When Tim Hardaway this month placed his signature atop a gay-rights initiative in Florida, it was much less an expression in support of a polarizing issue than another milestone in one man's journey toward enlightenment.

It also was a manifestation of the power of education and awareness.

It was, you may recall, Hardaway who during a 2007 radio interview said he "hated'' gay people, didn't want to be near them and wouldn't bother to hide his revulsion. To reiterate, the former Warriors star, then three years into retirement and living in Florida, added a two-word exclamation point: "I'm homophobic.''

I asked Tim this week to convey what was on his mind at the time. He said "nothing,'' and there is every reason to take him literally.

His evolution, then, is not so much a matter of political expedience but of mind engagement. With the benefits of education and awareness, Hardaway has spent much of his time since as a beacon of tolerance and unity.

"We need to respect them as human beings who should have the same rights as any other human beings,'' Hardaway said.

Yet for that brief but very dark moment, one of the most electrifying players in NBA history was the unwitting face and spokesman for intolerance and divisiveness and hate -- emphasis on unwitting.

It has become evident that Hardaway, perhaps adhering to a prefabricated veneer of street machismo, had issued a spectacularly thoughtless exhibition of ignorance that left him momentarily deaf to his own words. Put simply, he spoke without benefit of thought.


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He regrets the words he uttered six years ago and has since taken action. He attended classes at Miami's YES Institute, which seeks to create a healthy sexual and gender environment for youth. He assists the fundraising efforts of several groups, including the Trevor Project, a national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.

And when Equal Marriage Florida in June launched a petition to amend the definition of marriage as described in the state constitution, Hardaway stepped forward as the first person to offer his signature.

Hardaway, 46, said he wants nothing in return for his support. No political points. No publicity. No hugs or handshakes. He said he was comfortable discussing the issue because he has known me since 1989, when he was drafted by the Warriors.

"I don't do this for publicity; I normally turn down interviews about this,'' he said. "But I know you. That's why I'm talking to you about it. I do this because I want to do it. I don't tell people that I'm going to talk to people about gay rights. I don't tell media when I'm going to talk to a classroom or any other place where they are trying to help these people become more accepted. I don't tell people about that. I just go and do it.

"Hey, everybody is going to accept it one day.''

Hardaway's profoundly ambitious goal is to expand the minds of those resistant to change. Even as the world becomes more tolerant, many continue to stand their ground -- the same ground on which Hardaway himself once stood.

Consider his task much like that of a reformed addict on a crusade to help others break their addictions.

In the wake of his previous comments -- made shortly after another retired NBA player, John Amaechi, revealed he is gay -- a contrite Hardaway was introduced by a mutual friend to Vanessa Brito, a lesbian activist in Miami. She explained the potentially far-reaching ramifications of hate speech, which can incite bullies and traumatize those struggling with identity. Hardaway hadn't bothered to consider any of that.

"With what I said, people could think it's OK to throw rocks at them or bully them,'' Hardaway said. "I just wanted to make people understand that what I said wasn't cool. I wanted to make amends for it.''

Whereas Hardaway's radio comments were the result of being, in a sense, back on the court, where he was utterly fearless and often led with considerable swagger and ego. He was being macho, responding as macho guys are "expected'' to respond. He now responds from an informed point of view.

"Once I started reading about what was happening with these people -- kids getting beat up, bullied and committing suicide -- I realized I made it OK for people to keep ridiculing them,'' he said. "And I felt bad about it.''

Hardaway's passion comes through the phone from Florida, his tone exuding the conviction of the truly enlightened believer.

"I'm not a bully,'' he said. "I don't want anybody to hurt anybody. I don't want anybody to get hurt. I don't want anybody to kill themselves. Life is too precious. And I realize I had made it worse.''

Another element suggests Tim's evolution may be less a transformation than a rededication to his roots. He grew up in Chicago around gay relatives, one of whom he was relatively close to.

"At the time, when I was a child, 12 or 13 or 14 years old, I knew something was different about him,'' Hardaway said. "But we never did bother or ridicule him. We knew there was something different, but we didn't let anybody mess with him.''

He's back, in a sense, to being that protective figure. The man who said he would shun Amaechi now welcomes Jason Collins and, moreover, says he is proud of the NBA free agent's decision to come out of the closet.

It seems the light was always on, somewhere inside Hardaway's mind. After choosing during one unforgettable spasm of contempt to be blind to it, he has made a successful expedition to rediscover it.

Progress never comes easy, or without a measure of clear-eyed introspection.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/1montepoole