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A Talk With Sportswriter and Author Bill Konigsberg

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Bill Konigsberg, author of Out of the Pocket

Bill Konigsberg, author of Out of the Pocket.

Congratulations on your first novel, Out of the Pocket. How does it feel?

Thank you. You write a book and it's all in your head. You're wondering what will happen when it's out in the world and whether people will relate to it. It's been so exciting hearing people reacte to it. It's seems to be touching people.

With high profile athletes, like John Amaechi and Sheryl Swoopes coming out, it's a good time for a book like this.

It's so important. I don't think there's anything else out right now that's touching on it. The issue [of gay athletes] needs to be brought up. This is good timing.

Out of the Pocket was originally a short story called "Audible." Talk to me about your journey writing the book?

I was in grad school and because my background was in sports, I thought I ought to write a story that's based on sports. That was the very beginning and I began to think about this guy Ed Gallagher. Back in the early 80s he had just graduated from the University of Pittsburgh where he played ball. He was gay and had his first experience. The whole thing just shattered his mind. He couldn't get his head around the idea that he was actually gay and jumped off a cliff. He was the first person to ever survive this particular fall. Now he's paraplegic and has became an advocate for gay people.

After I came out at ESPN I got in touch with him and just thought he was astounding. At the same time, I was thinking about writing a story and had this idea about a boy going through the same thing. I thought about the movie The Hours and I wondered what would be going through someone's mind if they were really going to kill themselves by walking into the water. So, I wrote a story about a high school football player reflecting on his life. He walks into the water while trying to decide if he's going to let it go above his head. At the time it was called "Audibles," which in football is when you change a play at the line of scrimmage. So, the story was about what you can and can't change. About a half year later I started to write the book. It's been five years, but it's finally here.

They say there's always at least some amount of truth in the fiction. Does any part of this story reflect on your own past?

Absolutely. When I came out at ESPN it was a big deal for me. While my family and friends knew, professionally I had been in the closet. I was afraid it would ruin my career. And then I wrote an article about what it was like to be gay at ESPN. I remember how hard it was to walk into the office. My boss looked at it and didn't flinch. He just said it was really good and that we needed to run it. The story arrived on the front page of ESPN.com and that's how I came out. It changed my life.

In my book, the main character Bobby's coming out coming out gets away from him. It becomes more public than he would have ever hoped. A lot of his feelings are things I can very much relate to when more people than should care about your sexuality.

Was there ever a moment when you wanted to walk into the water, as you say?

Life is complicated. Before I came out I had started a sports writing career in Colorado, but it hadn't gone anywhere. And one reason for that was I felt like my career couldn't go anywhere. I felt as if the thing I thought I was born to do just wasn't in the cards because I couldn't be openly gay. It would be bad for my career. I wound up working weird jobs and got so depressed. So, I took pills and I woke up in the hospital. The upshot is that when I came to at the hospital I wound up coming home to my mothers here in New York for a week and had a real interesting "now what" kind of conversation. I decided to stop limiting myself and three months later I had a job at ESPN.

When you woke up in the hospital did you ever think you'd write something that would impact gay people in sports?

I definitely didn't. I grew up in New York City and I had a lot of antiquated ideas. I really thought that I couldn't do all the things that I thought maybe I ought to have done. If I'm a part of helping even a single person that's enough.

Tell me about your sports background.

After I graduated from Columbia University, I had no idea what I was doing. I used to play a lot of baseball simulation games as a kid. In 1994, there was a baseball strike coming up. One day I was thinking about the strike and I thought somebody ought to play out the rest of the baseball season as if it's happening everyday. I sold the idea and that was my first sports job. For three months, I was baseball commissioner of this make believe world and people were reading about it.

Christine Daniels (formerly known as Mike Penner), John Amaechi, who came out after he retired from the NBA, and Esera Tuaolo all cracked a glass ceiling in professional sports when they came out. Are we witnessing a shift in the tides of acceptance within professional sports or do you see it as too little too late?

I'm an optimist, so I don't think anything is too little too late. I think that we're seeing a shift, but it's really slow and it's really subtle. It's going to happen from the younger generation. There isn't going to be a news conference where Derek Jeter comes out all of a sudden. It's going to be some kid, like the main character in my book, Bobby, who comes out in high school, but is really good and some college gives him a shot. They know it's going to be a little bit more difficult, but then he'll be the first openly gay male team sport player for a Division I college. He'll be so good that he'll go pro. That, to me, is how it's going to work.

What's it going to take from the pro leagues?

It has always been my belief that you get more by being kind and encouraging to people, but the truth is they're not doing enough. Something needs to change. They have diversity programs in other things, why aren't they dealing with this. Are they that short sighted into thinking that there are no gay players in their midst? It's silly. It denies a reality and the reality is that it exists. The fact is openly gay people tend to not be a threat.

Bill Konigsberg is a sports writer and the author of Out of the Pocket (Penguin Group).
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