Editor’s Note: Isaac Humphries is a professional basketball player for Melbourne United, part of Australia’s National Basketball League (NBL). He previously played college basketball for the Kentucky Wildcats. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
One of the best feelings in the world is playing a game of professional basketball while on peak form.
You get to perform in front of nearly 10,000 people a night; they’re cheering your name, they’re wearing your jersey. And all while you throw down a powerful dunk and flex to the crowd.
Well, it should be the best feeling in the world, right? And for a brief moment, I guess it was.
That was in 2020. I was 22 and playing with the Adelaide 36ers, two years before signing with my current team, Melbourne United.
Now imagine what happens when all of that adrenalin comes to an end after a game. For me, the euphoria was gone the moment I drove out of the arena. I’d get home to my apartment in Adelaide’s coastal suburb of Henley Beach, and be all alone.
I felt I had no choice but to be by myself. That’s when my wave of depression would hit the hardest.
Over my entire career, there was no reality that existed where I could be an openly gay man while playing basketball. Until now.
I’ve played everywhere – Kentucky, the NBA, Europe, the Australian national team – and it’s all the same: for the most part, being an athlete at that level is about making money, dating girls and being the best basketball player you can be.
So I fell in line, no matter how awkward and weird I felt doing it. I just wanted to fit in and not draw any attention to myself. There were almost no examples of a male pro basketball player doing anything other than that, so I was resigned to the fact that my true life would start after I retired.
My depression got so bad that the idea of not making it to retirement became a very real possibility.
There was a night toward the end of 2020 where my loneliness, self-hate and shame finally took its toll, and I decided it would hurt less to take my own life. I had unfortunately decided it was the end. It was only when I woke up the next morning when I realized what I hadn’t done.
I ended up starting that season like nothing was wrong. But midway through it, some previous leg injuries caught up with me. I was shut down for the remainder of the season and most of the following one too.
Simple things like standing up from a chair or walking up a flight of stairs – let alone any explosive movement while playing – became almost impossible.
Part of the fix was following my strength and conditioning coach, Nik Popovic, to Los Angeles to continue my rehab. We had originally set up shop in Sydney to get through my rehab but he had just gotten a new gig at the University of Southern California; he’s the best in the business so the only way for me to continue making progress in fixing my knee was to join him over there.
LA has always been my favorite place in the world. On top of my basketball career, I’m also a musician, so I’ve been really fortunate to have spent a lot of time there and develop a network of friends and peers.
Being in LA over the years also gave me my first ever experiences seeing members of the LGBTQ+ community in a positive light.
Growing up in Australia, I went to an all-male private school from about the age of 13, where there was an unspoken expectation that everyone was straight – and that was the end of the conversation. Throw in the competitive sports world I was part of, and there were really no avenues for me to see members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Things didn’t change when I became a pro basketball player; LGBTQ+ representation had rarely ever been there in top-tier male-dominated sports, where it’s generally seen as a negative point of difference. Anyone who’s ever been in a locker room understands the sentiments that float around. There’s the unintentional derogatory slang, and ridiculing anything with a gay connotation.
In LA, it was completely different. I was around some of the most successful people in the world – everyone from musicians, television and film producers, media personalities, A-list celebrities – and got to see that being openly gay can come with joy.
For the first time in my life, I saw that people at the top of their game can be open and honest about who they are, and that came with a visceral and contagious happiness.
So while in LA in 2021 to fix my injuries, I also got to experience more of being around the LGBTQ+ community. It was mostly through making friends who were openly gay and unequivocally themselves – shame wasn’t even a consideration.
I learned so much about the experiences people in our community go through, and was shocked at the number of stories that were eerily similar to mine.
I saw that being open about who you are can be the most freeing thing a person can ever do. Being gay didn’t come with shame anymore; it came with liberation.
No one was hiding who they were. And it made for the happiest, most positive environment I didn’t realize existed.
That’s what I hope sports can become. I want it to be a place where anyone can strive to be amazing, without fearing backlash just for who you are.
You can be a gay man and an elite basketball player in one of the best leagues in the world. I’m living proof of that.
My journey to get to this point in my life was harder than it should’ve been, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Without those dark points, I wouldn’t have been thrust into situations where I had to explore, discover and learn to accept who I really am.
If there are negative aspects that come with my decision to come out, I’ll take those barbs so others don’t have to; as long as it means we make progress along the way and kids in particular feel they can be whoever they want.
I’m so fortunate to be able to do this with this Melbourne United team. It says a lot about the club that I really do feel so comfortable doing this with them. To other sports teams out there, create environments that are welcoming to people of different sexualities, faiths, races. Not only is it the right thing to do, but I promise you’ll get the most out of every person in your organization for it.
I’d also encourage a bit more empathy across the board. A comment here or there might seem funny in the moment, and a sentiment that could be considered anti-gay might appear harmless in the grand scheme of things – but you never know who might be in the room with you and how it might affect that person.
I know what it feels like to grow up in an environment that doesn’t feel welcoming, and I want to do my part to make sure basketball is no longer one of them.