Sunday, February 11, 2007

John Amaechi - Journeyman Trailblazer

Recently it was announced by former NBA center John Amaechi, as preface to the release of the autobiography he is peddling – Man in the Middle, that he is gay. As a player, Amaechi did little to gain the attention of any but the most attentive of professional basketball fans. He was by no means a star in the league, but rather, what is commonly referred to as a journeyman. This is not to say that his career was completely uninteresting, for there were certainly some noteworthy accomplishments during his time on the court. Although it is rare for a male professional athlete to come out of the closet, particularly those who played team sports (the short list consists of the NFL’s David Kopay, Roy Simmons and Esera Tuaolo, along with Glenn Burke, and Billy Bean from Major League Baseball), John Amaechi had already claimed rarity status prior to telling the world he is homosexual by being a British player in the NBA. Even though the league has become increasingly international over the past decade plus, England has not been a primary exporter. Not only are players from the UK few and far between, but so are intellectuals who admit they performed not out of passion for the game, but simply because it was a logical business decision for a man measuring six feet – ten inches and weighing 270 pounds. Off the court he was known for being cerebral, introspective, multi-faceted, and a pretty good interview. On it, he only managed to score 6.2 points per game over the course of a career that spanned five seasons, with 10.5 ppg the most he ever averaged in a season. His focus was probably diluted by intentions to become a child psychologist and various charitable endeavors. Yet he managed to earn maximum significance from his baskets by being credited with the first hoop ever scored in Miami’s American Airlines Arena, and also scoring the first NBA points of the new millennium on January 2nd of the year 2000. Other than this, his most notable play was not cashing in on his best season by accepting a six year $17 million deal to sign with the world champion Los Angeles Lakers, instead returning to play for the Orlando Magic for about a third of that. This was a loyal and perhaps even noble decision, but not an especially bright one from a financial perspective. For his sake, the deal he made for his book was hopefully a shrewder one.

Three years after his playing career came to an end, John Amaechi has made headlines by becoming the sixth professional male athlete from one of the four major U.S. sports (basketball, baseball, football, hockey) to acknowledge being gay, and the first pro basketball player to do so. There was a time not too long ago when this would have been a considerably bigger issue. But in the post Brokeback Mountain / Will and Grace era, overt homophobia is no longer politically correct. In this day and age when an actor on a TV show makes derogatory comments about the sexual orientation of a cast mate, it is not the outed actor who finds his job in jeopardy. Instead, the offending speaker is forced to remove his foot from his mouth and opt for rehabilitation. I’m not exactly sure what going into rehab for insulting someone’s preference of mate even means. Up until the Grey’s Anatomy incident, I was under the belief that rehab was strictly for substance abusers. But apparently there is a correctional facility for just about any socially unacceptable behavior. Perhaps employees of the advertising agency behind the Snickers commercial that first aired on Super Bowl Sunday, and was quickly denounced as insulting to the gay community, were sent to rehab as well. Might this also be the eventual fate of Jerry Sloan, Amaechi’s coach when he played for the Utah Jazz, who has been accused of being less than accepting of his former center’s alternate lifestyle? After all, when you consider that John Amaechi’s autobiography has been published by none other than ESPN, it seems clear that the sports establishment is officially choosing the path of enlightenment over stereotypical belittlement and old school disgust. The only thing missing is a catchy slogan. Let me the first to suggest – You’re so gay, and with that I’m okay.

Reaction to Amaechi’s admission throughout the NBA has been predictably mixed. For every “to each his own as long as he does his part on the court and doesn’t dare hit on me” there has been a “that is not cool because we shower together”. To the perspective of some Amaechi has no doubt attained heroic status, the Rosa Parks of Black British Ballers. Then again, Rosa did not claim she had every right to sit her tired self in the front of that bus from the safety of the curb after choosing to quietly ride in the back. She took her stand, literally her seat, while she was in the line of fire of those angry glares from white passengers. So let us reserve the highest of praise for the first player to acknowledge he is a gay man while still an active player, preferably one who is of All Star caliber. A journeyman player can be cut from his team and not picked up by any other without much being made of it. But if Michael Jordan in his prime had said he was gay, what would have been the reaction to that by teammates, opponents, fans, sponsors, endorsers, and the media?

Amaechi spoke on the subject of gays in the NBA in an interview back in 2002. “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.” This strikes me as an accurate characterization of a hypothetical situation at that point in time. Would it be accurate in 2007? 2012? 2020? The answer, whatever it may be, is probably inevitable.
By Roy L. Pickering Jr.


  1. I remember I used to be vehemently anti gay because my father was anti gay. I just didn't understand it, and it gave me a sense of power having affirmation from my family that I didn't have to understand it, that I could actually put someone down and be well within my right. It was a sick elation that I felt.

    Then my best friend of seven years came out to me, and that was the end of it. There was no question that I wasn't going to turn my back on my friend for the world, and so pretty much overnight, my sick elation that I thought I somehow had a birthright to vanished.

    I judge gays just as I would judge any person I talked to, "oh he's cool" or "oh my lord he's annoying" or "gosh what a flamer" but never "what a fag." I do call my best friend a fag, but then he calls me a bitch and we laugh.

    In the world of American all-male sports though, a world that I have been immersed in for years, the atmosphere is juvenile, and best friends leave you at the drop of a dime because being gay is probably the biggest taboo there is. This is a reflection of our culture, it would be so much easier to just throw all the gays out, but no one has the right to oppress someone else, our culture needs to change, not the individuals who bear the brunt of society's superiority complex.

  2. Former NBA player John Amaechi has just become the first openly gay male athlete to sign an endorsement deal with a mainstream company.

    HeadBlade Inc., creators of a popular head-shaving razor, announced Monday it had signed Amaechi to a multiyear deal.

    As Bob Dylan famously sang - For the times they are a-changin'