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Last Updated: Monday, 23 July 2007, 10:33 GMT 11:33 UK
Walking tall
John Amaechi

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

After making headlines - and enemies - across the US by becoming the first National Basketball Association player to come out, John Amaechi is trying to lose the tag of "that gay British basketball player". A project to give thousands of youngsters in the UK a better start in life may provide a different kind of legacy.

While David Beckham tries to make waves in the US, another British sportsman is recovering from the level of publicity Posh could only dream of.

One night in early February, John Amaechi went to bed a retired basketball player - arguably the UK's most successful - about to release his autobiography, Man in the Middle.

John Amaechi
All of a sudden I woke up one morning and I'm a 'big, black, British, gay guy'
He woke up emblazoned across the front pages of USA Today and the New York Times. The news that his book would reveal he was gay had been leaked out by bloggers.

"It was a very strange experience," he says. "I consider myself a pretty rounded guy. I've done pretty elite things in business, sport and academics and all of a sudden I woke up one morning and I'm a 'big, black, British, gay guy'. That was frustrating at times."

His admission rocked US sport and prompted spiteful remarks from top players and death threats from the public, although the response on the whole he says has been "95% positive".

Nearly six months on, the "craziness" has died down and he can concentrate on making the news for other reasons.

The Amaechi Basketball Centres Foundation (ABC) is about to open its second youth centre in the UK, an 8m development in Bradford. When the programme is complete it will have six centres nationwide that give youngsters opportunities in sport and education.

John Amaechi (right) playing for Orlando Magic
Amaechi scored the first NBA points of the new millennium
The Manchester centre opened seven years ago and has 5,000 young people aged five to 25 going through its doors every week.

Amaechi, 36, who grew up in Stockport, believes these buildings are more about community-building than sport.

"A tiny part of it is basketball-related. While I definitely want to see the next amazing basketball player to come out of Britain and go off to the US and play in the Olympics, and the centres are a way to make that happen, it's only 2% of the whole.

"The most part of my interest is that young people get to interact with peers. Not without conflict and not without stress, because they are part of life, but within a set of rules and organised in such a way they can learn to interact with each other under these conditions."

The foundation's slogan is "legacy starts now" and Amaechi is clearly a man who thinks about how he will be remembered.

"I think when you show young people that you care and when you build infrastructure and community and when you allow people to experience things and grow in ways they hadn't thought possible, that's how your legacy is built.

"My sexual orientation and the fact I played basketball will be increasingly unimportant in the face of that."

Knockbacks

Amaechi's rise to fame began when as a gangly 17-year-old he was spotted on the streets of Manchester by a scout. Having never picked up a basketball before, his mother - a single parent - devised what he called The Plan, to guide him to the top of the profession.

BOYHOOD HERO
Daley Thompson
I looked at Daley Thompson and I thought he would be the coolest dad in the world because he seemed to carry himself with such composure and grace
After a year of playing, he moved to a high school in Ohio and a basketball scholarship at Penn State University followed. Despite knockbacks along the way, he spent four years at the NBA, becoming the UK's most successful player in the process. While at the top, he wrote a column for the BBC Sport website before retiring in 2003 to begin work on his book.

Throughout his career in the US he avoided being untruthful about his private life by skilfully deflecting probing questions, but he believes had he come out while playing he would have lost his job.

"People often think of the locker room as a bastion of homophobia but homophobia is rife in schools and workplaces and pubs. And when the PE teacher says 'Don't throw it like a girl' or 'Don't be a poof', these things help propagate that atmosphere.

"Sports locker rooms are strident examples because no gay people are apparently in them but really they're just another hostile workplace."

The bad reaction from some players confirmed to him he was right to wait until he retired before making the announcement. And the death threats were not the first he'd ever received - when he spoke out about Iraq and about gun laws he was similarly vilified.

A SPORTING LIFE
1970: Born Boston to Nigerian father and English mother
1974: Moves with mother and two sisters to Stockport
1987: Begins playing after spotted by scout
1988: High school in Ohio
1995: Penn State University
1996-99: Plays in Europe
1999-2003: Orlando Magic, Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets

But this time he was at the centre of a maelstrom. Some people in the US were previously unaware that black people could be gay, he says.

"Without wanting to sound pompous, I think I have started a debate on issues of diversity and equality that would never have come up otherwise."

He received letters and e-mails from different kinds of people - US soldiers quitting the military so they could come out, gay and straight parents of gay and straight children. Some people would burst into tears and give him a bear hug in the street.

"The good thing was it didn't affect just one part of society. I don't want to be a role model only for tall, brown, gay kids and I was pleased that didn't change - the same variety of people still responded to me. It's been very rewarding for me."

Reaction from the UK was more muted, partly because he is less well known there, partly because he was already "out" to people who knew him there and also because, he believes, the country is more in tune with equality issues than the US.

He has yet to meet his boyhood hero, Daley Thompson, who is helping London prepare for 2012.

But given Amaechi's experience and the way the Games wants to engage young people, it is surprising that the organisers haven't asked him to help.

"If they're interested in legacy and providing a legacy for young people through their indoor sports then I'm the man."


A selection of your comments appears below.

I emailed John from his fan site when all this happened, an he immediately emailed me back and was very nice and thoughtful in his response. I often used the centre he set up in Whalley Range/Moss Side and observed that it has helped a lot of disadvantaged children. In addition remember that he followed his principles and opposed the war before it was fashionable to do so, and knowing he had a lot more to lose than most people he still followed what he thought was right. He is an inspiration to people in Manchester.
Ansar, Manchester

Why haven't I heard of this man before? He's obviously a top British sportsman and a generous person who deserves more recognition for what he's doing. But would his story sell newspapers as much as the latest Premier League thug drunkenly crashing his car? That's why he's not a household name, and it's a shame.
Joe, Leeds

Every once in a while a person comes along that makes a positive difference to society, that's what makes them so special. I only heard of John a few days ago after meeting his cousin at a basketball session for kids in Manchester; but I reckon he's gonna be a significant role model for the future. I'd love for my two young sons to model themselves on him (after me, of course). Good luck to him, though he won't have to rely on luck, as he's made of strong stuff.
Carl Hughes

Having been recommended John's book earlier in the year by a friend in the US, I was truly bowled over, not only by the strength of character and resilience in the face of adversity, but more importantly how a Brit who has done so well in the NBA (a rarity), could be such an unknown to the general British public. It seems only his 'coming out' could raise his profile and it should really be his outstanding achievements that shine about all else, not his sexuality.
William, London

Give the man a knighthood. Who else could possibly deserve it more? It would also cause those who derided him for something as immaterial as his sexuality to think again.
Stephen, Cambridge

Having met John and being a regular user of the original Amaechi Centre in Manchester, albeit as a fervent supporter of the senior teams, I can testify that he is a truly remarkable character. Not only does he take a genuine interest in the well-being of the kids and staff at the centre, but he also provides an excellent role model for other athletes- endorsing community projects and encouraging education as opposed to, say, marketing trainers. When I think of John, his sexuality seems relatively unimportant in comparison to the fact he is a good-natured, hard-working, thoroughly decent bloke who has done truly great things for basketball and youngsters in Britain, and especially the community here in Manchester.
GR, Manchester

As a big NBA fan I followed John's career closely. He stuck out in the locker room due to his lack of tattoos and his business like approach to his game. That and the fact that he would read prior to games rather than sit playing video games. The NBA locker room is full of over paid youngsters that have used their talents to change their own personal situation, once they have done that they forget about their job as a role model to young fans. I don't feel that he attracted attention, it was unfortunately created for him. Good luck John, I'm sure Team GB will need his help in 2012.
Graham Watson, Edinburgh

I am glad that Amaechi is forcing people in the US to confront the issue of homosexuality in sports and in minority groups. Homophobia is not a pandemic, but tends to be concentrated in certain regions, ethnic, or religious groups. I think the popularity the story received in the press was due to sensationalism, rather than because journalists thought it was actually important.
Karen, Ithaca, NY USA

I had never heard of John Amaechi before his book came out. I was stunned, but not because he is gay. It's hard to believe than a Brit could play in the NBA, however briefly.
Tom, Boston, USA

It seems strange that in our country we find it so hard to pick proper role models. While John was the highest paid UK sportsman for three years, has a doctorate degree, and now has put a great amount of his own money back into the community, he only needs to sleep with a couple of hookers in a glitzy London hotel, snort loads of cocaine, get caught drink driving/speeding, get let off, go to rehab and finally say a pitiful sorry on a second-rate chat show and he would be the perfect role model for my 12-year-old.
Graham, UK

What a great story; he sounds like a thoroughly decent bloke. And more to the point he's doing something tangible and positive with his fame by giving something back, but doing it in a way that means he takes real responsibility and has an ongoing involvement in its development. Good luck to him.
Bob Pritchard, UK

It saddens me to read that people, in this day and age, are still getting so worked up about a relatively minor thing like a person's sexuality. Do they really imagine that a person who issues death threats is in some way superior to a person who is gay? I wish John Amaechi all the best.
Lucy, Slough, UK

This guy deserves to be held up as an example to all young people, black/white/gay/straight - it simply does not matter. If his work with communities and local basketball as a means to reach out alone is considered, then in a world where people talk of Beckham receiving a knighthood, John Amaechi is far more deserving. And then you consider what he achieved in US sport whilst retaining his dignity - you don't mention his opposition to the War, which hurt his career to a point. Top bloke.
GJH, Manchester

It's incredibly unfair, and a sign of today's prejudiced society, that a person who made it big as a basketball player in the US - which is one hell of an achievement - would be defined in history more by his sexual orientation.
Jeff Minter, Swansea

I didn't even know that he was gay, or had "come out". I know John Amaechi, purely on his reputation as a great basketball player, a man who contributes to developing the sport in the UK and for helping young people. I also know that he was well-known in the USA for his intellectualism, someone different to the normal stereotype of sportsmen over there. Why the hell should we still be debating the role of sexuality in defining someone's place in society - 40 years after homosexuality was legalised here?!
Martin, Bedfordshire

I certainly hope this man contributes a lot more in the coming months and years. There is so much I believe he can achieve in terms of teaching young people tolerance, equality and how to aim for the stars. It is great to see such an outstanding role model speaking out in these times when most sports stars and celebs just want their photo in the press and to see the cash pour in.
Robert Prior, Sheffield

I admire John's courage but am a little disappointed to read the comments written by his countrymen. I agree that we as Americans still have a long way to go in recognizing gay rights. But please name a famous footballer, rugby player or cricket player who has "come out." We will have a long way to go in recognizing gay rights.
Stephanie, Long Valley, NJ, USA

I think this is the most inspirational story. The USA needs to address issues about the discrimination and obvious ignorance of many people with regards to homosexuality, and I'm proud that it is a British man who is sending the message that it is a normal thing. He sounds like a brave man.
Emily Thurston, Manchester, UK

I'm heterosexual but I don't feel the need to come out and tell everyone about my sexual inclinations. I have no interest in whether someone is straight, gay or has a 'thing' for soft fruits - keep it to yourself and stop publicity-seeking.
Richard, Stocksfield

Richard in Stocksfield just wrote: "I'm heterosexual but I don't feel the need to come out and tell everyone about my sexual inclinations." What's the word I'm looking for to describe to describe that opening sentence... I'll settle for the polite "contradictory". I disagree that Mr Amaechi disclosed his sexuality for publicity reasons - why would anyone want the publicity that leads to death threats? Unless he was naive enough to assume that there are no longer small-minded and bigoted people in the world, who still regard homosexuality as something to be ashamed of, his disclosure was not to just help sell his book, merely a statement of fact, and I would presume was made in view of how important a secret this must have been to him.
Dan, Oxford

Dear Richard, Stocksfield, You should read John's book. He may have played NBA for only four years but he has millions and doesn't need the publicity (although I'm sure it may have helped his centres in the UK). His book is an important commentary on social politics, especially in the USA where bigotry is rife. It is an interesting, informative read and needed to be written by someone who has been at the centre of American sport; sport being such a huge part of American mainstream life.
Chris Bradwell, Philadelphia, USA

Can I just say thank-you to Mr Amaechi for the Amaechi centre. My husband and son go often to see Manchester Magic and if it was not for the centre we would be without basketball in it's entirety. As Manchester Giant disappeared after various reasons with the arena. We need to celebrate other sports along side football.
Dawn, Manchester

I still fail to understand why the story of an excellent sportsman, a man of the people, a strong supporter of the young should be recognised simply because he is gay? I am confused by the need to mention the fact and disappointed that some people continue to vilify good people simply because of their sexual orientation. I do not know Amaechi and possibly never will but I value his contribution to our society and wish him well in is personal life. Go to it Amaechi and thank you for enlightening our youth.
Steve, Harlow, Essex

It seems completely ridiculous to me that so much press attention was given to John's sexual orientation in the US press. I believe in the UK, the vast majority of people are of the 'who cares' mentality. As a badminton coach I am very aware of how beneficial sports coaching can be for the younger generation and wish John every luck in developing basketball coaching here in the UK.
Vicky, Durham




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