The best season of my life comes to a close.
There are two parts of the season that I despise. The first comes in the late autumn when I have to make cuts. Telling kids that they're not quite good enough to make the team can be gut-wrenching as the potential players' dreams are crushed.
The second comes at the end of the season. Entering the locker room after the final loss can be extremely emotional. A team that has worked hard for the past 10 months has to say goodbye. Hours of effort and bonding ends in seconds, and as coaches we often wonder what went wrong.
This season ended with a 54-51 loss in a great high school basketball game. As I entered the classroom to address the team for the final time I knew that it would be difficult to keep my emotions in check. This was the team that I came out to and who supported me all year. They wore Nike's gay-themed #BETRUE shirts in warmups. They finished 13-5 and went undefeated in the league. I thanked them for their effort and for providing me with the most enjoyable season of my career. With my voice cracking, I told them I loved them. They slowly trickled out to move on with their lives, with hugs and tears exchanged.
The end of the season is so definitive. Months of the same routine end suddenly, and it usually takes a few days to accept the inevitable. You never enter a game expecting to lose, so when that final horn sounds, it can send you into a major funk.
In sports we so often equate success with wins and losses. This year I felt that the journey was so much more than just basketball for both myself and my players. I watched them deal with national media, and they were stellar in their representation of the community. Their evolution was remarkable. In April, when Jason Collins came out (two months prior to my own coming out), I asked how they would feel if a teammate had announced the he was gay. Several said they would be very uncomfortable, stirring my own fears of coming out. The same players now wear #BETRUE shirts to school.
My journey over the past eight months has made me a better coach. I am more relaxed and secure in everything I do. When I attend an LGBT function or visit a gay bar, I do not look over my shoulder. Friends no longer attempt to match me with their sister or their wives' friends. I am longer expected to comment on the attractiveness of females when with my buddies. The feeling of being free carries onto the court on a daily basis. Being stress-free has allowed me to better communicate with my players and run better practice sessions. My quality of life has improved, and in turn so has my performance as a coach and educator.
A few days after coming out I received the following message on Facebook from a fellow coach:
What business do you have sharing your bedroom behavior with these children? The fools in your community may think you are some kind of hero but I do not. I am a coach and to me it is a job of a coach to keep athletes focused on the game. Not to plant seeds in their head so you feel better about your own conflictions. The fact that you have been sitting on this so called information for so long is proof that you are conflicted.
Your personal problems have nothing to do with basketball so why unload them on CHILDREN. I hope you are fired and arrested for child grooming. You are the worst coach ever.
This is the most irresponsible act I have ever heard of someone doing that calls themself a coach.
If one of these kids winds up as conflicted as you or not welcome at their own table for thanksgiving, you will be to blame.
I saved this message and have read it multiple times over the past few months. While I am not quite sure how coming out equates to sharing my bedroom behaviors, I was intrigued by this coach's views.
This season was the most successful that I have had in my five years at Saunders. The idea of my job being to keep athletes focused on the game is completely ridiculous. I believe that is a small part of my job. The real task is helping to mold my players into well-rounded individuals who will succeed later in life. My players have learned a valuable lesson in acceptance and learned first-hand that stereotypes aren't always true.
An annual local ritual features coaches attending the post-season games of other coaches and then heading out for dinner. This past week I sat around with some great friends and peers, eating well and drinking good wine. Stories were told and jokes were made. It felt great being able to be myself and accepted by everyone in the room. Nothing has changed on the outside. The inside is another story. I am a better person, a better teacher, a better coach.
Many believe that you cannot be a gay man and succeed in athletics, yet athletes like Robbie Rogers, Jason Collins and Michael Sam are proof that this is not true. Thousands of kids shy away from sports because they are gay. These kids need to know that the belief is false. You can score 20 points per game and be gay. You can kick 45-yard field goals and be gay. And I assure you that you can coach... and be gay.
Follow Anthony Nicodemo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/saundershoops