UMass' Derrick Gordon celebrates freedom for himself and twin brother
AMHERST, Mass. -- In arenas across the country, he has fixed his eyes on this photo. He’s wrapped it in a towel, slid it into a special compartment in his backpack and carried it to Bowling Green, Kentucky. To Texas, Colorado and Florida. Or was it the photo that carried him? To Amherst, Massachusetts. To Ohio, New York and North Carolina. When he stared at the photo, he was no longer in the locker room. Trainers taping ankles, players exorcising pregame jitters with jokes, coaches making last-minute adjustments -- he separated from all of it to be together with his twin again.
In the photo, they are close but do not touch. They barely resemble brothers, much less twins. Derrick Gordon is 6-feet-2 inches and is wearing Nike Frees, designer jeans and a fresh, close haircut. He smiles. His brother Darryl is barely 5-foot-5, wearing white sneakers, a state-issued khaki jumpsuit and dreadlocks. His teeth show but his expression seems short of a smile.
In those few moments before Derrick would let the noise back in, Darryl wasn’t in prison. They were together, playing one-on-one tackle football in their small backyard in Plainfield, N.J. Or up late in the bedroom they shared, on their knees playing full-floor basketball with hoops from the dollar store and balled up socks because their parents had long ago confiscated the toy balls.
But tonight is different. And not just because Derrick Gordon is about to become the first openly gay man to play a D-I basketball game. He’s been ready for that for a while. Tonight is different because he no longer needs to look at that photo.
You’re going to leave this room under arrest. Stand up, put your hands in the air and spread your legs.
Officer Jesse McNeill was in his first week on the job. He grew up in Plainfield and knew that the high schools were rough – hell, even the middle schools were—but when he signed up to be a resource officer at Emerson elementary, he didn’t expect to catch an arrest so quickly. But then a boy had chased another home – all the way into his kitchen, after a scuffle at school. And the chased boy’s mom had called to complain. So here McNeill was in the principal’s office with the chaser, fifth-grader Derrick Gordon, putting his arms behind his back and clicking the cuffs around his wrists.
He led Derrick through the halls and out to the parking lot. Watch your head.
Derrick had begun to feel different from his friends just before puberty. At first he thought it was his chestnut hair or how tall he was from having hit his growth spurts early. The first idea he hatched for fitting in was being a bully. He figured that bad went well with big and that he’d start a few fights and friends would follow. Instead, what followed were suspensions from school, grounding from his parents and then this arrest. There in the back of the squad car, he felt the pressure of the cuffs against his wrists and the pressure of the barrier dividing him from the front of the car against his knees.
McNeill led Derrick through the back door of the station so that he could see where adults are booked and the bars behind which they’re held. He brought him into a windowless room and sat him down on a bench to wait for his parents to pick him up. McNeill remembers about 40 minutes passing. To Derrick, it felt like four hours. He’d set out to fit in and arrived at the loneliest moment of his life. He never wanted to be locked up again.
When he saw his mother, Sandra, drenched in tears, he told her she would never have to come get him like this again. And she never has.
But they’ve both spent plenty of time in prison since.
Before high school, Derrick and Darryl were rarely apart for more than a few hours. They’d been born into a sports family – Sandra ran track and played softball in high school, and their father, Mike Sr., played a year of Division III junior varsity basketball at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania – so no one was shocked when they spurned the trumpet and flute for T-ball and tackle football.
Their brother, Mike Jr., was five years older, so their main competition was always with each other. They’d play fullcourt one-on-one at the park, in the backyard and occasionally the kitchen. Mike Sr., who volunteered at the Plainfield Division of Recreation, brought home an electronic scoreboard so they could keep score. If Derrick lost, he’d pester Darryl into a rematch. They’d play video games too, and Darryl would get so mad that he’d break the controllers. “Sometimes I’d let him win just to save the system,” Derrick says now.
But as often as they were competitors, they were compatriots. When they broke a pane of glass in the cabinet in the kitchen, they worked for hours to try to Krazy glue it back into place. (It’s still broken today.) And at Maxson middle school, their basketball teams lost one regular-season game in their last two years. They starred on the AAU circuit, playing for Team Jersey Elite. Together with their friend Ty Johnson, who now plays for South Carolina, they’d break the team rules by ordering room service or pizza. Darryl was more outgoing than Derrick, and he’d spend a lot of time alone with Ty. But above all other allegiances, Derrick and Darryl remained loyal to one another.
By eighth grade, Derrick was 6-foot-2 and had become committed to basketball. He would wake up at 4 a.m. to be at school by 5 to shoot with assistant coach Christopher Radecke. But Darryl began to question the value of hard work. He was still 5-foot-5, and he doubted a growth spurt would ever come. And he looked to his parents who worked hard – Mike Sr. sometimes logged 60 hours a week for a L’Oréal distribution center and Sandra stocked for Wal-Mart at night – but didn’t seem to have everything they wanted.
One weekend afternoon after basketball season had ended in the eighth grade, Darryl went to visit his cousin on the West end of Plainfield, in the projects. Together, the boys watched drug dealers collect what looked like a lot of cash. “I could sell drugs for the rest of my life,” Darryl thought, “and never have to work a single day.”
That summer, Derrick decided that he wanted to attend St. Patrick High in Elizabeth, more than 30 minutes away, instead of Plainfield High. He thought he’d get more attention from teachers there, and that he’d stand out on a nationally ranked basketball team. His parents were worried about being able to afford it. His brothers were worried that he wouldn’t get any playing time, because although St. Patrick only has 215 students, one of them was Kyrie Irving, the future No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. But there was no stopping Derrick. “He’s always been that way,” Mike Sr. says now. “When he has his mind set on something, it doesn’t matter much what anyone else says.”
In the spring of ninth grade, Darryl and his cousin sold drugs for the first time. He made $150 in three hours. He went back the next night and made just as much money. After a week, he was dealing every day. He never used drugs other than weed, but the money, the lifestyle – he became addicted to it almost instantly. Because his parents worked opposite schedules, he could make explain his absences by saying that basketball practice had run late or he was staying over at a friend’s house.
Derrick didn’t make varsity as a freshman. And people from Plainfield were telling him that he should come back home because his brother was falling in with the wrong crowd, and Plainfield High needed a good guard. He and Sandra went to the school to put in for a transfer, but they walked into the administration office to discover the system was down. Mike Sr. and Sandra told Derrick it was a sign, and that he needed to stay at St. Patrick. He did. “On one hand, it was good that I never transferred,” Derrick says now. “I could have fallen into the same stuff as Darryl. But I also feel guilty because I know if I’d been around more, he wouldn’t have done what he did.”
In the fall of 10th grade, Mike Sr. made Darryl see a counselor at Hubbard Middle School. She suggested that Darryl go away for a couple weeks to a program she knew about for troubled youths. He heard her say the word “optional,” and decided against it immediately. Two weeks later, Darryl was on the steps of a building dealing when someone told him a friend was out front to see him. He walked up to the car and saw Antwan “Chet” Johnson, one of Mike Sr.’s friends from the rec center who had made it out of the Plainfield projects. Chet told Darryl to get in, and drove him home. On the couch in the Gordons’ living room, he told Darryl that there were only two outcomes for what he was doing: He’d end up in jail or dead. “I left that day thinking I’d made an impact,” Chet says now. “But sometimes kids that age have to learn the hard way.”
“There was nothing that anyone could have said. My parents tried everything they could think of to help me. But I wasn’t listening to anyone.” Darryl says. “No one other than me could have stopped what happened.”
Darryl saw the squad car as he passed Plainfield High School. It was November 2008. He asked his cousin if the car they’re driving was good. Darryl had no license. His cousin said the car wouldn’t cause them any problems. He had rented it from a woman in the projects in exchange for drugs – something they’d done many times while dealing. Darryl made a left to move away from the campus, and the cop switched on his siren. Darryl kept driving but didn’t speed. Another cop car emerged. Then another. He pulled into a parking lot and the cops yelled for them to get out of the car. It had been reported stolen.
They threw him and his cousin into a paddy wagon. And only then did Darryl panic. He had a dozen bags filled with various drugs hidden behind the zipper of his pants. With his hands cuffed behind his back, he pulled his pants around until his zipper was over his right thigh, emptied the bags and used his feet to crush the pills and slide the powder into the cracks and crevices of the car.
At the station, he called his parents to come get him. They refused. They thought a short stint behind bars might scare him into changing, as it had Derrick. He was sent to a youth house for two weeks for his trial. He missed Thanksgiving. At his hearing, he was convicted of receiving stolen property, sentenced to probation and released.
His first day back at school, he took a bathroom pass and never went back. “Those two weeks didn’t learn me,” he says.
One night in May, Darryl was playing dice on the steps where he sold. This is how he remembers what happened that night. (A request for records was denied by Plainfield police because Darryl was a minor when he was arrested.)
An older man called him to an adjacent building to settle a bet about an NBA game. Darryl gave his answer, but the man rejected it, saying, “you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Darryl decided to walk away, but the man followed. “If he puts his hands on me,” Darryl remembers thinking, “it’s over.”
The man put his hand on Darryl’s face and knocked off his blue fitted cap. Then he walked back and leaned on his car. Darryl returned to confront him. Then, as the man was walking away, Darryl’s cousin jumped him. The man threw off Darryl’s cousin and lifted his shirt to show he was carrying a knife. Darryl saw it shine in a spotlight from one of the buildings and thought it was about four inches. He reached into his pants, found his pistol and fired. One shot. Two shots. Three.
The next thing he remembers, he was running along train tracks, getting rid of the gun and his clothes and listening for sirens. A month later, he was arrested for attempted murder when he reported for probation stemming from his earlier arrest. His victim needed open-heart surgery but survived. The prosecution offered to drop one of the drug charges if he pled guilty to aggravated assault, which he did. And he would serve five years, one month and six days in jail.
The addiction to that lifestyle still had a hold over him, though. He convinced his father to bail him after the shooting. Two weeks later, he was arrested on a drug charge. He called his mother that time, and she bailed him out. A week after that, he was arrested on another drug charge. He couldn’t control himself: In his bedroom, in a classroom, behind bars, he only thought of being back out on the streets. After that fourth arrest, he called his father. Mike Sr. was finished feeling like he could fix his 17-year-old son. “This time you’re staying,” he told Darryl.
Derrick remembers Darryl’s first trial. Before he even saw his twin brother, he could hear the shackles behind the door. He knew that his twin was getting into trouble, but he didn’t know how much. When Mike Jr. left for college, Derrick and Darryl got their own room. After Derrick decided to attend St. Pat’s, they’d see each other only in passing. Derrick was focused on school and basketball.
Basketball, after all, was where he felt normal. As far back as middle school he remembers feeling attracted to men, but he thought it was a phase. He couldn’t stop those thoughts from bouncing around in his head, but he could control how many hours he spent in the gym, how often he allowed he allowed his mind to wander. As a junior, Gordon played alongside Kyrie Irving, averaging 8.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists a game. “If I was playing or in school,” Derrick says, “I could go a few seconds without thinking of [Darryl].”
In the summer, Darryl’s first in prison, Derrick got a tattoo over his heart, “MBK.” My brother’s keeper. But he also began to think about men more intensely. He knew now that what he was going through wasn’t just a phase. Before the season began, he lost 20 pounds. He kept eating, but the stress kept the weight off him. When he noticed his heart racing at random moments, he told his parents he needed to see a doctor. The doctor discovered that he’d developed acid reflux. He suggested Derrick take Tums and also gave him a prescription for Zoloft, an anti-anxiety medication. Two secrets was one too many.
When he learned that HBO would be making a documentary about St. Patrick during his senior season, he decided to tell them about Darryl. “I had to open up,” he says. “I was lying about everything else in my life. I couldn’t lie about my brother too.”
One burden lifted was enough: He and Michael Gilchrist (who would later change his surname to Kidd-Gilchrist to honor his late uncle) led St. Pat’s to a No. 1 national ranking for much of the season. On March 9, 2011, the day of the de facto national championship game against No. 2 St. Anthony High of Jersey City in the North Jersey Non-Public B championship, the New Jersey Star-Ledger published an article about Derrick and Darryl. Derrick hadn’t known that Darryl kept newspaper clippings on the wall of his cell. He cried as he read the story. That night, as St. Anthony focused on stopping Gilchrist, Derrick led the Celtics with 26 points in his final high school game. But it wasn’t enough. The Celtics lost 62-45.
Over the summer, he’d visit Darryl as often as he could at Albert C. Wagner – and they’d trade letters and talk on the phone in between. Before he left for Western Kentucky in June, he and Mike Jr. drove down to Bordentown to see Darryl in Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility. Darryl had recently moved from a youth house and now was in prison with men up to the age of 28.
They talked about basketball, mostly. Derrick wished that Darryl could have gone to college with him. Darryl did too. As they were getting ready to leave, they saw a man in the corner with a camera. They paid him a couple bucks and Derrick and Darryl posed together. Click. A few weeks later, Darryl received the photo in the mail and forwarded it to their mother. She took it to Walgreens down the road and had it enlarged to 8.5-x-11" and framed. The day Derrick left for the airport, she gave it to him as a gift.
Derrick flew out of New Jersey that day, but he didn’t leave without Darryl.
Darryl’s first couple of years in prison were like detox.
Before he was sentenced, he would wonder how many years he would get – how many years before he was back out on the streets. He would wake up at 7 a.m. on days when he liked what was for breakfast. Otherwise, he’d sleep till school started at 8. He’d attend classes until 2:30 p.m. then go back to his room and back to bed to sleep until dinner. At night, he’d have trouble sleeping, so he’d daydream about dealing again. “I’d think of ways to do it smarter,” he says.
He thought that he’d have to fight every day in prison, but the youth house was peaceful for the most part. When he was told he’d be transferring to Wagner, another inmate told him it was like “Gladiator” in there, but that turned out to be a lie. He’d sleep during the days to pass the time, but that only left him awake at night. He tried a couple books, The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama and biographies about Malcolm X, but reading didn’t distract him enough. Only imagining his old life would bring him out beyond the walls for a few moments – but he knew that obsessing about dealing would put him back on the streets when he got out, and being back on the streets when he got out would put him back in prison again.
His final transfer was to South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, N.J., more than two hours away from Plainfield. At Bordentown, Darryl had seen at least one member of his family almost every Saturday. But they couldn’t travel to South Woods every weekend, so visits dried up to once every month or two. Still, most every Saturday, Darryl would shower and get ready just in case they came.
One night he was watching TV in his bunk with the volume on low so that he didn’t wake his roommate. He started thinking about his family – he was missing them more than ever. He thought back to playing in the backyard with Derrick, to collecting leaves with his father in fall and to eating dinner in the kitchen with his mother. He thought about all the weight Derrick had lost. He thought about how his brother Mike could only visit once a year because it was too painful. Why had I put my family though this? he thought. Why did I put myself through this?
“I’ve been asking myself those same questions for about three years now,” Darryl says. “And I still don’t have any answers. It was just an addiction.
“When I think about it, I want to cry. Forever, when I think about it, I’ll want to cry.”
It took almost five years behind bars for him to reach that moment, but he vowed to himself that he wouldn’t go back to jail again. He used to associate manhood with money and power and the number of women he had around, but he began to reconsider manhood. Who was more of a man, after all, him who at 20 was forced to rely on others for what he needed, or his father who provided for a family of five? “You’re not a man in jail,” Darryl says. He stopped thinking about the streets and instead thought of his family.
With 15 months left in his sentence, he moved to a halfway house in Newark, 20 minutes from his home. Mike Sr. and Sandra brought him clothes, and he got to sleep in his old sheets again. He got a cell phone, even though it was against the rules, and texted his family and friends constantly. Although he hadn’t earned his GED in jail – he couldn’t pass the math portion – he wanted to work. He went through a program that required him to do a mock interview with staff at the halfway house – and to wear a suit every day for three months. But wearing a suit made him feel like a man.
He learned how to catch a bus. He learned how to walk quickly again – a practice that’s not valuable in jail. He got a job at Popeye’s. At nights, he went to group counseling with other inmates. He brought in the DVD of Prayer for a Perfect Season, the HBO documentary about St. Pat’s 2011 season. And the other men in the group told them how jealous they were of him. Not because his brother was a basketball player, but because he came from a family with a mother and a father and two brothers – and they all loved and supported him.
He never knew how rare that was. “At first, I didn’t want to see that,” Darryl says. “Then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Family became everything again.”
Derrick was in a prison of his own in Kentucky. He had to know if he really was gay, so he created accounts on a couple of gay dating apps, Grindr and Adam4Adam. He was worried, though: First, because he’d watched too much of the MSNBC show “Predator,” and second because he didn’t want to be discovered.
He met a man for a date, but didn’t like the experience. Convinced now that he was straight, he set out to prove it. The most sought-after girl at school was a cheerleader named Stephanie, and they started dating during the season. They had a physical relationship, and as it continued, Derrick began to realize that he was using her to pretend – at first even to himself – that he was someone he was not. He was gay. But he didn’t tell anyone.
As a freshman, he led the Hilltoppers in scoring (11.8 ppg), rebounds (6.7 rpg) and minutes (33.3 per game). They made a surprise NCAA tournament run but lost in their opening game to eventual national champion Kentucky, a team that featured Kidd-Gilchrist.
After that season, he decided he could have a better basketball career at another school but knew that a fresh start would require him to come out. That spring, after a tour of St. John's in New York City, he found a quiet corner of campus and made a phone call to Chris Radecke, the coach he’d spent early mornings with in the gym when he was in middle school. And he said the words “I’m gay” out loud for the first time. Radecke gave him his full support.
Derrick chose UMass and felt reborn when he arrived in the summer of 2012. Everyone assumed he was straight because he was still with Stephanie. His new roommate, center Tyler Bergantino also had a long-distance relationship, so they’d Facetime or Skype their girlfriends at the same time and watch movies on shared screens. He and Derrick even made a YouTube series called the “DG and TB Chronicles.”
Two Instagram photos changed everything. During winter break in 2012, Derrick was at a gay club called Paradise in Asbury Park, N.J. He snapped a photo and shared it without realizing that it geo-tagged the club he was in. Senior guard Chaz Williams, who hadn’t always clicked with Derrick, saw the photo and called Cady Lalanne, the team’s center and best player, to tell him. Cady then called Derrick as he was enjoying his favorite song at the club, “Sweet Nothing” by Calvin Harris. Derrick, who wasn't close with Cady, saw the phone call and panicked. When he answered, Cady asked where he was, and Derrick said he was at Paradise, figuring Cady, who unbeknownst to Derrick was with several of their teammates, wouldn’t know it was a gay club. Just to be safe, he told them he’d gone with some girls, and even texted a picture to try to prove it.
A couple of weeks later, he liked a photo that George, his boyfriend at the time, had posted on Instagram. They were standing cheek to cheek with their arms around each other’s waists. Again, chief inspector Cady saw it. “Everybody had been 50/50 before that second photo,” says Cady. “But we all just wanted him to come out after it. We would respect him if he was honest with us. But lies catch up with you.”
A time comes when silence is betrayal. Derrick was betraying his teammates, his coaches and even his family – his father had caught him on Grindr, a gay dating app, that same winter break when Derrick had fallen asleep with his phone in his hand. And of course, he was betraying Stephanie. Although he said they were “on again, off again” during the fall, his relationships with her and George overlapped. Derrick broke up with Stephanie in February, after UMass’ game at VCU. Then he withdrew from everyone. When the team gathered for meals at Berkshire, a campus cafeteria, Derrick would sit off at a table in the corner by himself, his phone always in his hand and the screen always out of sight to everyone but him.
He went through an entire year that way. He would come home from practice and play Call of Duty by himself until he was tired. When he couldn’t sleep, he’d close his eyes and count cartoon sheep jumping over a fence. When he was by himself, he’d cry a lot. He started the 2013-14 season 9-of-27 from the floor with just 24 points in his first three games before bouncing back in A-10 play, averaging 9.6 points a game and shooting 52 percent. It was the least enjoyable basketball season of his life. After UMass lost to Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Derrick told himself he had two choices: Come out or quit basketball.
He decided to come out. First, he gathered around himself a support system, including Billy Bean, who came out after a six-year MLB career that ended in 1995, and Wade Davis, a former NFL player who now runs the You Can Play Project, which aims to end homophobia in sports. They suggested that he break the news in an interview with ESPN's Kate Fagan, in part because she is an openly gay journalist. But first, he had to tell his team and his family.
On Sunday, March 30, he went home to Plainfield and told his mom he needed to talk. They sat on the couch together and he asked her to guess what it was about. She went through three questions about problems with school and basketball, and responded “no” each time. Her fourth question was, “Did you get a girl pregnant?”
“No,” Derrick responded. “That’s way off.”
And then she knew what she had long suspected. “Derrick, are you gay?” she asked.
They cried together.
Derrick asked Sandra to tell Mike Sr. while he went for a drive to clear his head. She told both Mikes – neither of whom was surprised. Finally, she called Darryl. He was shocked. He hung up with his mom and called Derrick right away. No answer. Then he texted his twin, and Derrick replied right away: “I’m driving now, I’ll call you later.”
He returned to campus and told his teammates that same day – after UMass coach Derek Kellogg, who is married with one son, broke the ice by telling the team that he was gay – and then did the ESPN interview on Monday. Fagan asked him how he felt. “Awesome – actually,” he replied. “I thought I wasn’t going to feel this way for three or four years. ... It’s an indescribable feeling.”
By the time Derrick and Darryl talked, two days later, it was tense. Derrick was on high alert for any sign of prejudice. Darryl was more hurt from being the last one to know. And there was something else too – just as Derrick had lost his dreams of playing basketball with his brother in high school and college when Darryl was locked up, a dream of Darryl’s was dying too. In quiet moments in his cell, he’d think about going up to visit his brother, the college star, and, of course, picking up girls.
Darryl suggested that Derrick go to a therapist. What he meant was that Derrick should talk to someone before coming out publicly, but what Derrick heard was that he should see a therapist to make him straight again. They didn’t talk for two weeks. Then Darryl broke the ice with a series of text messages so long that each one stretched past Derrick’s phablet’s screen. The main message was that Darryl supported him, no matter what. Since that exchange, they’ve become closer than they were even as kids. They text and talk on the phone daily. Darryl was looking forward to being released on Sept. 30. Derrick already had been.
Around campus now, Derrick shake more hands and has more conversations with strangers than a politician. The construction manager buzzing by in a golf cart? He came out to Derrick after Derrick came out to the world. The chef at the cafeteria? She chats him up for 10 minutes about how he discovered his type of guy and how his new boyfriend Mark is doing. His teammates? He’s with them for every meal now, and often at their dorms or apartments to play video games and hang out afterward. He is all the way out now, and everyone is in it with him.
On Friday, Nov. 14, Darryl takes a night off from preparing orders at Popeye’s and gets permission from his parole officer to see his brother’s first game of the season. Approaching the Mullins Center, he’s so excited he almost starts sprinting -- but he doesn’t want to leave his mother and father behind. The family settles into their first-row seats behind the UMass bench and watch as Derrick struggles to score 6 points in the first half. But they also hear the crowd of more than 8,000 chant “Der-Rick Gor-Don” as he takes his first free throws, and see students holding signs that say “#BeTrue.”
In the second half, the shots still don’t fall for Derrick, but he gets five points, two offensive rebounds and an assist in the final four minutes to help UMass ice Siena. Mullins Center staff set up a perimeter for the players to exit through after the game. UMass wins 95-87, and Derrick is the last player to walk the path toward the locker room. He sees Darryl.
Later tonight, they’ll laugh and eat pizza. They’ll send Sandra away so that they can have a few moments by themselves and begin making up for what has been lost. They’ll say they love each other and make plans to meet again soon.
But right now, the last barrier between them is a thin yellow rope. Derrick ducks underneath it, and the brothers embrace for the first time as free men.