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Amaechi Talks
by Ross Forman
2007-03-01

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John Amaechi was the first National Basketball Association ( NBA ) player to reveal he is gay—but he is not the only one out there, he claims.

'Are there active players in the NBA who are gay? Yes, there are,' he said last weekend in an exclusive interview.

And there's more than one gay player, he added. Amaechi, of course, would not name names; elaborate on quantity; or hint whether or not the others would ever come out while still active.

'I think it's foolish to imagine there's not at least one [ gay player ] in every pro sport,' he said.

Amaechi was the latest to join the exclusive fraternity of gay professional athletes who came out after retiring. On Valentine's Day, appropriately—the day significant others celebrate, embrace and bombard each other with chocolates, roses and Hallmark cards—he released his autobiography, Man In The Middle ( ESPN Books ) , which chronicles his life on and off the basketball court.

February has been 'absolutely insane,' he said, starting with the revelation and the wide-ranging reactions, including the 'I hate gay people' response from a former on-court opponent of Amaechi: five-time All-Star Tim Hardaway.

Amaechi admitted he expected 'a bit of fuss' when he came out, including some criticism. In fact, he speculated that there would be 'a lot of criticism.' Instead, the whole experience has been overwhelmingly positive, he said. Amaechi has received a 'massive number' of e-mails from those who already have read his book or have heard his story in the limited interviews he's already done.

Amaechi said he has not heard from any active players since coming out. Doc Rivers, a Chicago native who played professionally for numerous years for several teams and is now the head coach of the Boston Celtics, is the only one within the NBA community who has reached out to Amaechi since his announcement. 'I've been really pleased with [ Rivers' support ] ,' Amaechi said.

Amaechi added that a few front-office personnel from teams he played on ( Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz ) and several former ball-boys from those teams have contacted him to show their support.

He also has received positive, supportive e-mails from athletes such as boxers, track-and-field competitors and swimmers.

Coming out is 'too far removed from an everyday experience to be able to say what you'd expect or not expect,' he said. The good news is that 'people in quarters that often are silent on issues of bigotry all of a sudden have started talking. I'm hoping that I'm helping people have intellectual conversations that are beyond the normal fifth-grade level of dealing with homophobia.'

TIM HARDAWAY

The former NBA All-Star generated more media attention on Valentine's Day than throughout his illustrious on-court career. During a radio interview in Miami, Hardaway was questioned about how he would deal with a gay teammate. Hardaway said he would ask for the player to be removed from the team—and that actually was his most politically correct comment.

'First of all, I wouldn't want him on my team,' Hardaway said. 'Second of all, if he was on my team I would really distance myself from him because I don't think that's right and I don't think he should be in the locker room when we're in the locker room. Something has to give. 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 teammates to win and accept him as a teammate.'

Hardaway then said the quote that truly rocked the sporting world, not to mention the LGBT community: 'Well, you know, I hate gay people. I let it be known I don't like gay people. I don't like to be around gay people. I'm homophobic. It shouldn't be in the world, in the United States; I don't like it.

Hardaway later apologized for the remarks during a telephone interview with Fox affiliate WSVN in Miami. 'Yes, I regret it. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said I hate gay people or anything like that,' he said. 'That was my mistake.'

But clearly the damage had been done—with the force of a slam dunk.

'Tim Hardaway's comments were obviously bigoted,' Amaechi said. 'The first reaction when I heard [ Hardaway's comments ] was, ' I thought it was laughable, because I couldn't believe that he actually said such sentiments.''

Then, after thinking and re-analyzing Hardaway's comments, Amaechi said, 'That's when I realized how impactful what he said would be, how damaging it would be to a massive number people—and not just [ to ] gay and lesbian kids, but also kids who are perceived to be gay and lesbian. So I obviously was very, very disappointed.'

Is there any silver lining to Hardaway's comments? Amaechi thinks so: 'It did extend and broaden the conversation but, at the same time, I know for a fact that his words are bouncing around the world, making kids feel miserable.'

Amaechi's advice to Hardaway was simple. 'Think before you speak,' he said. 'And do it now, because every additional interview he does digs him further and further into the hole. It's not OK to be a bigot. You can think and feel however you want; however, when that feeling and thinking extends into the domain of other people, it's just not OK.'

Amaechi was particularly surprised by Hardaway's comments considering he played for the Miami Heat and still lives there—and Miami has a large LGBT community.

'If you hate gay people, don't live in Miami. Are you trying to tell me that, living in Miami, he hasn't come across gay people? That includes people who have worked with him [ and ] done jobs for him. In some capacity, he knows them,' Amaechi said. 'The damage [ Hardaway's ] words have done won't be undone by me talking to him.'

Amaechi certainly recalls playing against Hardaway—and how good Hardaway was. 'He was unbelievable. He's 10, 20 or maybe 100 times the player I could have been,' Amaechi said.

The two never spoke before, during or after games, Amaechi said, mostly because, ' [ m ] y job was to try to kick his ass. My job was to set the hardest screen possible [ and ] to make his life miserable.'

Hardaway was banned from all All-Star events in Las Vegas in mid-February, a directive issued by NBA Commissioner David Stern. The NBA's action 'was appropriate,' Amaechi said. 'The NBA has made it clear what their philosophical stance is, and he violated their philosophical stance.'

In addition to Hardaway, LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers has been criticized for his Amaechi-related comments, especially from the LGBT community.

'With teammates, you have to be trustworthy, and if you're gay and you're not admitting that you are, then you are not trustworthy,' James told the Associated Press. 'So that's like the No. 1 thing as teammates—we all trust each other. You've heard of the in-room, locker room code: What happens in the locker room stays in there. It's a trust factor, honestly. A big trust factor.'

Amaechi answered, 'When people talk about not being able to trust closeted athletes, while at the same time not saying that they will embrace them if they come out, that's just a double-bind. And that's based on bigotry as well.'

Amaechi said that James and other high-profile stars 'have to be more careful with what they say. They have to recognize that their words are damaging and [ their words ] will have an impact with young people across the world.'

Amaechi said he has recently received e-mails from kids living in Europe, Japan and Australia, among other places, and each of those kids, 'has been changed by the words of Tim Hardaway and LeBron James.

' [ Pro athletes ] have to understand how powerful they are in this equation and, if you do want to speak about these issues, it's your responsibility to become educated on those issues before you do it.'

Looking ahead

Amaechi said the timing of the book's release had nothing to do with the All-Star Game, which was the most talked-about event of its type in years—perhaps ever.

The book was actually scheduled to be released earlier, but there was a delay in the editorial process, Amaechi said.

He wrote the book in about a year, though it took him about two years to find a publisher. 'I've got a stack of 30 rejection letters on my desk; I keep them there forever. Maybe they won't turn down my next [ book ] ,' he said. Amaechi has already started writing another book.

Will a pro athlete from any of the four major sports ( basketball, baseball, football and hockey ) ever come out while still active?

'I don't know why [ someone would ] ,' Amaechi said. 'There's no guarantee that it would change the world, and I think there should be some guarantee if you're willing to risk everything. Your actions should be received openly and there should be a real change. I'm hoping what's happening now will, hopefully, take some steps toward that and will help.'

And, any active pro who'd come out 'has a lot to lose: financially, emotionally and psychologically,' Amaechi said. 'The philosophy of David Stern and his counterparts at the other leagues has to filter down through the whole league before that can happen, and then through society as well. It's not just the players on a certain team, but also, the team owners, administrators and the fans.

Amaechi said he's known he was gay since he was about nine years old. 'At that point, I realized I wasn't the same as most other people,' he said.

Amaechi is single today, living in his native England. He's single mostly because 'I'm difficult. I have lived alone for an awful long time, [ so ] I think it makes it very difficult for people to get to know me,' he said. 'I would love to [ date ] , but it would have to be a very special person, because I'm very difficult.'

QUOTING JOHN AMAECHI:

On Penn State women's basketball coach Rene Portland:

In early February, a former Penn State University women's basketball player settled a discrimination lawsuit against Portland, more than a year after claiming that Portland had a 'no-lesbian' policy on her team.

Amaechi, who attended Penn State, said, 'I think, if you're serious about winning in sports, then you don't discriminate. What Rene Portland allegedly said was, 'If a Sheryl Swoopes-caliber player came to her team that she wouldn't want her.' But what I'm saying is: If you're serious about winning, then you take Sheryl.'

On homophobia:

'People talk about a moment of epiphany [ occurring ] when a major sports star comes out—that it would change everything. To that, I say, when a young man, Matthew Shepard, is strung up to a fence and left to die in the middle of a field … [ if that ] doesn't change society's opinion on homophobia, why would a Kobe Bryant or any star be able to change society's opinion? If you don't have the empathy to change your bigoted mind about homophobia when you see a dead child on a fence, then there's something wrong.'

On gays in sports:

'It's the job of an organization and society to embrace any gay athletes on a team because it's all about winning and performance. You want any gay athlete to be able to play to his very best.'


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