Matt Fish had a ten-year career as a professional basketball player, including a stint with the Miami Heat. Now, at the age of 42, he is getting back to fundamentals, including his belief that all people—gay or straight—play for the same human team.
He is the latest in the growing ranks of prominent sportsmen who are “straight allies.” Like rugby player Ben Cohen who founded I Stand Up [against bullying] and wrestling star Hudson Taylor who started Athlete Ally, Matt Fish has created a foundation, Team Human Race, to combat homophobia in sports.
He has also written a soon-to-be-released book by the same name that offers young people lessons he has acquired in the course of his life as a vagabond professional sportsman. In addition to the foundation and the book, Fish’s advocacy for equality and fair play is evident in his new role as “Ally Editor” at Compete Magazine, a popular gay sports magazine.
While talking about his past, Fish’s natural ease with diversity infuses his secure sexuality with magnetic warmth and good humor. He is one of those straight guys for whom “gay” is a non-issue.
When he talks about the fundamentals that shaped him, he includes his parents who raised him with two black siblings. He adds the facts that he was a band geek who played piano for ten years before first touching a basketball as a high school junior, and has since lived in a variety of cultures including Japan, Italy, China, Argentina, Poland, France and Portugal. He has two children, including a 22-year-old bi-racial son.
Fish is driven by the strong desire to “give back and make a difference.” As he moves into his new career as an ally to the LGBT community, he expresses sadness at leaving his post-basketball career working with kids as an educator (he has an MA in education, as well as an MBA). He is certain that he is the right person for the role of LGBT ally, given his experience as a teacher, communicator and retired professional athlete.
Not all of the fundamental lessons of Matt Fish were easily acquired by him. In his first year of college, alcohol almost permanently derailed his sports career. He showed extraordinary determination in getting himself back on track. As a professional, he discovered that while fans may think that ball players are all instant millionaires, wealth is not simply handed over to a player and personal financial management is a skill that is sometimes learned the hard way. He is concerned about the sense of entitlement he often sees in young people, and he is convinced that parents and teachers should emphasize the connection between work and reward.
When Fish answers a direct question about homophobia in the NBA and what will be required to erase it, he displays the unrehearsed honesty that seems to be his trademark.
He soundbitelessly responds, “I don’t know if anyone can answer that question.” He responds with a shrug to questions about NBA players who are gay and closeted, saying that there were always some men who were the subject of gossip among their teammates, but he had no specific friendships with other players who came out to him secretly.
He is confident that he can partner with Ben Cohen and Hudson Taylor to improve diversity in professional sports and create a safer environment for gay athletes. He smiled with unexpected modesty and gentility when I suggested that in order to catch up to Cohen and Taylor he should start taking his shirt off for photographers more often. Through his easy laughter, he thanked me for the suggestion and said, “I’ll keep that in mind.”