Not Content To Play It Straight
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What a difference a day makes.

Prior to the arrival of the NBA All-Stars in Las Vegas last week, I was lucky enough to join a number of WNBA players and NBA legends on the NBA Cares Community Caravan. Stops along the circuit included clinics, a hospital visit, Habitat for Humanity builds and reading rallies. Two of the marquee names on the Caravan were Houston Comets forward Sheryl Swoopes and retired NBA player Tim Hardaway.

Last Wednesday, they worked together at a Habitat for Humanity build, making a family's dreams come true at a construction site in North Las Vegas. Hardaway and Swoopes (who have known each other for years and have appeared together at many appearances over the years), were joined by other hoop icons like Bob Lanier, Nykesha Sales, Ruth Riley and Jerome Williams. All of them were consumed with the great work they were doing, chatting and laughing as they worked (there may have even been some whistling while they worked).

Yet just a couple of hours later, Hardaway showed a different (darker) side to his personality.

Upon leaving the build site, he then did a guest spot on a sports talk radio show and made inappropriate comments about gay people (No need to repeat them here. It's over and done with). It was completely shocking knowing that he had just spent the day with Swoopes, who back in October, 2005, announced that she was a lesbian.

Perhaps Hardaway did not know Swoopes was gay (unlikely), or maybe he hid his bigotry to avoid an awkward situation (also unlikely). It is also possible that he is simply not as threatened by a lesbian as much as he is by a gay man. But the next day, all eyes were on Swoopes for a reaction. To her credit, she took the high road (As she always does). She spent Thursday answering questions about Hardaway's comments when she could have been talking about the various community activities she had been a part of or the new EA video game set to launch that night, the first video game ever to feature WNBA players (history in the making).

This is not meant to be another shot at Hardaway, who has taken his fair share of public rebuke for his comments. Every columnist in the country has taken him to town (and rightly so). Instead, it is intended to acknowledge the manner in which Swoopes handled herself in the aftermath, which was overlooked in the commotion.

"He is entitled to his opinion," she said. "But to use the word 'hate' in any capacity is very strong and very powerful. He needs to look at who he is and the position he is in now. He didn't always have the things he has now and life was not always easy for him as a black male. To make those comments that he made, there are just so many bigger issues in this world besides who is gay and who is straight."

The truth is that Hardaway's comments had nothing to do with Swoopes (if it is even possible to interpret his meaning). His rant was a reaction to the recent public announcement of another retired NBA player, John Amaechi. Yet suddenly Swoopes was cast into a new role, that of lesbian spokeswoman. It is something she is still getting used to (She was really speaking for all of us).

"I am sure there are people who disagree with it, there are people who are okay with it and there are people who may feel the same way that Tim Hardaway feels about it," the three-time WNBA Most Valuable Player said. "When I made the decision to come out I did so because I was ready to be me. I was tired of not being able to be myself and having to pretend to be someone else."

I have known Sheryl now for a number of years and she always finds new ways to impress me (I'm not sucking up, I swear). The talent is a given as she has proven herself in every aspect of the game. Scoring titles, Defensive Player of the Year Awards, M.V.P.'s and, of course, the championships. But she is also accessible to the fans, intelligent, courageous and, on a personal level, always willing and eager to talk, which makes my job easier.

Some fans (not that many, actually, but there are a few) wonder why the WNBA has no official position or stance on its gay players. The reason there is no stance is because it is simply not an issue. Teams market to the gay community in their cities as they see fit and some take a more proactive role than others. The WNBA's goal remains to expose as many people as possible to its brand of basketball. Regardless of who or what you are (even balding guys like me!), the WNBA is happy to have you as a fan. Or a player. Discrimination of any kind just wouldn't make good business sense (or any sense at all, for that matter). That is why NBA Commissioner David Stern immediately dismissed Hardaway from the Caravan.

"I think Commissioner Stern said it best when he said the statements that Tim Hardaway made are not representative of the entire NBA," Swoopes said last Thursday. "I think the stand that he took in banning Tim from the rest of the NBA All-Star activities shows everybody his support."

Stern by the way, not only did the right thing, but has truly elevated himself to the level reserved only for Presidents and Popes at this point in his career. As I experienced at the D-League owners meeting on Sunday, no matter who Stern is talking to or meeting with, people applaud when he is done (he simply owns any room he walks into). It is amazing. He has been elevated to a reverential status I feel the need to applaud after chatting with him for 10 seconds in the elevator at the NBA offices (if I'm not too busy dabbing the sweat profusely dripping down my face).

Before Amaechi's book was published, player sexuality was a topic that was most often associated with WNBA. But you will notice it is never the basketball beat writers who bring it up, but the "mainstream" media. Basketball journalists don't ask Swoopes about her relationships after games because most beat writers understand that it has no relevance to the game they are writing about. Nor do they bring up her sexuality when conducting an interview or writing a story about her work in the community.

Sure, homosexuality is a polarizing issue for some, but not for the vast majority of society. There are plenty of straight and gay athletes in all sports (Deal with it). Swoopes is not the only lesbian in the WNBA and some are even publicly open about it. There are probably more NBA players past and present who are gay, as well.

Swoopes continues to prove that it does not matter. Teammates don't care, opposing players do not care and real WNBA fans don't care. Yet it is these types of sensationalistic media blow-outs every time a Swoopes or Amaechi comes out as well as the isolated offensive reaction that make others who find themselves in a similar situation less comfortable about coming out.

"The good thing about it is that while a lot of people felt there would be so many negative repercussions, really people have been very supportive of my decision," she said. "I've said all along that it doesn't change who I am as a person or as an athlete. I just wanted to live my life."

For every bad apple, there is an entire orchard of good ones. Unfortunately, I would have liked to remember the Tim Hardaway who was hammering nails and hauling lumber that helped put together a home for the Ayala family (who are the most gracious people in the world). But instead, I will think of Sheryl Swoopes doing and saying all the right things and the smiles on the faces of the people she helped.