A Gay Basketball Coach’s Winning Season

Anthony Nicodemo explains a play to his Saunders High School Blue Devils. | COURTESY: ANTHONY NICODEMO

Anthony Nicodemo explains a play to his Saunders High School Blue Devils. | COURTESY: ANTHONY NICODEMO

If success as a coach involves confidence, honesty, and forging mutual dedication with your players, Anthony Nicodemo is a champion. The head boys’ basketball coach at Saunders High School in Yonkers may not be overloaded with trophies, but he does have his team’s utmost respect, especially since coming out two years ago.

The 37-year-old native of upstate Brewster stepped out of the proverbial closet at the 2013 LGBT Sports Coalition Summit in Portland, Oregon. Hosted by Nike, the event was part of an ambitious effort aimed at ending anti-LGBT bias in the sports world by 2016, among other athletic and youth-focused goals. Nicodemo saw the summit as an opportunity to come clean about his personal life as a first step toward assuming leadership in his local community as an openly gay coach and teacher.

In the couple of years since, he’s reaped the benefits of living truthfully, both in his professional arena and personally.

In two years since coming out, Yonkers’ Anthony Nicodemo has embraced his destiny for leadership

Harnessing the esteem of his players, Nicodemo led his Blue Devils to an 18-3 record in the 2014-15 season — winning 17 straight games, earning the Yonkers city champion title, and sending Saunders to the state’s sectional semi-finals for the first time since 1982.

Nicodemo was named Coach of the Year by the Lower Hudson Basketball Coaches Association, where he also serves as director. The honor is a testament to his record in six years coaching at Saunders, where he took the team from having just three wins his first season to finishing with only three losses this year.

“It was a special year, and certainly the best year I’ve ever had,” he said. “One of my players was named one of the best players in the area. You know, when you’re good you’re good. It makes coaching a lot more fun!”

Anthony Nicodemo at work coaching his Saunders High School Blue Devils to their best season in decades. | COURTESY: ANTHONY NICODEMO

Anthony Nicodemo at work coaching his Saunders High School Blue Devils to their best season in decades. | COURTESY: ANTHONY NICODEMO

Nicodemo seems perfectly cut out for coaching and leadership. A naturally fast talker, he conveys ideas at such a rapid pace he sometimes has to back himself up to explain how he’s arrived at his conclusions. It’s an instinct that clearly results from enthusiasm —enthusiasm that engages players and students eager to learn from him.

When he’s not coaching, Nicodemo teaches history to special-needs students at a White Plains high school. To hear him profess, “I love my job. I love going to work,” it’s easy to understand why the youth around him are inspired.

Owning up to being gay has created leadership opportunities that Nicodemo has seized with a full-court press.

“One of the funny things looking back — I used to say to my ex, ‘I’m going to come out, and when it happens, I’m going to be a leader in the LGBT world,’’” he recalled. “And when I say that, it’s not out of cockiness or ego. I just tend to fall into a leadership role in the things I do.”

Joining the LGBT Sports Coalition Summit was one of his first steps toward stepping onto a bigger stage. He soon became an advisory board member of Center Lane, the LGBTQ arm of the non-profit Westchester Jewish Community Services, and got active with YOU Belong, a coalition launched by educator and writer Darnell Moore and gay former NFL player Wade Davis II that works to level the playing field for LGBTQ youth, including young athletes of color, in school sports.

Nicodemo has also stepped into the fight against bullying in his home school district. Last year, he secured a grant to host a round of conferences to educate male and female high school basketball players on the topic. He brought in Pat Griffin, a professor, author, and LGBT rights advocate, to speak, along with other athletes and activists, on topics that included social media bullying.

“It went so well that we extended it,” Nicodemo said. “And we did one last fall that had over 200 students, representation from over 60 schools, and included all the fall sports — football, field hockey, volleyball, boys and girls soccer, cross-country running, swimming. Representatives from different schools came and learned all kinds of educational tools in the hope that they’d take them back to their own school communities and preach these inclusion messages.”

The response to his leadership efforts has energized Nicodemo.

“Having my local school section embrace it like that was a way for me to get more involved with the local school community,” he said. “It’s something I’m really proud of being able to do.”

Nicodemo has also made new friends, including City Councilmember Michael Sabatino, Yonkers’ first out gay elected official, and OutSports.com co-founder and reporter Cyd Zeigler. He’s also had the chance to work with Jason Collins, who retired in November after 13 seasons with the NBA, the last as an out gay Brooklyn Nets player.

“One of the reasons that this all started [for me] was being inspired by [Collins] coming out as a professional basketball player,” Nicodemo explained. “He’s the kind of guy you want representing you in the movement. Total class, and an unbelievable role model for kids.”

But his biggest reward over the past two years, Nicodemo said, is being able to live openly.

“One of my biggest struggles [before coming out] was going to bars or going on vacation and being worried about where I was at and being caught,” he said. “One of my favorite stories about that is being at Boxers years ago and being tagged on Facebook. I almost had a heart attack!”

That’s all behind him.

“Now when I go out I don’t have to worry,” Nicodemo said. “When we won a huge playoff game this year, I ended up at Therapy with a couple of buddies and there was a drag show going on. I said to myself, ‘Man, how far have I come? Years ago I would have been petrified out of my mind right now, and here I am now celebrating with my gay friends.’

“So my life has definitely changed socially. Now, some of my closest friendships are with reporters I met and out gay athletes — they’re my family. And that’s the most important thing. I don’t think I would trade that part for anything.”