John Amaechi was walking through Orlando International Airport last February, within days after announcing to the world that he was gay.
An African-American airport employee spotted Amaechi and started staring. He was about 20 years old and started walking toward Amaechi, who admittedly was nervous about the pending confrontation.
The youngster reached out to shake hands with Amaechi. He then simply said, 'I respect what you did,' and walked away.
'There have been so many, many more lovely and surprising interactions like that,' since coming out and becoming the first current or former National Basketball Association ( NBA ) player to reveal publicly that he is gay, Amaechi said.
Amaechi's coming-out not only was the biggest LGBT sports stories of 2007, but one of the biggest LGBT stories overall.
Amaechi broke into the NBA during the 1995-96 with Cleveland. He later played for the Utah Jazz and Orlando Magic. His last season was the 2002-03 campaign, and his NBA career spanned 294 regular-season games.
'Before I moved over to America to start the [ coming out ] process, I was very, very comfortable with the fact that I was out here in Europe, that people knew [ I was gay ] and that no really cared; it wasn't really a big issue,' in his native England, he said. 'Days before I was going to come to America [ to come out ] , I was petrified. I just didn't know what reaction I would get, how it would go. It definitely was very frightening. Within days, I was OK.'
That's because the sporting world and the mainstream media got behind Amaechi, especially after former All-Star Tim Hardaway vented shocking anti-gay, hate-filled comments during a radio interview direct at Amaechi.
The two did not speak last year. 'It doesn't surprise me [ that we have not spoken ] , though it does disappoint me,' Amaechi said.
But, if the two ever crossed paths, Amaechi is certain what he'd say to Hardaway: ' [ I would say ] 'Do you realize the magnitude, the power of the words you used? Do you realize the damage you did?'' Amaechi said. 'I got thousands of e-mails, starting literally the second his words were first broadcast, from kids who felt less safe, less confident and less good as a person because of his words. And this was from kids as far away as Japan, Australia and Eastern Europe. Hardaway's words didn't just have an effect in America but, rather, worldwide.'
Amaechi splits his time these days between England and America, working as a psychologist, talking to groups and individuals about diversity.
'I will continue to speak out against people who speak with hatred, much like Tim Hardaway or others,' he said.
'I don't really know if the NBA has changed. Actually, I don't know if I could look at any sports organization and say that, yes, [ that league ] wants an LGBT player to be able to come out because they are afraid of all the problems that [ announcement ] may cause, including the Tim Hardaway's who you may have to shut up.
'I have not seen any [ league ] take any proactive steps, and that's what it's all about.
'I don't think [ Europe ] is any further ahead in sports necessary but, in a holistic sense, we have decided that [ being LGBT ] is not an issue over which politics will be decided. Such that, LBGT is not an issue, but just people.'
Amaechi said he is paying close attention to the U.S. presidential elections, and he definitely plans to vote—he just isn't sure for whom, yet.
The U.S. presidential candidates, he said, 'are frightening.'
'What's clear is we have no one who is absolutely an advocate for unequivocal equality,' he added. 'That means, no asterisks over LGBT rights, just equality. And that's clear, from both parties. There are politicians in America who, if they had said some of their rhetoric in Europe, well, their political careers would be over in Britain; they'd be done because we'd look at them and think, 'You are a frightening monster!' And the fact that that type of rhetoric can garner approval [ in America ] is scary.
'I'm really stuck right now because I don't believe there's a real advocate for LGBT issues.'
Amaechi was the grand marshal for the 2007 Chicago Gay Pride Parade, and had a blast with the gig.
'Chicago really surprised me,' he said. 'It almost had this feel like a European sidewalk everywhere I was, particular in Lakeview. There was a wonderful mix of all different types of people—gay, straight, Black, white, etc.
'I had a really relaxing time there and really enjoyed the craziness. I couldn't believe [ the crowd ] . It was outrageous the number of people there for the parade. It was, by far, larger than any event I've ever been to.'
Amaechi also was the grand marshal for 2007 Gay Pride parades in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.
Quoting John Amaechi:
On himself: 'I'm going to make it in time so that people will have to recognize what I've done, because that's the kind of person I am. I want to make an impact, to make a difference and, believe me, I will. I just have not yet m [ done so ] . It's an enduring part of my legacy, I believe.'
On John Amaechi, and the fact he now is single: 'I think my schedule is a little frightening to people,' he said, then starting to laugh, 'Or maybe I don't look as good in person as I do [ while wearing ] makeup while on TV, or maybe I have really bad habits.'