I am bringing the ball down the court. My legs — worn out from jumping for rebounds, sliding across the court guarding my mark — scream a truth I must confront; I am too tired to score this time around. I have played the entire game, and, with just five minutes left on the clock, my thighs are on fire. My arms — tired from pushing, shoving, getting shoved, getting hit — demand rest. My body has been pushed to the edge of exhaustion. Patrick, the person that has guarded me all game, stares at me brazenly, ready in a defensive stance. His ass is rigorously close to the floor; his legs are ready — bent, waiting for me to have a go at him.
The basketball court was and continues to be a space in which I am free to explore, confront and understand my own iteration of queerness. As my adolescent understanding over my own sexuality grew, basketball was a way through which I became comfortable expressing my queerness. As a queer Latinx man, I conceptually understood that I was also attracted to men, but simply could not act on those attractions. Being queer, or more exactly the fear of being rejected on the basis of outward expressions of queerness, terrified me. When dinner table jokes mocked, shamed and ridiculed those foreign gays on a consistent basis at birthday parties, cousin gatherings, and school recesses, approaching my queerness felt like betraying the core beliefs of my family and community.
Basketball provided me with a first point of contact with my queerness. It allowed me to grow comfortable having Patrick (and other Patricks) close to me, near enough that I could feel him drawing his breaths from my own. This helped me overcome the internalized queerphobia I was experiencing and taught me that it was okay to want him and act on those wants. Basketball became about accepting that I could do whatever I wanted with Patrick. The 94-by-50-foot basketball court then became grounds for me to slowly reclaim the expressions of queerness I could identify in the sport. This sport I love cannot fully be captured by a set of plays on a whiteboard, highlights on a recruiting tape or the scoreboard at the final buzzer. Capturing the feelings I get when playing requires me to explain the exhilarating rush of chasing that glorious moment when my brain erases crowds, coaches, noise, and leaves queer me alone with another individual in the intimacy of the game.
I feel Patrick’s eyes roaming my body, and I see him smile; worse, I see him smirk. I know from years of sizing people up, of battling players one on one, that he knows that he is less tired than I am. Summer pickup games and best-out-of-seven matches train a basketball player to identify exhaustion in a player with a fleeting glance. One learns to identify fatigue in a long and winded sigh, in a missed layup that would have gone in earlier in the game, in a grey shirt drenched black with sweat. I lock eyes with him, and in that moment we recognize a mutual hunger, a special type of fire that cannot be calmed unless we face each other. We crave confrontation; that is what we both play for.
As I approach Patrick, I already know what I will do. My body, fueled by the intimacy and urgency of the moment, obeys. I do an in-and-out-crossover dribble and attack Patrick’s right foot. He takes the bait, and when he tries to recover to his right, I cross the ball between my legs and explode ahead, driving the ball to the hole. Patrick is behind me now, and I have created at least a half meter of separation, enough to gather myself for a shot. Reaching backward, I feel Patrick’s abs flexing as he tries to draw near me again. I shove him — hard — with my forearm, stepping farther away from him. The window is open. I rise up to shoot, and Patrick extends his left arm in an effort to block me. The ball leaves my hand, floats in the air and goes in. Swish.
My eyes, previously focused solely on my shot, search for Patrick immediately after the ball goes in. He is already looking at me. I wink and blow him a kiss. He smiles.
I found my queerness in the looks between baskets, the touches in between defensive possessions, the unapologetic use of mutual space that occurs when two players are trying to will each other out of the game. My attraction to men flourished under the ultracompetitive environment of basketball. I felt as comfortable wanting, lusting after my opponents as I felt competing against them. Even more, the one-on-one confrontations I had against other players stoked my attraction to them. The inherently flirtatious aspect of basketball — the looks, the winks, the raw skin-on-skin contact involved in trying to outdo your opponent — helped me come to terms with my same-sex sexual inclinations.
By this I mean that feeling queer — being queer — within the scene of basketball felt right to me when the few queer spaces I knew screamed that I was living my queerness the wrong way. I was often labelled as a “bro,” or “another bi posing as straight” in conventional queer spaces, or I simply failed to see myself in queer representation in media. But the basketball court gave me a place where I could live my queerness in peace, even if it was in silence. This queer expression of mine did not side-eye me when I missed an insider’s joke. It didn’t shame me because I wasn’t queer enough — didn’t raise its eyebrows after I said I was dating a girl. It didn’t taunt me when asking how I felt about being Catholic and queer. Instead, it slowly embraced me, gave me my time and waited until I was ready to fully call it my own.
Maybe for the rest of the players, the winks, the flirtatious taunts and overly physical contact were simply part of the game. Maybe those special flashes of queerness were only discernible to queer me — remarkable to my person only because I was desperately searching for a queer identity that I couldn’t yet find. But, I cherished those looks, and collected each expression of queerness I could find in basketball with the utmost passion. If a taunting kiss at the end of a defensive possession was the only semi-expression of queerness I could find, no one could stop me from embracing it.
The irony is not lost on me that I found the distinct expression of queerness I felt the most comfortable with in one of society’s most hetero-cisgender spaces. Only a few of my closest lifelong basketball friends know I am out as bisexual, fewer former and current teammates are aware of my sexual orientation, and probably none of my coaches will ever find out about this essential part of my story. This is mainly because basketball has long been obsessively policed by players, coaches, the media and even the public to create a space where all male-to-male interactions are ontologically heterosexual. Despite the close bonds of kinship formed in a locker room, the late-night talks with teammates in hotels while on tournament trips, and the tears shared when the final buzzer sounds and your team doesn’t come ahead, the fact is that all interactions derived from basketball were conceived under the archaic assumption that all men are heterosexual. Opinions like “a gay teammate can threaten team cohesion” or “I feel threatened to shower alongside you” will always exist to suppress any behavior that defies the glorified sense of masculinity derived from the sport. The fear of threatening the community I’ve grown so fond of, still to this day, holds me back.
The lack of queer visibility on the highest level of professional basketball in the world testifies to this exclusivity. In the 71-year history of the National Basketball Association, Jason Collins has been the only player who has publicly come out as gay, and his courageous action came only when he reached the twilight of his career. Indeed, it is no surprise that Collins waited until his 13th NBA season to come out. As queer men of color, our identity goes against the agreed-upon conventions of hetero-male basketball. The social harmony admired on basketball courts across the country is maintained with the tacit agreement that all hetero-male contact occurs under the premise of an unassailable heterosexuality. Refusing to adhere to this heteronormative contract risks the necessary cohesion in a team sport like basketball. Collins’ queerness was not just antithetical to the NBA’s role as a bastion of black hetero masculinity; it was also perceived as a threat to the harmony a team sport requires.
Nonetheless, Collins chose to come out — not simply as queer, or as gay, but as a gay BASKETBALL player, in an attempt to promote a new form of basketball where queerness is accepted.
“Some people insist they’ve never met a gay person,” Collins has said in a 2013 interview with Sports Illustrated. “But Three Degrees of Jason Collins dictates that no NBA player can claim that anymore. Pro basketball is a family. And pretty much every family I know has a brother, sister or cousin who’s gay. In the brotherhood of the NBA, I just happen to be the one who’s out.”
I, too, believe in basketball as a sport that provides others the same framework through which I understood my sexuality. When I couldn’t find my place within the broader mainstream queer narrative, I was able to express myself by being queer on court. Finding my own brand of queerness within such a violently heteronormative space convinced me that even in the most unconventional places, there are strands of queerness worth fighting for.