Sunday 28, October 2012
In Focus: John Amaechi
The first Brit to play in the NBA and the first high profile sportsman in the US to come out as gay, John Amaechi is somewhat of a trailblazer. Kirsty Allen caught up with him to talk about tea-drinking, Jedi powers and his basketball career.
ON first glance, John Amaechi is an imposing figure. Towering over me at 6ft 10, it’s not difficult to imagine how this man became one of Britain’s most successful basketball players. But Amaechi is not your typical ex-sportsman.
On top of working as a psychologist, opening his own basketball centre and devoting time to charity - he is also studying for a PhD in psychology. Amaechi is polite and articulate, and a truly captivating man to speak with.
Amaechi grew up in Heaton Moor where he lived with his mother and two sisters. He attended Stockport Grammar School, where he was an ‘average’ student, and he didn’t begin playing basketball until he was 16.
“I was walking down Market Street one day,” he remembers.
“Somebody came up to me and asked if I wanted to play basketball and that was it. I don’t really know why I said yes. But there was nowhere to play back in those days. We were breaking into places – there was a court underneath the ring road – and we were begging school janitors to let us use the courts.”
Just one year later, he flew out to America to take a scholarship and played for St John’s High School in Toledo, Ohio. At first, things weren’t looking so good.
“At the end of first year my roommate (Matt Maloney) and I were convinced that we were never going to play, that we weren’t in our coach’s plans,” he recalls.
“He actually told us that we weren’t in his plans. So we both left. I went to Penn state and he went to Penn. We both ended up in the NBA, despite the fact our coach told us we were terrible.”
In 1995 he signed for Cleveland Cavaliers and became the first Brit to play in the NBA, which the American media jumped all over.
“People were just incredulous that there was a Brit in the NBA at all,” he tells me.
“It was a bit of a novelty story. They used to like to talk about me drinking tea, which I did. All the simple things that working and middle class British people do, they loved. Even the music I listened to.”
Shortly after, Amaechi moved to Europe, where he played for teams in France, Greece and Italy. He soon found that things were very different from the NBA.
“I enjoyed the lifestyle,” he says.
“I was close to England so I could come home once in a while, I enjoyed the cafe culture. But the basketball was more disorganised and the fans were more football like. It was feral and rowdy. The NBA crowd is more corporate. It’s not that they don’t get crazy, but it’s people from businesses getting crazy.”
It was upon his return to the NBA in 1999 that Amaechi’s profile rose. He played a strong season for Orlando Magic before famously turning down a $17 million contract offer from the Los Angeles Lakers. When asked why he turned down the deal, his response is admirable.
“The year before no one had been interested in me. I had to beg Orlando to take me, they gave me a shot and it worked out. Then the year after all these other teams approached and said, ‘Oh we were just kidding last year, we really do think you’re good and we’ll pay you lots of money. It’s not that I didn’t want the money, but you can’t be a part time man of principles.”
At this point I begin to realise just how different Amaechi is from your average athlete. Basketball is not his passion – psychology is. “I knew from the age of seven that I would be a psychologist. I watched my mother work as a GP, and I found the way she interacted with people and her bedside manner really interesting.”
He went on to study psychology at university and throughout his NBA career. Juggling sport and studying. “. I didn’t live the life of a typical student, I didn’t go out and get drunk, I didn’t stay up late. My life was very formulaic. It was basketball, study, sleep.”
It was a formula that worked. Since retiring, Amaechi has opened the Amaechi Basketball Centre in Manchester and received an OBE for his work with charity. He now works as an executive psychologist – a career far more meaningful, he reiterates, than that of an athlete.
“I don’t care for sport. I fall in love with things that deliver on promises. That’s why I love psychology. Once you get someone to trust you and talk to you, and you listen and reflect what they say, people get better. That’s pretty cool. It’s the closest thing there is to being a Jedi.”
So what next for him?
“I want my own place!” he smiles.
“I don’t have a house, I live in hotels. It sounds exotic but it’s not. I’d like to have a space that’s mine. I also want to make it into the House of Lords. I’d love that responsibility. Plus I’d like everyone who’s ever hated me to have to call me Lord Amaechi.”
As he walks through the Radisson lobby and exchanges words with the ever familiar hotel staff, I realise that with Amaechi’s determination and composure, the House of Lords is not merely a pipe dream. Make way for Lord Amaechi...
by Kirsty Allen
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