Every day in October we’re looking back at the athletes, coaches and events that made LGBTQ sports history. Today, we’re rewinding to 2007 and the story of the former pro athlete who became the first NBA player to come out as gay: John Amaechi.
By Cyd Zeigler Feb 7, 2007
“I am not a hero nor am I special in any regard,” Amaechi told ESPN in his first television interview. “I am simply doing what a good person of conscience would do, which is making people aware that gay people don’t just look like Jack from ‘Will and Grace,’ and that they don’t want to jump your bones every occasion and that some are camp and some are butch and that we’re different and we’re useful and we are here.”
Amaechi’s book, “Man In The Middle,” published by ESPN Books, in which he chronicles his NBA career and directly addresses the travails of being a closeted professional athlete, will be released Feb. 14.
Amaechi’s sexuality has been rumored for years. In an April 2001 column for Outsports, NBA columnist Randy Boyd named Amaechi, then playing with the Orlando Magic, as No. 16 among those in the NBA most likely to be gay.
“Could be that the Nigerian-Brit just operates on a different planet?” Boyd asked in his column. “But then again, that explanation for his atypical behavior wouldn’t be any fun now would it?”
That atypical behavior included a penchant for designing gardens, listening to opera before games and writing poetry.
In Amaechi’s first contact with Outsports in December, he asked with his playful sense of humor, “Why wasn’t I higher than 16th?”
Outsports has been tracking this story for the last year, as quiet rumblings in private conversations started to surface, and had agreed to embargo a story until just prior to his first TV appearance. However, speculation that Amaechi was coming out has become heavy in the past few days, with his publicist, Howard Bragman, dropping hints at a Super Bowl week party in Miami about an NBA player coming out.
Amaechi contacted Outsports’ Cyd Zeigler in December and Outsports introduced Amaechi to Bragman. The publicist had previously handled the coming out of NFL player Esera Tuaolo, golfer Rosie Jones and WNBA superstar Sheryl Swoopes.
Outsports acquired a copy of Amaechi’s book last week. It is clearly the work of a thoughtful, intelligent man who has focused even more on developing his character and spirit as he has on his jump shot and rebounding.
The book traces his life from early childhood until he was bought out of his contract with the New York Knicks in early 2004. Along the way it paints the picture of a lonely man who only found community when he gathered the strength to start coming out to friends and family.
Amaechi was raised mostly in England by a single mother. He did not discover basketball until he was well into his teens. He spent one year playing high school basketball in the United States before heading to Vanderbilt, where he played only one season before transferring to Penn State.
Amaechi was a standout on the Penn State basketball team from 1992 to 1995, where he was twice named First Team Academic All-American. He was not drafted, but he became the first undrafted player in league history to start in his first game as a rookie, with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
He followed his time as a Cavalier with three years playing in Europe, where he dated and had a regular boyfriend for a time in England. He returned to the NBA in 1999 and was celibate until he went to the Jazz. His guaranteed contract with the Jazz set his mind at ease, and it was there that he began venturing out to gay establishments and building a mostly gay circle of friends (the first wide circle of friends of his life, according to the book).
“Those grumpy social conservatives who continue to insist that gay life is lonely and unhappy have obviously never met my friends,” Amaechi wrote.
He writes of his first sexual experience in the United States, and how the Utah Jazz and Salt Lake City, with its strong Mormon influence, was an odd backdrop for what felt like his coming out party. He also acknowledges that those in gay clubs like New York’s Splash and Los Angeles’ Abbey who have claimed in the past to have spotted him there while he was with the Jazz may, in fact, have done so.
“By the end of my second Utah season, I was practically daring reporters to take the bait and out me,” he wrote. “But it never happened. My sexuality, I felt, had become an open secret, which was fine by me. I’d left enough open to interpretation that suspicions were gaining momentum.”
In a 2002 interview with the Scotsman newspaper, Amaechi had this to say about the subject of gays in the NBA: “If you look at our league, minorities aren’t very well represented. There’s hardly any Hispanic players, no Asian-Americans, so that there’s no openly gay players is no real surprise. It would be like an alien dropping down from space. There’d be fear, then panic: they just wouldn’t know how to handle it.”
The book also offers insight into the closed world of professional sports, including Amaechi’s spirited and friendly political arguments with Karl Malone, what he called the betrayal of Orlando Magic management, kind words from former Indiana coach Bobby Knight, his regret that he never told Greg Ostertag, “the gentle big man” whom he respected, that he was gay when Ostertag asked him while they played together in Utah, his respect for then-Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, and his lack of respect for Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.
“Unbeknownst to me at the time,” Amaechi wrote, “Sloan had used some anti-gay innuendo to describe me. It was confirmed via e-mails from friends who worked in high-level front-office jobs with the Jazz.”
In reaction to Amaechi’s comment, Sloan released this statement: “John is 1 of 117 players I have coached in the past 19 seasons, and it has always been my philosophy that my job is to make sure Jazz players perform to the maximum of their abilities on the floor. As far as his personal life is concerned, I wish John the best and have no further comment.”
On the court, Amaechi played in 301 games over five seasons, ending in 2003 with the Utah Jazz. His best seasons were in 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 when he started 89 games for the Orlando Magic. His career high for points came in a 2000 game against Denver, when he scored 31.
While the book gives a glimpse into the life of the first openly gay former NBA player, it more importantly paints a picture of a man whose dedication to philanthropy once led him to turn down a $17 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. It was for his philanthropic work and motivational-speaking endeavors that he was a 2006 recipient of the Penn State Alumni Achievement Award.
Amaechi, listed on the website 100 Great Black Britons, now runs the ABC Foundation, designed “to get kids playing sports,” according to his website. “The ABC Foundation aims to increase participation in physical activity and holistic support services by building affordable, quality facilities and making expert coaches, respected mentors and educators available to all young people.” The foundation’s first sports center was built in Manchester, England, close to his childhood home of Stockport.
Amaechi embraces his position as role model for kids with as much vigor as so many professional athletes try to distance themselves from it.
“It would be nice to one day see one of these kids play in the NBA,” Amaechi wrote. “But that’s not what gets me up in the morning. It’s a chance to change the culture, at least for a few kids.”
Amaechi also owns Animus Consulting. The company, according to its Web site, offers a “range of programs ... tailored to inspire, motivate, challenge and entertain in the pursuit of individual and group development - in a way that directly impacts the bottom line.”
Said Boyd of Amaechi’s coming out: “Hopefully it will be an inspiration to people who are hetero-identified to be more tolerant and to not assume that all 10 players on a given court have sex the same way they have sex.” — Cyd Zeigler
Look for another story celebrating LGBTQ sports history tomorrow and every day this month.