Tim Hardaway says not a day goes by that he doesn't think about what he said in a radio interview 4-1/2 years ago, when he infamously declared: "I hate gay people, so I let it be known. ... I'm homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States."
The word "hate" particularly haunted him. "That's not me. That's not how I am," the former Warrior said by phone from Miami. "I'm a loving person."
The NBA immediately banished Hardaway, one of its most beloved alumni, from All-Star weekend, while his sponsorship deals evaporated. Just as quickly, Hardaway began trying to repair the damage. He issued a prompt apology. He underwent counseling at the YES Institute, a Miami education center devoted to preventing cruelty based on gender or sexual orientation. His foundation co-sponsored an event in support of a suicide-prevention project aimed at gay teens.
But after such inflammatory rhetoric, every move Hardaway made was bound to look like duct tape on a broken image.
Recently, though, he has been running plays that don't suggest coaching by a publicist. First, he appeared at an August rally in El Paso, Texas, for three city officials facing a recall vote because they want to continue providing benefits to same-sex partners of municipal employees, in spite of a ballot measure that abolished the practice.
Hardaway initially planned his trip to El Paso, where he played college ball, around a charity golf tournament. Before he left, he called an old friend, the former assistant coach who recruited him out of Chicago, and asked to meet for drinks.
Rus Bradburd is now an assistant English professor at New Mexico State, but he has maintained ties with El Paso's leaders through the Basketball in the Barrio program he established when he coached there. He encouraged Hardaway to meet with one of the City Council members targeted for recall.
"Like most people, I was appalled by what Tim said five years ago or whenever it was," Bradburd said. But he also believed that Hardaway, after a period of feeling hurt and defensive about the backlash, had gradually developed a new empathy.
At the YES Institute, Hardaway said, he met young people who had been rejected by their families and ridiculed outside their homes. "I didn't want anyone to hear what I said and be thinking, 'He doesn't like it, either, and he's a celebrity, so it must not be right.' "
The city councilwoman, according to Bradburd, convinced Hardaway that El Paso would listen to him if he spoke from a very different viewpoint.
"I thought: Why not? I'm educated on it now. Let me help people understand what I didn't understand at that particular time," Hardaway said. "And ... if you are a partner and you live in the same household, why shouldn't you get the same benefits?"
Bradburd said he can understand why such a turnabout might seem suspicious.
"But I think if it was a cynical or calculated move, he doesn't go to the El Paso City Council, to a park where there's maybe 40 people on a day when it's 100 degrees," he said. "I'm not sure, but I can imagine Tim Hardaway could hold a press conference in Chicago or Miami if he wanted to shore up his image."
When he received a call from San Francisco about the El Paso rally and his shift in attitude, Hardaway said he had only a few minutes before he had to leave for the airport.
At the end of the interview, he was asked whether he would feel comfortable showering with a gay teammate. Two years earlier, he had told the Miami Herald that he would not, but he'd cooperate with the teammate and offer to let him shower first.
This time, he said: "I don't know how to answer that question. If I say yes, it's like I'm OK with it. But if I say no, it's because ... well, how would you answer that question?"
I said I couldn't answer, because in that context, the question is stupid. It trivializes the issue of discrimination. If shower-sharing were the only remaining obstacle to active NBA, NFL or MLB players coming out of the closet, we wouldn't be waiting for the first guy to take that step.
Hardaway's non-answer did say something: He didn't shift gears and pretend that he would be completely comfortable. He didn't fake it.