Barrier-Breaker: LZ Granderson

Detroit native makes waves as openly gay writer in the macho world of sports


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The most decorated openly gay sportswriter in America since … well … ever strides into his favorite coffee shop in downtown Grand Rapids, wearing his life on his torso.

LZ Granderson is sporting a navy blue hoodie with a conspicuously large Old English “D” on the front, representing his upbringing on Detroit’s east side.

Shortly after ordering a cup of tea, he slides off his heavy sweatshirt to reveal a gray T-shirt from the Brooklyn Nets, the NBA’s newest franchise, a plum hoops souvenir for a correspondent who spans the globe as senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com, and as a weekly contributor to CNN.com.

“I’ll be completely honest with you,” he says, smiling but apologetic beneath his impeccably trimmed dreadlocks. “The reason I’m late is because I played one more game of basketball than I should have. My team, we won five, six games in a row. And I was talking s--t, because I could. I’m out there hitting threes in dudes’ faces and saying, ‘Have you visited my website? StillWinning.com? And they just laugh and say, ‘You so crazy!’

“The group of guys I ball with at the local Y, I’m sure 90 percent of them had never been around a gay guy as much as they’ve been around me,” Granderson suspects. “Or at least, not been aware that they were. So I think by being out, I’m the image of a gay man that they see: somebody busting his ass on the basketball court. I’m sure that for the guys I interact with, especially in an athletic setting or a sportswriting setting, I think whatever preconceived notion they may have had about gay men in sports — if it doesn’t get shattered, at least it gets expanded, that there actually is room for this.”

Granderson, 40, was the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association’s Journalist of the Year in 2011, the same year he was nominated as a finalist for commentary in the international Online Journalism Awards. He earns that acclaim for such unblinking opinions as demanding that the Secret Service arrest former Detroit rocker Ted Nugent (“A man with a truckload of guns has threatened the life of our president while the country’s at war”), admonishing parents against dressing their little daughters too provocatively — a column that generated 2.8 million views on CNN.com — and his exclusive interview with star featherweight boxer Orlando Cruz, who last October became the first active prizefighter to come out of the closet.

However, it seems his work is not exactly admired in all corners.

“I get death threats like some people get text messages,” says Granderson, acknowledging that some readers can’t reconcile the words gay and sports in the same sentence. “They’ve been trying to kill me for years. I actually had someone text me, ‘I want to douse you in gasoline and set you on fire.’ And my Twitter followers were like, ‘What kind of sick human being? …’  I said, ‘Calm down. It’s probably just Ann Coulter.’ ”

Granderson (no relation to former Tiger Curtis) grew up near Mack and Van Dyke in a household decidedly below middle class. “What’s the class that stands in line for government cheese?” he asks, with a laugh. “That’s the class we were in!” He says his biological father, Elzie, whom he describes as a “shiftless, no-good-ass” and after whom he is named, did one positive thing for him. “The one Christmas I spent with him, he bought me the toy typewriter I wanted,” Granderson says. “It ended up being the thing I needed.”

Through that toy, the young Granderson poured out his creativity — writing poetry, stories, and a complete three-act play that won a citywide contest and brought legendary Detroit playwright Ron Milner to his school to direct it. About that time, he renamed himself LZ. “One, it was easier, and two, it was my way of saying, ‘F—k you, you’re not going to be in my life. I don’t need your name.’” (Granderson has a 16-year-old son whose legal name is LZ, “marking a new generation of men who would be there for their children,” he says.)

Sheer talent, however, wasn’t enough. By the time he enrolled in Cass Technical High School, Granderson had fallen victim to the streets. “I was selling drugs, beating people up, getting beat up,” he recalls. “Oftentimes I was in class either drunk or high.” After eventually graduating, his salvation arrived in the form of a counselor from Western Michigan University, who visited his home to find out why his SAT scores were so much higher than his GPA. “She said, ‘If I let you in, on a probationary status, are you going to let me down?’” he says. “I told her, ‘Ma’am, if you let me in, I’ll never look back.’ ” He didn’t.

Granderson went on to pursue graduate studies at Grand Valley State University, where an adviser recommended him to the Grand Rapids Press. He became the paper’s higher-education reporter, and it was during his first year there that he made the decision to come out.

“Man, I was in the church, I was fresh off my second year as youth pastor,” he remembers. “I was married. I had a newborn. But it was like a slow train coming. It just got to the point where I couldn’t manage it anymore. It was very, very difficult for me.” (Today, his partner, Steve, is an executive for a retail chain.)

After five years at the Press, Granderson migrated to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a sports columnist before being recruited by ESPN nine years ago.

“It is so awesome to know that I’m getting paid to do what I would be doing anyway,” he says of his position with “the Worldwide Leader in Sports.”

“I’d be watching a game anyway, but now I get to write it off my taxes.”

Granderson cracks a smile. “You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever used that ‘StillWinning.com’ line,” he says. “I’ve got to use that one again.”
 

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