The Bryant University assistant men's basketball coach had existed in the macho world of collegiate basketball as a star player and now a coach to young athletes like his former self. Being gay was a secret he had to keep far from his coaching staff, his team, and anyone else at Bryant, even as one of the school's star players a decade ago. Or so he believed.
Yet that weekend in Portland, gathering under the swoosh with other LGBT athletes and coaches, a glimmer of hope shone on the horizon. Burns had found community, other people in big-time college sports, from Texas Christian University to UCLA, who were gay just like him.
It had been a struggle to convince Burns to come to the Summit at all. The idea of being in that environment was daunting. All his life he had forced his gay identity to be separate from basketball. The act of getting on a plane and flying 2,500 miles to dive head-first into that dynamic was daunting, and it wasn't until hours before the event kicked off that Burns committed to take the leap.
Bryant's school mantra, emblazoned on its Web site, is simple: "Create your path. Expand your world. Achieve your success."
Burns had achieved incredible success as a player with the school. From 2003-2007, he helped the team - then playing in Division II - advance to four straight NCAA tournaments. In 2005 he led the team all the way to the national title game and, in a losing effort, was named Chevrolet Player of the Game. According to his Bryant Univ. coaching bio, he was also named the Northeast-10 2003-04 Freshman of the Year and made the All-Northeast-10 first team as a senior in 2006-07. In 2002, playing for Merrimack High School, he was named Mr. New Hampshire Basketball, leading his school to a state title in 2003.
He was really good.
Yet he had been wary of pursuing the other two pieces of Bryant's mandate: Create your path. Expand your world. All his life, sports had been a homophobic enigma, a place where he simultaneously felt completely at home and completely unwelcome. Gay men didn't belong in big-time college basketball. So he stayed quiet, hiding his relationships and excursions to gay pride events from everyone in the sport.
One of those relationships was with Anthony Nicodemo, the Saunders High School basketball coach who has been out and proud for the last two years. The two had been inseparable for years, including during Burns' playing career at Bryant, with Nicodemo driving hours to watch his then-boyfriend play all over the Northeast and Midwest. The two had developed a relationship built in part on their shared experiences of the basketball closet. When Nicodemo came out publicly in 2013, suddenly Burns was in his basketball closet by himself. Internal pressure began to build.