Does sexual orientation supersede talent in NBA?

Michael Rosenberg
Detroit Free Press

DETROIT - Lindsey Hunter wouldn't talk about it. Flip Saunders insisted he hadn't thought about it - and looked like he wanted to catch the next plane out of the interview session.

Hunter and Saunders are two of the nicest men in the NBA. If they won't discuss ex-journeyman John Amaechi's revelation that he is gay, then it is easy to wonder: Will the NBA ever be ready for an openly gay player?

The conventional wisdom is that a gay player would keep his teammates up at night, tossing and turning in their caves. But suppose we toss the following two words into the discussion:

Greg Oden.

Oden is the likely No. 1 pick in this June's NBA draft. At worst, he will go second, behind Texas' Kevin Durant. Oden is one of the surest NBA prospects in years.

What if Oden were gay?

(Let's pause to say, as clearly as possible, that there is absolutely no evidence that Oden is gay. I am not implying he is gay. This is not about Greg Oden, the flesh-and-blood person. This is all hypothetical, and I am using Oden as my example solely because of his basketball talent.)

Are we to believe that the entire league would pass on the next David Robinson because of his sexual orientation?

Of course Oden would get drafted - maybe not first, but certainly in the top 10. Forget about any moral obligations or reservations; we're talking about professional sports here. Using the most fundamental draft-evaluation scale - potential vs. risk - Oden's upside as a future 10-year All-Star easily outweighs the possibility that he won't be able to handle the pressure.

Suppose our hypothetically gay Greg Oden got drafted by the (not hypothetically) god-awful Philadelphia 76ers. Two or three of 76ers might say they refuse to play with Oden.

And management would say "OK. Good-bye."

And the players would learn an old lesson: you can't win a fight against your own franchise player. They might not like the young star's sexuality, just as they might not like Allen Iverson's partying or Zach Randolph's gun fetish. But they would learn to live with it.

They might sound like middle-schoolers, blabbing things like, "as long as you don't bring your gayness on me, I'm fine," as current 76er Shavlik Randolph did Thursday. And maybe a few players would object on religious grounds, but then again, maybe they wouldn't: There are a lot of lifestyles in the NBA that don't jibe with any religion I'm aware of, unless you count hedonism, and I don't hear much complaining.

Players can do what they want in their non-work hours. As Joe Dumars wrote in an e-mail, "John Amaechi's personal life should be a non-issue."

There are surely gay athletes in all the major American team sports. But there has never been an openly gay active athlete in any of them.

What would it take for that to change?

It would take courage. It would take thick skin, because of the booing on the road and the skeptical glances in the locker room.

It would take a sense of humor, because in a locker room, everything is comic fodder.

But mostly, it would take undeniable athletic talent. Jackie Robinson succeeded partly because he had the right temperament, but also because he was too gifted to ignore. I don't know where we will find the first openly gay NBA player, but I'm sure it won't be on the bench.

This isn't as far-fetched as it sounds. Indians pitcher Kazuhito Tadano admitted to starring in a gay porno movie a few years ago. He said he is not gay and the movie was a mistake. A few Indians backed him, Tadano pitched in 15 games in two years and the republic survived.

As I sat courtside at the Pistons-Lakers game Thursday, I thought about Amaechi, a hypothetical gay superstar and the most talented player on the Palace floor.

Kobe Bryant once played an entire season as an accused rapist. The charges were eventually dropped, but during that season when nobody knew what would happen, Bryant's teammates did not seem all that bothered by the charges. They basically said they would support him, try to win with him and leave his personal life out of it. If that is how it works for an accused sex offender, why can't it work that way for a gay man?

Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2018 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.