Former NBA player John Amaechi spoke up and got the sports world talking
It’s been “two weeks of craziness” since retired pro basketball player John Amaechi announced that he’s gay. “It’s the volume,” he sighs. “I’ve done 80-odd interviews in the last week.” Amaechi seems surprised by all the interest, even as he tours to promote his heartfelt and witty memoir, Man in the Middle.
“I’ve had wonderful letters of support,” he says. “People have understood that this is not some Paris Hilton publicity stunt on my part.” Amaechi reignited an ongoing debate over the inevitability of a pro athlete coming out mid-career. His former teammate Troy Hudson reacted to Amaechi’s revelation by summing up the opposing viewpoint: “The majority of people in pro sports—I mean, in the world—don’t feel comfortable with that type of person around. Especially in a masculine sport where you’re always touching each other, you have to take showers together.”
Amaechi turns this argument around in an already-infamous passage from his memoir, describing his first pro-locker room as “the most flamboyant place I’d ever been…The guys flaunted their perfect bodies. They bragged of their sexual exploits. They checked out each other’s cocks… I couldn’t help chuckling to myself: And I’m the gay one. Hah!”
Openly gay former major-league baseball player Billy Bean explained in his own memoir how “guys who professed to hate ‘homos’ strutted around the locker room, showing off their well-toned muscles and flopping cocks.” In his book on being a gay pro football player, Esera Tuaolo wrote that “if anybody was talking about somebody’s dick, it was a straight guy…sex was the last thing on my mind in the locker room.”
Amaechi explains that the opposition to gay teammates is less about the terror of shower stares than the desire to protect “an intense kind of camaraderie.” The presence of a gay teammate would make the usual locker room male bonding antics seem, well, gay. A few colleagues have understood the distinction—when asked by reporters how they would feel about having a gay man on their team, Miami’s Shaquille O’Neal said, “if he was my teammate and people ridiculed him…I would probably have to protect him,” and New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas declared, “I can’t speak for somebody else’s locker room, but in mine, we won’t have a problem. I’ll make damn sure there’s no problem.”
Amaechi has been impressed by statements like these, from some of basketball’s most popular and influential players, but not by the comments from most others, even the liberal ones. “I don’t know what it means when somebody says, ‘It doesn’t matter to me,’” he says. “I don’t know if that’s particularly positive, actually…Black people didn’t become emancipated because white people said, ‘Oh I just don’t care,’ it was an active process.” Toronto Raptors’ head coach Sam Mitchell told the Sun, “It shouldn’t be about tolerance, it should be about respect…Are you supposed to tolerate me because I’m black or treat me with respect because I’m a human being?”
Within a week of Amaechi’s coming out, Mitchell’s rhetorical question suddenly became a national debate after former Miami Heat player Tim Hardaway was asked about Amaechi on a Miami morning radio show. “I wouldn’t want him on my team,” he said. “I hate gay people…It shouldn’t be in the world or in the United States.” His rant became front-page news. “When someone first told me what he had said, I thought they were pulling my leg,” says Amaechi. “I just laughed at the absurdity of saying those words. As a reasonably-savvy individual, surely he would understand the ramifications.”
Apparently not. Hardaway was dropped from the All-Star game in Las Vegas, fired from his coaching job and widely condemned, even by Christian-right groups who criticized his “extreme rhetoric.” Hardaway desperately backpedaled. “I’m not interested in being the thought police,” Amaechi says, “but, at the same time, an apology for the words that have got you into trouble and cost you money doesn’t resonate with me.”
Amaechi says he’s received letters from young gay people around the world who felt that Hardaway’s comments “crystallized for them in a moment that they just weren’t welcome. That’s when you realize how devastating people’s words are…they can do real damage.”
“It’s a huge reach that you have as an athlete and role model,” he says. “You have a massive loudspeaker at your mouth every time you talk.” Amaechi met this responsibility in university, when he began mentoring kids as a Big Brother, seeking to honour the people in his own life who “helped lift me out of adolescent despair.”
Having reached a height of six feet at the age of 10, Amaechi learned early on that “words cut.” In his memoir, he describes himself as “the fat, ugly kid” forced into playing school sports. He was self-conscious about his size in swimming (other kids nicknamed him, “the whale”) and in rugby (one spectator screamed, “get that fuckin’ mutant freak out of there!”). It was only in basketball—despite having “no natural talent whatsoever” —that he discovered a way to gain acceptance, respect and even applause.
Amaechi admits that his giant frame came in handy when he began to realize he was also gay: “No one ever dared accuse the biggest guy in the room of being a fag.” Although “my desire for other men felt as natural as my right-handedness,” he writes, “it was simply incompatible with how I’d defined myself at the time.” At a point before Ellen or Queer as Folk, “my image of homosexuality came from frat houses and the freaky leather Blue Oyster Club bar in the movie Police Academy.” Following a brief spree of anonymous bathroom encounters in university, Amaechi took his sexuality and “put it in a box.” This is a state, he now insists, that is “a very familiar thing” for too many people.
“I’ve been trying to make it clear to people that this isn’t just about sport,” Amaechi says. This is the experience of hundreds of thousands of people in incredibly-diverse workplaces across North America, even workplaces people imagine would be very open and embracing. Look around this TV studio,” he tells interviewers. “There are people here who don’t feel comfortable coming out.”
Of the ‘big four’ pro sports—football, baseball, hockey and basketball— Amaechi is only the sixth player to come out (all of them after retiring) and there’s a hint of anger added to Amaechi’s soft-spoken British accent as he challenges the notion of “cowardice” in the silence of any athlete currently playing. “It’s far more complex than simply the 12 people in the locker room,” he says. Fellow athletes can be intense, but fans even more so. Since coming out, he says, “I’ve had a very warm reception everywhere I’ve gone but I’ve also had to pass along seven or eight threats of violence against myself to the FBI…it’s not all roses.” With “that chaos alone, I can’t imagine being able to play very well,” he says, and in sports, that’s all that matters.
“This is why,” he explains, “everyone has to have their own coming-out process. Not all of it is paranoia, some of it is real…In America, there are still 33 states in which you can be fired for being gay. I keep mentioning it because no one believes me!”
During his career—and still in the closet—newspaper stories on Amaechi marveled at the fact that this giant black ballplayer listened to opera, enjoyed political discussions, and drank Earl Grey tea. In return, he enjoyed using his media status to sound off on any topic—from condemning the National Rifle Association to enthusing about Star Trek: Voyager. “They imagine I’d be into something more cerebral but no, just a geek, really!” Hiding his homosexuality was easier when he was already so difficult to define—friends countered gay rumours with, “oh, he’s just English.” Amaechi notes that a friend once described him as “‘an expert in not fitting in no matter where you go’—I think he meant it as a compliment.”
Amaechi’s basketball career took him throughout Europe, across America and— almost—into Toronto. In 1998, he seemed poised to be hired by the Raptors, and looked forward to living in “one of the most beautiful and socially-progressive cities in the world,” but a six-month players strike scuttled those plans. “I was devastated,” he says, years later. “I’m pretty familiar with Toronto and there’s a restaurant there—Oscar’s? [Wilde Oscar’s, now O’Grady’s]—that I used to go to every road trip.” Ultimately, however, he ended up in Florida, where he found not just a team he could truly excel in, but a family.
During his first “stellar” season with the Orlando Magic, he met a pair of teenaged brothers living on their own, aged 16 and 17. Amaechi became their friend and, eventually, their legal guardian. It raised a few eyebrows, he notes, because the boys are white and “Americans are accustomed to the opposite configuration.” Having kept his sexuality hidden for so long, it was easy for Amaechi to continue doing so in his new role. “I didn’t want it to be something overt in the beginning,” he says. “Their lives had been chaotic and that needed to be soothed before we approached other issues.”
But Amaechi gave up more than his sex life for his new family —he turned down a massive offer from the LA Lakers to play alongside Shaquille O’Neal. He knew what he was giving up but, having sacrificed so much for his basketball career, it was time to make himself and his kids happy. “I am about to be a granddad,” he announces. “Both of their partners are pregnant —one of them’s married, the other’s about to get married—and they’re both still in Orlando.” He’ll visit them on the book tour then return to London and his charity, the ABC Foundation. In 2001, he used his NBA money to found the first Amaechi Basketball Centre in Manchester, England, and plans on more. “We build community centres in England that are based around sports,” he says, “places that kids can come to do their homework, use the Internet, library…You can’t make these places as sexy or dangerous as hanging out in a gang but you can make them places where kids can learn and be challenged.” Close to finishing his doctorate in child psychology, this—not basketball—has been his true passion. His former Orlando Magic coach ‘Doc’ Rivers told the press that Amaechi “did as much charity work as anybody in our city, and he’s still doing it,” but “the concept of altruism is rubbish,” Amaechi writes. “I got a massive rush of satisfaction when I made a difference.”
Despite the death threats, despite the controversies, Amaechi’s decision to come out is a major step forward for gay people and for sports. In the mid-’70s, NFL player Dave Kopay was the first former pro football player to come out— he was quickly branded a pariah in the sport, denied coaching jobs and endorsements. After receiving similar treatment, gay baseball player Glenn Burke spiraled into drug addiction and homelessness before dying of AIDS in 1995. His fate frightened MLB player Billy Bean, who didn’t attend his own lover’s funeral because he wouldn’t have been able to explain why he needed to skip that day’s ballgame. These are traumas no straight player has had to endure and, hopefully someday, no openly-gay player will, either. “Evolution is simply inevitable,” Amaechi says.
With Kopay as an inspiration, Esera Tuaolo came out in 2002, setting a further example for young athletes. Dozens of high school and university players—like Adam Goslin, defensive lineman for St. Louis’ Washington University football team, and Joseph Fisher, goalie for the University of Georgia’s hockey team—have come out. By playing openly, they’re also helping to ease any teammate’s fears of sharing the locker rooms with gay colleagues, hopefully creating fewer Hudsons and Hardaways. “It shouldn’t be a big deal to anybody,” 16-season basketball veteran Charles Barkley told ESPN. “I know I’ve played with gay players and against gay players and it just shouldn’t surprise anybody or be any issue.”
Amaechi embraces his “positive” new role as gay activist but, having finally escaped his ‘box,’ he’s not about to be put in a new one. “It’s just another facet,” he says, “When I started out, I didn’t imagine that I would only be a role model for moderately intelligent, tall, black, English kids who lived in America, I imagined myself being a role model on a much-higher scale than that.” In his memoir, looking back on his NBA career, Amaechi writes, “I wanted to prove that the unlikeliest kind of person, coming from the most improbable circumstances, could make it to the top. It was an act of revenge for fat, tormented kids everywhere.”