Anthony Nicodemo stood in front of the room and paced. The classroom at Saunders High School was silent, like it normally is when the varsity boys basketball coach addresses his team. As Nicodemo gathered his thoughts, some of the most important words of his life left his mouth, just the way he’d rehearsed them.
“For years and years I’ve told you guys you have to be good, you have to be yourselves, you have to be honest,” Nicodemo said. “And I wasn’t honest for the past 35 years in my life.”
The hush in the room was met with a paralyzing stillness. Nicodemo continued.
“I mean this from the bottom of my heart that this is the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” he said. “But I am a gay high school basketball coach.”
As he surveyed the room, Nicodemo was shocked by the players’ immediate reaction.
There was none.
“My fear was today. My fear was meeting with my team,” he later said. “They blew me away today.”
The positive, and somewhat indifferent, response from the Saunders players was satisfying for Nicodemo, who’s believed to be among the only openly gay male high school coaches in the region.
The team met for nearly a half-hour Monday with several players speaking out in support of their coach. Afterwards, the team walked into the gym and held a 90-minute workout.
“At the end of the day, we have to get in the gym and work on our game,” Saunders junior guard Joe Nolan said. “We can’t worry about what people say to us or what people are going to think. We are here to play basketball. If you have love for the game, it doesn’t matter if your coach is gay or not, you’re going to play for the love of the game.”
Another Saunders player, Derrick Felder, tweeted after practice: “Saunders just became a stronger team. Love my team.”
Nicodemo previously disclosed his orientation to administrators at Greenburgh-North Castle school district, where he teaches, and to officials in the Yonkers school district. He said he received a note of strong support from Bernard Pierorazio, the Superintendent of Yonkers Public Schools.
After coming out to his assistant coaches and close friends in the basketball community, the last piece for Nicodemo was addressing his players.
“It’s a different time. Kids are more accepting,” Saunders assistant coach John Rapaport said. “Whether you want to come together and win basketball games or if it’s individually, you want to be courageous. And we support his courage.”
Joe Nolan’s parents were both at the meeting, which Nicodemo opened up to all family of the team.
“He’s been with us all for all these years,” said Donna Nolan, who has two sons currently in the Saunders basketball program and another who played for Nicodemo three years ago. “He’s a great guy, a great coach. He’s like a father and a brother all in one to these kids. What he does outside of school, that’s his business.”
Nicodemo is one of the most prominent figures in high school basketball in the state. He’s the director of the Lower Hudson Basketball Coaches Association, hosting the annual awards banquet, and was the Section 1 representative for the Basketball Coaches Association of New York.
His coaching tenure includes time as an assistant at Croton-Harmon, Briarcliff, North Salem and New Rochelle, and he was head coach at Dover for two seasons.
During his time at Saunders, Nicodemo has spearheaded several charity basketball events, including the Hope Through Hoops showcase to raise money for juvenile diabetes.
His decision to come out was vitalized by his trip last weekend to the second annual Nike LGBT Sports Summit in Portland, Oregon. Nicodemo met several gay sports figures, including NBA player Jason Collins, who announced he was gay in April.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” Nicodemo said. “It was life changing.”
Nicodemo understands that life will really change in the coming days and week now that his orientation is public. He’s prepared for all reaction, good and bad.
“There’s not going to be anything in the locker room that changes. There’s nothing there,” Nicodemo said. “I’m gay. ... These kids are like my sons, these kids are like my brothers. I’m never going to look at them that way.”
Email Kevin Devaney Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org