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Gay Rights Month isn’t for another six days, as it’s still May. But in light of Joakim Noah’s unfortunate anti-gay slur outburst, “Fuck you, faggot!,” it makes sense to start this year’s conversation a week early.

This is more than about the NBA, gay athletes in the closet or what professional athletes should and shouldn’t say to fans and to each other. The behind-the-curtain issue here could just as well be about Black male identity (whether heterosexual or gay) and how Black males express themselves to each other and to the rest of the world.

My first memories playing with a group of Black males in Mount Vernon, New York are all negative. When I was six in ’76, a group of preteens on the neighborhood playground near Nathan Hale Elementary on South 6th Avenue tried to force me into sucking one of their dicks, practically sticking it in my face to do so. I got away before being truly scarred for life. After we moved to 616 East Lincoln Avenue in April ’77, our first time playing outside was spent running away from the other kids, who greeted us by throwing rocks at us and calling me and my brother Darren “faggots.” (see my June 1, 2009 post, “In the Closet, On the Down Low” for more).

When I was nine, I played basketball on a court near 616 for the first time with a group of kids from my building. After throwing up an awkward brick and an air ball, I got five minutes of “You terrible!,” “You need to sit down!,” “You’re never gonna be an athlete!,” “You need to get back to reading them books of yours!,” and “You shoot like a faggot!”

Even though I eventually learned how to dribble with both hands, shoot a j, make layups, block shots, and on rare occasions, dunk a basketball, I’ve been leery being around other Black males on the basketball court. One would think after playing pickup with former Pitt basketball players while in grad school that I’d completely forgotten what happened to me back in the spring of ’79. But I hadn’t, at least on an unconscious level. I often watched what I said, I mean, down to every single word. Not to mention how I walked, where my arms were, and how I held my head. Still, I sometimes felt inadequate on the court, whether I went 8-for-9 or 2-for-7, blocked a shot, stole a ball, or got knocked down guarding someone six-foot-six and 260 pounds.

But I figured out something in those years of playing pickup at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon and other places in Pittsburgh and DC over the years. That blending in doesn’t matter. Fools — even ones with momentary lapses in judgment like Joakim Noah — will be fools because on the playground or court, it makes them cool in the minds of their peers.

Yes, this isn’t just a Black male issue. Sean Miller, currently coach of the University of Arizona men’s basketball team — not to mention an all-time Pitt basketball great — once played a prank on me our freshmen year. He called me up in my Lothrop Hall dorm room late one night, offered me a blow job, and called me a “faggot” in the process.  So being called a “faggot” or saying that something or someone is “gay” is part of our culture on and off the basketball court, for Black and White males to be sure.

But unlike Michael Wilbon, I can’t excuse it because it’s commonplace and therefore it may be difficult for some young men to immediately stop themselves from saying “faggot.” Nor can I rationalize this like Touré (a.k.a. TouréX on Twitter) attempted to do in a Twitter exchange with me a couple of days ago. He compared the use of “faggot” to “nigga,” with the idea that both words have more than one meaning and that the meaning can sometimes be positive, depending on context.

I can see the argument for “nigga,” even though I don’t like it when younger men use it to affirm each other and especially me. But “faggot” meaning “less than a man?” Or “stupid” or “dumb?” So is Noah or Kobe more of a man for telling someone else they’re not a man? Even in context, this isn’t positive — it’s potentially soul-destroying, and not just for someone being called a faggot.

Of the preteens and young boys who called me “faggot” growing up, at least three have served hard time. Is there a direct connection? Of course not. Still, it seems that a culture steeped in the requirement of being cool, finding quick and easy success and putting down others while doing so lends itself well to a crash-and-burn mentality that so many of us have about our lives.