Sue Wicks, a former WNBA player for the New York Liberty, recalls the moment two decades ago when after a long interview with a reporter from Time Out New York, she was asked if she was a lesbian. The Mastic Beach resident took her place in history, becoming the first active player – male or female – in a major U.S. team sport to say they were gay. Credit: Randee Daddona; Photo Credit: Rutgers Athletics; Jim Cummins; Newsday file; Getty Images/ Al Bello; Richard Slattery; John Keating; Getty Images/ Kellie Landis

The question was asked and Sue Wicks responded honestly and from the gut.

That's how the WNBA pioneer remembers the moment two decades ago when at the end of a long interview, a reporter from Time Out New York asked her if she was a lesbian.

"I am," Wicks said. "I think it's important that if you are gay, you not be afraid to say who you are."

With that answer in a May 2002 interview, the Mastic Beach resident took her place in history, becoming the first active player — male or female — in a major team sport to acknowledge being gay.

It would be 11 more years before the NBA’s Jason Collins came out in a Sports Illustrated cover story. The NFL’s Carl Nassib and the NHL’s Luke Prokop would be the first in their leagues to come out in 2021. No MLB player has said during his playing career that he was gay.

“She was a trailblazer on the court and in her life,” tennis great Billie Jean King said of Wicks, recalling in an email to Newsday how they talked shortly after Wicks came out. “I remember having the conversation with her because in those days very few professional athletes had the courage, the confidence and the support to live an authentic life. She chose what was right for her and it opened the doors for others.”

In an era in which Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe are celebrated as a sports power couple and professional leagues routinely host Pride Nights, the significance of Wicks’ answer and the bravery it took for her to give it might be one of the most important underpublicized chapters in sports history.

“Younger people today just can’t begin to understand the homophobia of that time, especially in women’s basketball,” said ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, who was Wicks' teammate on the Liberty. “What Sue did was so incredible, so courageous and so important.”

It also was, at times, costly and difficult.


Wicks, now a 56-year-old oyster farmer, sat down with Newsday to talk about her journey, her decision to go public with her personal life and how it impacted her career, her family and the league.

One of eight children and the daughter of a Long Island fisherman and nurse, Wicks grew up in Center Moriches dreaming of being a professional basketball player at a time when that option did not exist for women. With no youth or even middle school teams for Wicks to play on in the 1970s and early ’80s in Center Moriches, she honed her game playing with the boys at lunchtime or at home before the school bus came.

Sue Wicks averaged close to 40 points per game at Center Moriches High School. Credit: Newsday/Cliff De Bear

The first time she put on a basketball uniform was as a freshman at Center Moriches High School. By her senior year, she was 6-3 and averaging close to 40 points a game. She attracted offers from all over the country and chose Rutgers, where she still holds the school record for most career points and rebounds. She was the 1988 Naismith and U.S. Basketball Writers Association national player of the year.

Wicks realized she was gay early in college. It was not an easy time, given that she had grown up in a family that was supportive and close but had a “1950s mentality of what a family is and gender roles,” she said.

“I had to come out to myself first,” Wicks said. “I wanted to marry a guy and meet a nice guy in college. I had all the framework. It wasn’t until my first year in college where I had all these great guys around me that were cool and I was going on dates with that I said to myself, ‘I kind of like girls.’ When I got to the kissing part of the date with guys, it was not fun or interesting . . .  You know your heart and it’s just not there.”

If there had been a WNBA in 1988, Wicks likely would have been the No. 1 pick. Instead, she went off to play in Lake Como, Italy. She would spend the next 15 years playing professional basketball in Italy, Japan, Spain, Israel, Turkey, Hungary, France and, finally, the United States.

The Liberty selected Wicks with the No. 6 overall pick in one of the two drafts held before the inaugural 1997 season. She joined Lobo and Teresa Weatherspoon on a team that went to the WNBA Finals in the league’s first season before losing to the Houston Comets.

Wicks never made a secret of her sexual orientation. She said she would bring her girlfriends to family and team functions. Wicks was a fan favorite on the Liberty, and at one point her agent suggested she might want to come out in a managed way, similar to what Collins would do more than a decade later.

“He was like, 'Let’s make money from this,' ” Wicks said. “But it just didn’t feel right for me to do in an orchestrated, production type of way for financial gain. It was almost too sacred, too important.”

Wicks said she started thinking about going public after a lunch she had with Lobo and Lobo’s mother, who was a high school teacher and guidance counselor.

“Rebecca’s mother said to me that there was an endemic of teenage suicide and the kids can just not come to terms with being gay,” Wicks said. “She said they need role models, they need people to say this thing. It’s not like she was saying to me I had to go do that, but it was very impactful.”

Wicks also was hearing a lot from her gay friends about the WNBA ignoring them despite the fact that they were a dependable and supportive part of their fan base. The WNBA was marketing itself as a family-oriented league — a less expensive and more approachable option to the NBA — and the fact that a significant portion of its players and fans were gay was something no one really wanted to celebrate or even acknowledge, Lobo said.

And then, at the start of her final WNBA season, the question was asked.


Bilge Ebiri, a freelance journalist who had season tickets to the Liberty, had pitched a story to Time Out New York about Wicks. They were interested but wanted him to ask her if she was a lesbian. He remembers having a long sit-down interview with her at a pizza place in Manhattan, where he couldn’t bring himself to ask the question. He turned in the piece, and the editor told him he had to call her back and ask.

“I saved it for the last question,” said Ebiri, now a film critic for New York Magazine and Vulture. “I felt very uncomfortable asking personal questions like that. So I told her my editor was making me ask the question. She was very nice about it . . .  Years later, I realized this is a pretty big thing.”

Wicks immediately recognized how big a thing it was.

“It was so taboo to ask the question, such an invasion of a person’s privacy and safety,” she said. “That someone asked me, that they weren’t so afraid to offend me. It made me happy. It was almost like our culture and society was at a moment where this was permissible. It was almost a hallelujah moment.”

A hallelujah moment that only a select group of people initially heard. Wicks’ admission was so before its time that the league and sports media didn’t quite know what to do with it. Initially, there were media requests, most from non-sports publications, that she turned down. Sportswriters, for the most part, paid more attention to the fact that in the same month, Mets catcher Mike Piazza held a news conference to deny he was gay.

“It was ignored right across the board. It was a non-story,” Wicks said of the league’s reaction to her coming out. “It wasn’t like, ‘Sue just sunk the league!’ And it wasn’t like, ‘Yes, Sue, that was so brave of you.’ There just wasn’t any space for any of it. It was like no one knew how to have a conversation about it.”


Liberty's Sue Wicks against Cleveland in 2002. Credit: Richard Slattery

Wicks said the story was hardest on her mother, who couldn’t understand why she had decided to be “the first” to come out.

“It was very hurtful to my mother because it came to the forefront,” Wicks said. “She used to love going to the supermarket and everyone would say, 'Oh, I saw Susan on television' or 'Oh, I saw Susan in the newspaper.' All of a sudden, it went from that to 'Susan just came out,' and that’s not a positive.”

One thing that did change was the types of fans reaching out to her.

“I’d go out of the front door of Madison Square Garden and the people coming up to me were young girls with their parents,” she said. “They wanted to grab me and hold me and tell me their coming-out story. There would be parents crying and hugging. The emotion of all that wasn’t something I had signed up for, but it was important and I knew what they were going through.

“I did not expect all the letters from people. How it helped them. I got letters from people who lost a sibling or lost someone because they were gay and couldn’t confront it or talk about it. They would say, ‘I wish my sister could have heard you.'  . . .  At times, it was overwhelming.”

So overwhelming that Wicks says there were times when she just didn’t feel like taking it on. A turning point came at an event several years after she retired when she turned to former Liberty teammate Kym Hampton and said she just didn’t feel like speaking that day.

“I was like, ‘You have to do this,' ” Hampton said. “So many people don’t have a platform or a voice or have just too much going on. You have to do it for them.”

Wicks said that being labeled the lesbian athlete wasn’t “a plus as far as getting jobs” once she retired and was looking to go into coaching. At Rutgers, where she served as an assistant in 2005-06, she was asked not to give interviews in which she talked about her sexual orientation. This was not a unique situation, Wicks said. Many schools at that time bought into the thought that being labeled as gay would hurt their recruiting.

Yet things started to change slowly. In 2005, Sheryl Swoopes, a three-time WNBA MVP and six-time All-Star, came out in The New York Times. More players did the same, and in 2014, the WNBA became the first professional sports league to establish a dedicated Pride campaign. In 2016, the WNBA/NBA became the first leagues to have a float in the Pride parade. Wicks has been a fixture on the float and will be riding it again this year along with NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

“It did change in a beautiful and organic way and it gained traction,” Wicks said. “I was like, 'It’s OK. Sue did it and nothing really bad happened to her.' And then some other players came out and the league was going to have to move forward with this and not only accept it but celebrate it.

“Now people aren’t coming out. They’re announcing their marriage or having a child. It’s a very different feel than coming out of the closet and having to confess it. That’s beautiful. I wish in my head that that was even possible when I played. I don’t think it was possible then." 

It's possible now, thanks to an honest answer to a question that almost wasn't asked.



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