Is the NBA ready for an openly gay player? Mark Cuban thinks so.

The prospect of a head female coach and openly gay players in the NBA may have at once seemed as unlikely as the African-American president who now resides in the White House.

But the times, they are a changin’.

theGrio: Can homophobia in hoops ever be cured?

Billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is known to be opinionated and outspoken. In a recent interview with TMZ Live he discussed the prospects of a female coach in the NBA and expressed confidence that not only would the NBA embrace a woman coach, but openly gay players as well.

Cuban said NBA players want to win, so if they had confidence in a female coach “they would go to war with her.”

The topic arose after discussing Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, who has more wins than any other coach in the history of college basketball.

“I think within the next three to five years, absolutely,” Cuban opined. “There’ll be guys who come out of the closet and continue to play in the NBA and be accepted.” He added, it will be “more of a media sensation when somebody comes out than it will be a player issue.”

Cuban’s comments seem slightly naïve given the hyper-masculine environment inherent in pro-sports in general, and the NBA in particular, which just over the last year has experienced unfortunate instances of anti-gay slurs being used by players. Kobe Bryant’s aggressive verbal attack and subsequent $100K fine, after calling a referee a “f**king fa**ot”, received negative press nationwide, and brought much needed attention to the issue of bullying in schools and sports.

But Cuban’s confidence is encouraging. “I don’t think there’s really the perspective that we are intolerant. I think the only issues we’ve had is with some fallback and some old-school-type language that’s derogatory to gays. So there are certain words that were accepted five to ten years ago that guys are starting to recognize you can’t use any longer. And that hasn’t been a problem.”
Until now, pro-sports stars have only ever come out after retirement. And the NBA lags even there. Three NFL players have come out as gay post-retirement: David Kopay, of the San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins; Roy Simmons of the New York Giants and star defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo of Minnesota’s Vikings. Major League Baseball Players Glenn Burke and Billy Bean also came out after leaving the league, but this was decades ago.

As for the NBA? Just one. John Amaechi, who played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, later for Orlando Magic and who turned down a $17 million offer to play for the LA Lakers, is the sole former player to come out.

Amaechi explained his journey in a bestselling book, Man in the Middle in which he describes the difficulties of being gay in the NBA.

In a 2002 interview given to UK newspaper, Scotland on Sunday, Amaechi said “That there’s no openly gay players is no real surprise. It would be like an alien dropping down from space. There’d be fear, then panic: they just wouldn’t know how to handle it.”

But that’s how he felt before he came out. The reception he received in 2007 surprised even him, and he was forced to admit he had “underestimated America”.

Attitudes have changed, and it seems most sports fans are interested in winning. Not the personal lives of the players. Talent and execution are what matter on the court and the field.

Since the vast majority of NBA players are African-American, I did a barbershop troll to discover how black men and women felt about this issue.

To even my surprise, most blacks are quite sober and open-minded. “I’m more concerned with the Chris Paul trade to the Clippers than if Chris Paul is gay. That’s none of my business.” one 25 year old Harlem resident explained. “Just like the signs soldiers carried during the debate over ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’: “Who cares if you’re straight, as long as you can shoot straight?”, another said.

A 29-year old Harlem barber felt that the hesitance of an NBA or NFL player to come out as gay, had more to do with money than prejudice. “I won’t hold my breathe for three to five years,” he said. “The recent debacle between the owners and player’s union proves one point: this is all about the money.”

This seems to hit at the heart of the issue, and the young black boys in the barbershop should perhaps own NBA teams, because they certainly understand the business.

Beyond potential homophobia on the basketball court, is the fear that coming out will somehow affect a player’s popularity, endorsements and potential trade deals. And that’s not just for the individual player, but the team and the franchise as well.

Last year’s heated debates over the decision of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a superpower franchise at Miami Heat, which took them straight to the NBA Finals, was viscerally discussed from the kitchen table and school classrooms to ESPN’s sports desk and the op-ed pages of the New York Times. Everyone had an opinion. It revealed the importance of player’s decisions, and how young men become brands and moguls.

Despite all the social progress gay Americans have deservedly achieved, it seems being openly gay and a star NBA player remains oxymoronic. And there’s certainly a founded fear that their contracts and endorsement opportunities will be limited. In the same way that major store chain Lowes recently pulled funding from a Muslim-related televison program on TLC, because of backlash from conservative Christian organizations, NBA players coming out would undoubtedly cost them.

America still has a ways to go in fully embracing diversity and the values of others as equal to their own.

The progress of America’s gay men and women in uniform is perhaps the best sign that Cuban’s predictions will soon come true. In 3-to-5 years it is likely that having embraced real-life J.I. Joe’s who are more man than most, but still love other men, will have paved the way for gay boys to jump higher on the court than their foes and run faster on the field than their opponents.

I won’t necessarily hold my breath for this, but like King, I have a dream.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is an author, columnist, political and economic analyst, and a former investment banker. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.