INTERVIEW: Basketball’s stereotype-busting gay icon

Tony Grew March 25, 2008
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There can be no better introduction to the conversation of John Amaechi than to relay his thoughts on the American press and basketball-loving public’s reaction to the revelation that this giant of the game is gay.

“I knew it would be fuss-worthy, especially in America. But it’s very weird really because over here if you didn’t know you just weren’t paying attention.”

Amaechi, one of a handful of British players to have reached the heights of the US National Basketball Association, is far from the stereotype of a black athlete at the top of his sport.

Born near Boston, Massachusetts, thirty-seven years ago to a white English mother and a black Nigerian father, he spent most of his childhood in Stockport, near Manchester, and as a teenager he was overweight, awkward and unpopular.

He transformed himself into a world-class player of a sport unloved in his homeland and set off for America to seek his fortune.

In the flesh Amaechi is a gifted conversationalist, which is unsurprising considering his successful career as a motivational speaker since retiring from basketball in 2003.

Amaechi, who is 6′ 10″ tall, also works as a commentator on NBA games.

His other main activity is working for the Amaechi Basketball Centres Foundation. It aims to increase participation in physical activity by building affordable, quality facilities and making expert coaches and mentors available to young people.

The charity built its first sports centre in Manchester.

He chose to come out last year in an autobiography, Man In The Middle, and well before it was published the internet was abuzz with rumours that for the first time in history an NBA star was about to come out.

When it was confirmed it was Amaechi, the Americans did not know what to make of it, for they never really knew what to make of the man himself.

English but black, articulate and cerebral yet a first-rate basketball player, deeply involved with youth work, cultured and politically liberal, he confounded every stereotype that Americans use to navigate their culture.

“In America black people who speak with an English accent aren’t black. I knew that when I went over there I would always be English first and I always was. You would never read a report about me referring to me as a black athlete, always from England, the English athlete, UK based, British, that’s always what they would use. “

His rationale for keeping silent about his sexuality as a younger man is familiar to most gay people.

“I don’t want to throw it away for something that I can’t help, so what I can do is control my behaviour and say OK I can be lonely.

“But eventually the cost of that is very skewed and you know that you’re not going to play as well, you’re not going to be as satisfied.”

While the press reaction to his coming out was intense, it did not lead to a culture where more professional sportspeople felt they could follow him out of the closet.

“I thought it would be more negative than it was actually,” he says, looking back to a time when he was doing 100 interviews a week.

“I didn’t give them [Americans] enough credit.

“My nature is always to assume the worst but I thought it would be a lot more bloodthirsty.

“Certainly there were a lot of horrible comments but in terms of volume if not impact they’ve not been as great.”

A gay man in a team sport did indeed cause some players to express their revulsion at the thought.

Most controversially, former NBA star Tim Hardaway told a US sports radio station:

“I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people.

“I’m homophobic. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be in the world or in the United States.

“If you have 12 other ballplayers in your locker room that’s upset and can’t concentrate and always worried about him in the locker room or on the court or whatever, it’s going to be hard for your team mates to win and accept him as a team mate.”

Amaechi praised Hardaway for his honesty: the NBA banned him from future appearances at their events.

“What he said was the semblance of an awful lot of people, it’s just an awful lot of people know better than to say it,” says Amaechi.

“There was a blog that I saw that said John Amaechi has a right to be gay, Tim Hardaway has a right to hate him for it. That’s the bizarre twisted attitude of many people. They just don’t want to vocalise it.”

INTERVIEW: Basketball’s stereotype-busting gay icon

Man In The Middle does not flinch from some experiences Amaechi may have understandably shied away from, such as cruising for sex in college toilets or his brush with alcohol addiction.

Above all it is the life story of an extraordinary man, who fought his way into the American league, used his talent to work across Europe, adopted some kids along the way, came to grips with his sexuality on his own terms and then decided to share his unique journey with everyone else.

Amaechi says he “very nearly didn’t” come out.

“I nearly just decided not to ever go back to America and just stay here and say “let them froth around in their own mess,” but I went to Manchester Pride and Sir Ian McKellen was the Marshal … I’m not very fluffy with these things and I’m quite cynical.

“However, the sight of him waving and looking at the reactions of people to him waving, the sight in people’s eyes of ‘That’s Gandalf, international superstar.’

“I thought, obviously I am not anything like that status of superstar or even celebrity, but if on a smaller scale I could have an impact that would be a good thing.

“And the faces of gay are quite homogeneous aren’t they?

“If you were relatively stupid, and unfortunately many people are, you would imagine all gay people to be either like Graham Norton or Jack from Will and Grace, so I thought it would be quite interesting to throw something else into the mix, namely me.”

He has been criticised in some quarters for waiting until his career was over before coming out – his response is a reminder that the US is some way behind the UK in terms of protections for LGBT people.

“In 30 states in America you can be fired for being gay.

“Nobody in their logical mind would say a player with my skills, not a superstar just a good solid player, versus another solid player who’s not gay, will get the job in today’s world.”

Amaechi admits that he might have been an even better player if he had been able to have a more open social life, though the book makes clear there are plenty of gay athletes out there.

He acknowledges that team sports are a particular challenge if a player wants to come out.

“There is more of a dynamic there beyond your own personality and there is a very legitimate thing that if you are going to come out with a team, when do you do it?

“Do you do it before the season starts? Beginning of the season when you’ve won a few games? Mid season right before the play-offs? When is the good time?

“If an average NBA player who has been retired for three years can be an international story and certainly a national news story in America, with six months of constant comment and constant articles, what happens if a player is still playing?

“Does anybody think that wouldn’t throw a team into some kind of turmoil?

“At some point even the most gracious and non-homophobic of team mates is going to get tired of a microphone shoved in his face and being asked how he feels about changing next to that bloke.

“A lot of people like to believe it’s because these dumb urban guys can’t get their minds around diversity and that’s not the case.

“A lot of these guys already have their minds around the idea that one of their team mates is gay but they don’t talk about it and they don’t use that word.”

Those ideas that team mates have about eachother must have taken on a new dimension with Amaechi.

Unlike them, he did not grow up with the game; it was not an integral part of his childhood dreams of success and stardom, the escape route from a life of struggle.

INTERVIEW: Basketball’s stereotype-busting gay icon

His mother, a doctor and single mother, instilled into him and his two sisters a strong work ethic, something he used to overcome the problems he faced in Stockport.

“I’m not a sports fan, that’s the fundamental truth,” he explains.

“I don’t really like to sweat very much. Basketball was many things when I started.

“I wasn’t even aware of money or celebrity of NBA players. But it was the fact that I joined the basketball team and all of a sudden I wasn’t a freak anymore.

“Everywhere I go, on the street, I even did a little short film about it for Channel Four, people look at you and they stare and they laugh.

“It’s the number one reaction to a tall person. They laugh or are shocked or frightened and drop their shopping.

“But then I started playing basketball and there I’m a commodity, my size is something good and it’s not something that’s a source of ridicule.”

Amaechi’s self-determination is humbling. As an awkward, shy lump of a teenager, he saw an opportunity to use his unusual height and grabbed it with both huge hands.

“I wanted to do something that nobody had ever done ever, have a career in the NBA,” he explains, as if it were the most normal aspiration for a Stockport teenager.

“I wanted to prove that I was not this freak that people laughed at in the street and I wanted to go and behave in a way that would change the way that people thought about athletes.

“All these things I thought were worth that – my mother was dying of cancer and I had to leave her – I would leave everything that was familiar to me, my home and my country, and move to this foreign place. “

He still relishes that chance to confound expectations in his highly successful career as a motivational speaker.

“I really love to talk to people who when you walk in the door you look at them and you smile nicely, sagely and they look back at you and smile with similarly veiled contempt, knowing they are going to spend two hours hearing nothing that could possibly help them in the future.

“And then you blow their doors off. I love that.

“There is an ability, because of my playing days, because of my psychology degrees, because of my platform, to make a difference and that’s what I’m doing.

“When you speak and you are in front of an audience who look at you think: “He’s the black one/he’s the gay one/he’s the ex athlete, what’s he got to offer me, I’m special, a CEO,” and you realise in the course of two hours you have got them in the palm of your hand.”

His ability to connect with people started not in boardrooms but the slums.

While at college in America studying psychology and “helping get Penn State on the basketball map,” as Amaechi puts it, he became involved with ‘big brother’ schemes mentoring teenagers at risk.

His work with young people is a constant theme in his book and his life, leading to his decision to adopt two teenage brothers he met on a basketball court in Florida.

The story of how they became a family is suitably inspirational.

“I actually met them at the gym at Orlando Magic,” he explains.

“One side is public and the other side is where players practice.

“When I first arrived there there’s a hand scanner that gets you into the private bit and my hand hadn’t been scanned, so I would just practice on my own on my days off in the public gym, and I got to meet lots of people.

“These kids were two of them, and they kept on coming back.

“They told me the reason they knew I was the one was because I remembered their name as soon as I met them, which tells you an awful lot.

“They had parents, but their parents weren’t living in Orlando and so they were living in an apartment together, which I thought was less than ideal.

“They were very sensible, mature, too grown up for their age.

“One of them came to basketball camp with me and while we were there asked me if I would take care of them. What do you say to that? Do you say no to that?”

The boys are now men in their mid-twenties, and Amaechi, the proud father, shows me photos and graduation tassels.

The ABC Foundation is Amaechi’s continuation of his work with young people in England, teaching them basketball skills and self-esteem at the same time.

“If you have to go to extraordinary lengths just to be average, then you doom a certain percentage of the population,” he explains.

INTERVIEW: Basketball’s stereotype-busting gay icon

“When I started playing we had to break into gyms to find a place to play, at ridiculous hours in the morning when it was too dark to see.

“People don’t excel in that way, and I see a way in which sport can be useful in creating change.

“Sport doesn’t teach people anything, that’s something I’m very adamant about and science is there to back me up, because if sport taught people to be better people then our best sportsmen would be our best people, which is clearly not true.

“But brining kids into an environment and using proper social and emotional training techniques, proper supervision, positive peer interactions, simple adult-child interactions that make rules clear and consistent, can help create children who are better, feel better about themselves, their opportunities, more hopeful and therefore less damaging to other people and themselves.

“I go into deprived areas not because children who are rich don’t have problems but children who are rich can generally find a way to get to places and children who are poor can’t.”

Last year Amaechi was awaded an honourary Doctor of Science degree by Manchester Metropolitan University for his achievements in the NBA and his charitable work with the National Literacy Trust, the NSPCC and the ABC Foundation.

INTERVIEW: Basketball’s stereotype-busting gay icon

“In Manchester, 3,000 kids a week going through our doors, we’re doing it right, we’re one of the few of that scale who really do it properly,” he explains.

“The whole point of a centre is excellence in sports, for sure, but also the idea that the fabric of the child will be under scrutiny and they will try and improve that, the people at the centre will be interested and focused on improving that, then yeah, you have some impact.

“The problem is that most sports initiatives don’t do that.

“They roll the ball out with some guy who is going to pick out the three kids in the room who are the best at football and send them off somewhere else, and the rest are going to do an hour of stuff, and at the end of that hour leave having learnt nothing.

“Because sport doesn’t teach about teamwork unless you make it teach about teamwork.

“What sport normally teaches is that the person with the best skills gets the most opportunities, the person with the best talent gets more leeway from the coach, more adulation from the crowd.

“I’m very frustrated right now. We’ve just been denied a grant, altogether £6million, for the new centre in West Yorkshire.

“Bradford City council has done amazing things to make it happen, but we’ve just been denied a grant.”

Politics would seem an obvious route for someone as articulate and committed bringing about change as Amaechi.

He splits his time between the US and England, but admits that he has been approached by the Liberal Democrats as a potential parliamentary candidate.

“There are constraints that I would find unacceptable,” Amaechi explains.

“There are party lines. The amount of influence you can have.

“For example I am friends with [Labour MP for Vauxhall] Kate Hoey, who I think is a wonderful, outspoken, punch-you-in-the-eye politician, the kind I would probably be, and there’s a reason why she’s not sports minister now.

“The current sports minister I think is doing a good job too, but she [Kate] spoke out on so many different issues. For me it would be hard to say ‘well, this is what my party believes, but this is what I believe.’”

He echoes the sentiments of many when discussing UK politics – “I can’t see much difference between Cameron and Brown in many respects” – but does feel there is a battle that is much more pressing.

“America needs more help. Right now, even just on an LGBT front. Hillary [Clinton] has been to the big gay lobbying organisations.

“I spoke with her in fact at the HRC [Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT lobby group in the US].

“But at the same time they don’t talk about marriage equity. Policy informs the foolish, laws inform people who don’t think.

“So, if your law is that these people can’t marry, that automatically informs those who are less intelligent that these people are not as good as you, they are not equal to you, and that’s a very powerful message.

“Unless someone steps up and says ‘by the way, we should probably just go with equality,’ then we’re going to be in trouble.”

Amaechi is finally comfortable in his sexuality after many years of struggle.

He is single, and is sometimes a low-key presence in gay venues in London and Manchester, or at least as low-key as a 6′ 10″ black basketball star can be.

From feeling like an outsider his entire life, the tall, overweight kid, the English wild card in American team sports, the man in the middle, he seems to have found his place in the world.

A motivational speaker, a commentator, an advocate for children with few prospects and a most unusual, but welcome, gay icon.

He still has goals.

“I’m doing my PhD,” he reveals.

“My influence is not as wide as I would like it to be and I’m working now on a diversity programme for corporations.

“I teach people presentation and speaking skills that are lacking in people of influence, or people who could have great influence if they could speak. I just want to be generally more influential.

“I want to put myself in a position where people are asking me questions when it comes to issues about children and sport, especially in this country.

“I’ve really attached myself to the Olympic thing now because we won that on legacy.

“I’m pretty good at organising legacy, in terms of sports especially, and I don’t see where it’s going to be, where the kids in London are going to get that lasting legacy beyond the ten days the Olympics are here, where is legacy coming from?

“There are lots of things I want to do. I used to think about working more closely with the government and I think that’s something I’d like to do in this country, to try and improve the way sport is being handled.

“If you want less crime you can’t just kick a football into the middle of north London and say there you go.

“You have to implement progress to make that happen, and to do that you need psychologists and people who have been involved in sport, and very handily I happen to be that wrapped into one package.

“There’s a lot to do.”

For more information about the ABC Foundation click here.

To order a copy of John Amaechi’s autobiography Man In The Middle click here.

Photos: Copyright 2007 ABC Foundation.

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