Derrick Gordon Says He ‘Felt Right At Home’ At Seton Hall With Coach Kevin Willard

Derrick Gordon, who came out as the first openly gay Division I men’s basketball player a year before he transferred to Seton Hall for the 2015-16 season, has positive memories of his time with new Maryland hoops coach Kevin Willard, whom Gordon credits for creating a comfortable environment.

Gordon began his college basketball career at Western Kentucky in 2011-12, then sat out a year due to transfer rules. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound guard played at UMass from 2013-2015, averaging 9.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists during those two seasons. He came out as gay following the 2013-14 season, then transferred a year later to Seton Hall.

Gordon was initially disappointed by the lack of attention he received as a transfer, but when Willard reached out to him, he saw it as an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. Seton Hall was close to home — he’s from Plainfield, N.J. — and offered high-end competition in the Big East. Plus, Willard made the decision a no-brainer.

“He just made it comfortable for me,” Gordon said on Glenn Clark Radio March 22. “He said, ‘You know what, we’re more focused on who you are as a person and a basketball player and what you bring to the team.’ He voiced that over and over again. When I went on my visit, I just felt even more comfortable, met a couple of the guys, [Khadeen Carrington and Isaiah Whitehead]. They made me feel right at home as well, so it was kind of like an easy decision. Coach Willard’s awesome. He’s an amazing guy.”

Derrick Gordon celebrating Big East tournament championship
Derrick Gordon celebrating the Big East tournament championship (Photo Credit: Seton Hall Athletics)

Gordon averaged 8.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.6 assists, mostly off the bench, for a Pirates team that went 25-9 overall and won the Big East tournament championship. The tournament-clinching victory came against eventual national champion Villanova. Gordon played 25 minutes and scored 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting, helping the Pirates to a 69-67 win against the powerful Wildcats.

Gordon is now 30 years old and playing professionally in Germany. He remembers the attention he got during Seton Hall’s media day prior to the 2015-16 season for having come out as gay, but it was business as usual during the season.

“I’d say throughout the season it never was an issue,” Gordon said. “I came out. It was done. I played and kept playing, so for me it was more, ‘I just want to play and I want to win.’ But of course, being the first openly gay player, that comes with attention. So for me, I embrace it. I knew what I was getting myself into when I first came out, so I knew that it was going to come with attention, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle while I was there.”

Gordon said he “bumped heads” with former UMass coach Derek Kellogg during his time with the Minutemen, but he connected with Willard right away. After the 2015-16 season, Gordon told his teammates and Willard that he wished he had another year of eligibility remaining at Seton Hall. He still considers Willard the best coach he has ever played for.

Gordon recalled the practice when it all started to click for him at Seton Hall.

“I remember a particular situation that happened in practice — came down the court and I was wide open and I didn’t shoot it,” Gordon said. “[Willard] stopped practice and he said, ‘You’re not at [UMass] anymore. I trust you. I believe in you. Shoot the ball.’ Ever since then, my confidence was through the roof, especially dealing with I had to deal with when I was at UMass with that coach to playing under Coach Willard and him telling me that specifically, he just let me play my game.”

Gordon touched on several other topics pertaining to his former coach …

On why Seton Hall’s 2015-16 team was a special group:

“No one had us winning [against Villanova in the Big East championship game]. No one even had us going to the semifinals. And the fact that we went that far was because we had a group of guys who believed in each other. Yes, [defense] matters a lot with Coach Willard. But what also matters is the chemistry of the team. Is everyone cool with each other? That’s one of the reasons why I believe we won the way we did at Seton Hall was because off the court, we all hung out. We went to the movies together and everything. I feel like with that, there’s only so much that he can do. At the same time, you have to have a group of guys who are willing to lay it out every single day all on the line to win the championship.”

On the initial wave of criticism of Willard’s hire from Maryland fans:

“I was seeing things that people were talking about [how] they’re cancelling their season tickets and all types of stuff. I think anywhere you go, especially if you’re new, you’re going to have to prove yourself. I wouldn’t expect for them to be like, ‘Oh my gosh, Kevin Willard!’ There’s nothing wrong with that, but I feel wherever you go, you have to prove yourself. He didn’t completely change around Seton Hall, but he changed it enough to the point where Seton Hall is a school where people will go to. I will give him credit for that. I’m praising him, but of course also I have to say, yeah, he’s going to have to prove some people wrong and get recruits and win games and all of that stuff. But I don’t see why he would have any issues doing that.”

On why he believes Willard will be a successful recruiter at Maryland:

“Of course it’s not a Kentucky, it’s not a Duke or anything, but at the end of the day, I still think Maryland is still one of the top programs that you can play for. It’s in the Big Ten. How he recruited me to go to Seton Hall, I feel like if he has that same approach, I don’t see why [he can’t recruit well]. He wants winners on his team, that’s it. He wants guys that are going to go out there and want to win games. I feel like that’s the reason why we won, because we had nothing but winners on our team. If he can form that group of guys at Maryland, then I wouldn’t be surprised if he does some things over there, for sure.”

For more from Gordon, watch the full interview here:

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Seton Hall Athletics

Luke Jackson

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