“I’m going up to my room for some of my own fresh Earl Grey. I can’t stand the hotel’s.” Never before have I interviewed a pro athlete who referred to himself as a “tea snob.” But then again, John Amaechi is hardly the typical ex-jock, and his newfound existence as “the first former professional basketball player to be openly gay” has little to do with it. Amaechi, raised in Britain, sounds more like Laurence Olivier than Lawrence Bird. He writes poetry. He has opinions beyond “playing one game at a time.” He is also a principled man of the left, passionate about challenging the war in Iraq, the NRA, racism and, now that he is out of the closet, homophobia.
Amaechi, traveling the country to promote his autobiography, Man in the Middle, has been inspiring attention and crowds. The former center for the Orlando Magic and the Utah Jazz, he was in Washington, DC, recently meeting with both HRCs: the Human Rights Campaign and Hillary Rodham Clinton. He’s been drawing huge crowds at bookstores.
But there’s one group not rejoicing or even reacting to Amaechi’s news: the National Basketball Association. The NBA has been, as Amaechi said, “resoundingly silent.” Since he came out, no former pro teammate–and only his former Orlando Magic coach, Doc Rivers–has even made contact with the man they called Meech.
Despite the telling silence of his former teammates and employers, Amaechi takes issue with the common idea that professional athletes are more homophobic or ignorant than the rest of society. “I think it’s convenient for people to say, ‘Look at these stupid people here. They play a game and they get paid lots of money, and look at how ignorant they all are.’ But have you walked through a high school corridor lately? Good lord! I mean, if you’re a gay person in high school, you literally feel like a pimple. And there are still plenty of gay people who can’t come out at work, because they can still be fired. In thirty-three states you can be fired for being gay. There are job security issues for gay people in most areas of life. Look at the military. You can die for your country but you can’t talk about your partner. And in the NBA too–I was worried I would lose my job if I came out.”
Amaechi strives not only to condemn homophobia but to understand it. This view has given him perspective on former NBA star Tim Hardaway’s infamous rant, when he said on the radio in reference to Amaechi’s book, “I hate gay people.”
“Hardaway said ignorant things,” says Amaechi, savoring his Earl Grey. “He didn’t just hurt gay people, he hurt black people too [Amaechi himself is black]. Because right now this homophobia issue is like a black issue, like ‘it’s just black people saying stupid stuff.’ And yet, Ann Coulter did the same thing [calling John Edwards a “faggot”]. It actually makes me far more angry to hear someone in her position do that. Make no mistake, Tim Hardaway’s voice is massive and booming. I’ve gotten letters and e-mails from children who have changed the way they behave, quit their schools, or fear for their safety because of how his words have emboldened people in their environment. So the collateral damage in terms of the fallout has been massive. But this woman does it for an audience of people who represent power. Real power.”
This isn’t the first time Amaechi has taken on the right. He campaigned against the NRA while a player in Orlando and Utah. “I got a lot of death threats with that one,” he says.