"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.
Then there's the Iraq War, which he vocally criticized as a player back in 2003, when it wasn't easy. It was a road trip with the Utah Jazz that pushed him to speak out.
"We were on a trip to Phoenix, and when we got to the Arena, it was just shocking! At halftime the war started and we all were ushered into locker rooms and we watched the President's announcement, and people were cheering, then through the loudspeakers in the locker room and out on the floor it was 'God Bless America' and 'Born in the USA,' which is actually an antiwar song! But what people were saying at that time, and the look in their eyes, the baying for blood--it was unbelievable!"
I asked if he thought we would ever see an active male player come out. "We're asking the people with the most to lose financially, emotionally, psychologically, to fall on their sword in the hope that that will change the world. Now, my contention on this, having spoken to Judy Shepard [mother of Matthew Shepard, the gay man who was beaten to death in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998], adoring her and really feeling a great deal of grief over her story, is that if the image of a young boy without his shoes being strapped to a fence and left to die doesn't end homophobia, then a gay Shaq won't either. To me, a young boy, semi-naked, no shoes, strapped to a fence in the middle of nowhere--how can you look at that image and then say the F-word? How can you look at that image and then allow people around you to use antigay slurs, when you know it's that kind of atmosphere that leads to that? That's what the Ann Coulters, the Tim Hardaways, need to understand. Their words don't just leave their mouth and drop to the floor like fruit. Their words leave their mouth and bounce around the world like bullets."
Amaechi had sharp words for superstar LeBron James, who said a teammate in the closet couldn't be "trustworthy."
"Get a passport is my first answer to him. Get a passport, see the world, experience something beyond your own little bubble. Next, don't give people classic double binds. You can't trust somebody if they don't come out to you, but at the same time you won't say that if they come out to you that you'll embrace them. You're the most powerful basketball player in the world right now. So first, before you start making these bold assertions about what is going on inside somebody, make a bold assertion about how you'll treat them."
Now Amaechi wants to flex his political muscle. One issue on his agenda is the military's Clinton-era "don't ask, don't tell" policy. "It's absurd in an extreme. It's insulting, it's divisive and it's ridiculous. Why? Because every conflict that the United States is engaged in now, and all the ones it's planning for the next eighteen months--you're going to be standing shoulder to shoulder with militaries that don't follow that policy. The Israeli army doesn't follow that policy. The British army certainly doesn't follow that policy. So, if you can stand shoulder to shoulder with them, then you can stand shoulder to shoulder with them. No, I'm sorry--if I were an American citizen, and certainly an American soldier, I'd be the first person to say, 'I'd rather shower with a gay guy than get my legs blown off.'"
Expect more from Amaechi in the future: "I've always been a political activist. But in terms of LGBT issues and diversity issues in general, yeah, I'm certainly going to step up now. One of the major problems we have is that people need to stand up, be counted and say, 'Unacceptable that in my high school kids get assaulted with the word "gay," meaning stupid or bad or wrong or dumb. Unacceptable that the F-word is being used on a regular basis in workplaces. Unacceptable that coaches talk about "throwing like a girl." Unacceptable that coaches and teachers and bosses allow that kind of rhetoric to go on unchallenged. Unacceptable.'" Here comes the challenge.