stave off elimination from the Detroit Red Wings in the postseason’s second round, her eyes never dart to an adjacent TV showing game four of the playoff series between the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies.
“With basketball, I can’t ever feel that camaraderie that I feel with hockey. I feel like if other basketball fans knew me, there wouldn’t be any inclusion,” she says. “Not everyone can be a fan unless you carry through with that ideal of machismo, being what the other fans are. If you’re not, which I’m not, you’re still on the outside looking in. You feel that even just watching a game.”
For an LGBT basketball player, the experience of feeling accepted comes from interactions with teammates, in locker rooms and with fans. But for the fans themselves, that sense of inclusion—or lack thereof—is largely regulated by NBA and NCAA superstars’ actions. For example, a month before Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried stepped forward as an ally, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant faced fines for calling a referee a “faggot.”
But not everyone in Crew Bar and Grill is conflicted about the sport like Hoey. As she fixes her attention on the Blackhawks game, other fans turn to check out Tim Duncan and the Spurs.
“Our bar is a very everybody bar. Everybody is like a family when they come in here,” says Joey Arteza, a manager at Crew. “They feel comfortable coming here.”
More basketball fans have been coming to Crew in recent years, Arteza says. In a safe environment like Crew, one where the masculine superstar atmosphere of the NBA is left at the door, more LGBT individuals can enjoy the sport, even if they can’t completely identify with it. But even in less LGBT-friendly space and surrounded by different people, some just can’t stay away from basketball.
“That doesn’t stop me from being a fan,” Smitherman says. “I stayed up until midnight last night watching that damn game. I’m a huge basketball fan, I can’t help it.”
A NEW JACKIE ROBINSON
It blind-sided everyone, gay or straight, hockey fan or basketball fan. On April 29, NBA free agent Jason Collins came out as gay in an essay featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated detailing his experience as a closeted pro player. He became the first active male professional athlete in a major American team sport to identify publicly as gay.
Less than two weeks prior, Brittney Griner had publicly discussed her lesbian identity for the first time. One of the most decorated female athletes in NCAA history, Griner anchored Baylor University to a national title in 2012 before becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA Draft on April 15.
Griner was showered with praise for her courage both on and off the court, while Collins received a congratulatory tweet from none other than Kobe Bryant, among other pro athletes, after his announcement.
“I was floored, I was so happy,” Hoey says of the players coming out. “I feel cautiously optimistic. It’s an amazing feeling to think that at some point it won’t be ‘gay athletes,’ it’ll just be athletes, no qualifier. It’s not going to matter.”
Smitherman says that praise for gay basketball players is important, but the fact that the pros are starting to express indifference over an athlete’s sexual orientation may be even more telling. Treating gay athletes as special or different doesn’t do much to encourage acceptance and assimilation. Realizing that differences in sexual orientation don’t matter on the court is a step in the right direction, he says.
“We need more communication. I think the fact that Kobe tweeted immediately after Jason is something,” Forman says. “We need communication to show that he’s really no different than anyone else. If he can hit a three-point shot, grab a rebound, get some steals, that’s all that matters, that’s all that players care about.”
Two professionals coming out is just a small step. Collins and Griner can act as role models for other aspiring gay basketball players and fans, but it’s still a burden for closeted players to come forward about their identities. Days after Collins came out, ESPN reporter Chris Broussard said on air that Collins’s homosexuality was an “open rebellion to God,” while reports later surfaced of Griner’s coaches at Baylor zealously working to keep her sexual identity hushed.
Of course, Collins and Griner aren’t the only heroes of gay basketball. The Roundball Classic has since been renamed the Coady Roundball Classic, honoring Sam Coady for his relentless work in the sport. Chambers and the NGBA traveled to Portland to play at Nike facilities in July, an event sponsored by Nike’s #BeTrue shoe and clothing lines supporting LGBT equality. The league heads to New Orleans and Nebraska this fall, and Gay Games IX will take place in Cleveland next summer.
And while there’s something to be said for the growing presence of organized gay basketball in Chicago and across the country, change can come on a smaller scale, too.
“It starts in high school, it starts in the AAU [Amateur Athletic Union], where people will then grow older and learn to accept it,” Chambers says. “But it’s really about the kid who signs a contract and then says, ‘Hey, I’m gay, let’s ball.’ That’s my Jackie Robinson. That’s when it will change.”