When Atlanta Dream takes on the New York Liberty Friday in the season opener, it’s with renewed ferver from local gay fans for one of our own. Not that we weren’t already cheering for the on-court fierceness that is Angel McCoughtry.

If you haven’t heard, lesbian Atlanta has its own out pro athlete now. McCoughtry (photo) came out at the end of March, confirming what gay WNBA fans had pretty much surmised from her prolific Instagram posts with girlfriend-turned-fiance Brande Elise.

As the team and the player settle back down to the business of basketball, the whole gay thing has actually relaxed McCoughtry into a comfort in her own skin that will hopefully help her raise her already impressive, intense game even more, she tells ESPN.

“Freedom" is a word that comes up a lot with McCoughtry now.

She's begun to feel the freedom to discover more about who she really is beyond being a basketball star. The freedom to not feel the weight of the Dream is all on her shoulders. The freedom to let go some of the past bad feelings or disappointing times. Entering her seventh season in the WNBA, the former No. 1 draft pick thinks her best days are ahead.

"Honestly, I feel like this is my fresh start," McCoughtry said.

But the road to out-and-proud bliss wasn’t exactly smooth. McCoughtry was released from her off-season Turkish team because of her relationship with Elise. But ultimately, that team’s involvement in her personal life helped put basketball in perspective with the rest of her life and a role in the LGBT movement if she’d take it.

“I was never comfortable with myself, and I think that was a big part of my frustrations in life," McCoughtry said. "But when I met Brande, she really helped me to just be who I am and love myself. I came out, and it was really hard because my dad is a retired pastor; I grew up with [being in a same-sex relationship] as not being the way to live.

"My mind was in a box, growing up. But as I got older, I realized people are people; you can't categorize them for who they love. And why is love a bad thing? It should never be a bad thing."

It’s a different story in Atlanta, where fans and the Dream coaches and management support her personal enrichment as a path toward playing even better. Her coaches say she's a different person since coming out, and she acknowledges that fears about it have been quashed, and her focus on the game is more laser-focused than ever.

“I’ve never felt so much freedom in my life. It's this lightness; you feel so relaxed. You don't have to hide or be tense, you can just live your life. Then I had so many wonderful comments, and some people asking me for advice. I wasn't expecting it to turn out this positive. …

"I think I can be a great leader now. I feel like this could be my best year ever. I just want to continue to help my team and the community."

We think so, too. The Atlanta Dream season opener takes place on Friday, June 5, in New York City. Welcome McCoughtry & Co. back during the home opener against the Connecticut Sun, set for Sunday, June 7, at Philips Arena.

[ESPN]