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John Amaechi: The RealJock Interview

Earlier this year, the sports world did a collective "whoa" when former NBA veteran John Amaechi came out with his new memoir Man in the Middle—and came out of the closet as a gay man. Throughout this historic event, which included shows of support but also vitriolic speeches from other players such as Tim Hardaway, Amaechi has maintained a calm and collected demeanor with a humility rarely seen in big stars, proving once again what a classy guy he is. As Amaechi gets ready to grand marshall his first pride parades in the U.S., had the opportunity to sit down with him and learn more about the man behind the media storm. And while he would never say it, we will: What a hero. You have become known as a gay hero, but you have played down that role in interviews. At the same time, you write in your book that you think athletes have a responsibility to be leaders. How do you feel about being recognized as a beacon of hope and change for gay athletes, and a leader for gay people in general?

John Amaechi: Wow. I think it's daunting when you put it like that. But in general, I stand by the fact that it is an honor and a privilege to be put in a position where you can take on a leadership role. It is also a responsibility in that you have to become more educated and maintain your authenticity at the same time. With so many things pulling you in different directions, this can be difficult.

In Man in the Middle, you talk about taking baby steps toward living more openly as a gay man, but also about being a very private person. And now, suddenly, you are going to be the Grand Marshall for three pride parades (Chicago, Los Angeles, and Utah). How do you feel about being in the "gay" spotlight?

It's a different type [of intensity], but the intensity of the [gay media] spotlight is less than when you're a player in the NBA. Forget superstar; [even] if you're just an average player in the NBA, then the kind of attention that you get on a daily basis is really high.

If all I'm expected to do is show up and be myself, I think that's a pretty easy role in some respects. It's a bit of back and forth in my mind. Because frankly, I don't think I'm that much fun as an individual. You know, bubbly, crazy... I'm honored by it, but I just don't think I'm as fun as some of the people they may have had in the past.

Do you think that may be a good thing, that we can show that gay people don't always have to be bubbly and fun?

I think showing the diversity of any group and all groups is a good thing. I just don't want to disappoint I suppose.

You write a lot about the importance of teamwork, and you developed close working relationships with some of your teammates. How have the people you worked with closely responded to your coming out?

They haven't mostly. Although I've been contacted by every single person I played college basketball with, at least at Penn State, as well as by my good friend and roommate at Vanderbuilt, I have not heard from anybody who is currently in the NBA.

Do you think that's part of a "no gays" policy, in which once you're out, you're out?

I think that it's difficult for people. I find it very, very disappointing and a little disheartening, [but] I completely understand it. I think it's difficulty for some men, some straight men, to realize that... part of friendship is going through discomfort in the face of the wider society.

But I'm a bit of a hot potato now, and there are straight people who are afraid to be seen with or deal with me, or sharing a cup of tea with me at Starbucks, or coming in and out of my house. And that's disappointing.

Do you think that will change over time? Do you hope that it will change over time?

The mentality that must change isn't going to change over time. There's very little that changes positively over time. There's cheese, and good New York strip steak, but that's about it [laughs]. Nothing else changes over time; we just get older.

If we really want to change, that's an active process, you have to engage with it, you have to take the things that make you feel uncomfortable head-on, or have those things faced on your behalf. And I don't see any evidence of that actually happening at this point within the NBA, or within professional sports, or within society in general.

It seems that professional sports is such a corporate-run environment these days. I wonder if that plays into it as well; the sponsorship side of things, people don't want to be associated with someone who is gay.

But see, that's the ironic thing, because if that were truly the case then the NBA would be more accepting, not less. If you look at the Fortune 500 companies, the top companies in America, they are much, much more advanced in terms of their equality policies than society as a whole.

You worked for such a long time in this hyper-masculine, heterosexual NBA environment. Where do you feel that this comes from with the men in the U.S., and around the world in general, particularly in the sports world?

Some of it smacks to me of insecurities because of some of the myths and pure falsehoods that exist around gay issues and gay people. And some of it is just childishness, really puerile people who don't open their eyes to the fact that there is a massive diversity in this country that exists across a huge spread, and no matter if the population is plentiful or rare, they are worth recognizing.

If a gay professional athlete at the peak of his career were to ask you if he should come out tomorrow, what would you say? Would it destroy his career?

I'm not sure if it would destroy it. But given the evidence that we have so far, notwithstanding someone of the caliber of [Dallas Mavericks owner] Mark Cuban perhaps, does anybody really think that unless this individual was truly, truly without peer, that the choice between him with his skills and abilities versus somebody else with the same skills and abilities who was not gay—does anybody think that the gay guy would get preferential treatment?

While I would love to see [an out gay professional athlete] as a role model, I fear for the compassion of a country where a gay basketball player [would cause people to] sit up and pay attention, but witnessing the death of Matthew Shepherd wouldn't, or witnessing the shooting of five men in Chicago wouldn't. I don't think that it's a very good sign for anybody if it takes a gay athlete to change people's minds, [while] the death of children doesn't do it for you.

You mention in your book that if college basketball teams didn't have lesbians on the team as former Penn State coach Rene Portland wanted, then there wouldn't be any college women's basketball teams. Do you think there is more acceptance among the women players than among the men?

No. I think it's a really horrible combination of homophobia and misogyny that makes people think that it would be easier for women. What happens is that it's more expected, so from the outside it's less shocking. However, that doesn't speak to what it's like in the individual environment for that woman, on her team, within her university, within society. It doesn't speak to that.

I think it's equally difficult for a man and a woman. I simply think that because of blatant sexism in many cases, straight men find it more acceptable that lesbians exist.

In Man in the Middle, you describe some amazing gay friends who helped you have your first gay social life, in Salt Lake City in particular. Those of us who are out remember those first gay people who were mentors for us. Do you still keep in touch with your Salt Lake friends?

Oh yes. A few of them are still my very, very good friends, and they come and see me on a regular basis. Many of them have been to England to visit me, or for sure to Phoenix where I have a home to visit me there.

What really amazed me when I read about these gay friends in Salt Lake City is that they "kept your secret," so to speak, while you were playing for the Utah Jazz and beyond. In this world of tabloid journalism, I was impressed with that level of commitment to you. I think it speaks to the quality of the friends that you found.

I did find good people, and they were very, very protective. I would love to think it's all my personal qualities that make people so loyal to me, but it's probably more to do with the great aspects of their personality. I have to point out as well that there were numerous reporters that were in that group... who knew about me... and they also chose to do the same thing and not mention it.

Do you think there's a state of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in professional sports? Do you think there are other gay pro athletes out there, but nobody talks about it?

Plainly there was a big fuss back in January of this year talking about somebody else in the NBA [being gay]. And the rumors fly, and the rumors fly, but I think in general it remains at that rumor level unless that individual does something egregious. I think people aren't stupid. Although they may want the scoop, they may want to be the face of the person who busts the story wide open, either as a civilian or as a journalist, they also know the damage that they would be doing to that person.

In your book you talk about "The Plan", which you created and which guided you from being an overweight 17-year-old who had never played basketball to an NBA player in a very short time. How did you go about setting up The Plan, and what were some of the principles behind it?

It's been an evolving document for many, many years now. It started off simply as a way of proving to my mother that I was serious about what I was trying to achieve. It was how I was going to show real purpose in trying to achieve something that most people think is at the very best improbable.

But then it was refined. It started off with some of the good goals that my mother thought were important. Having aspirations and having dreams, but also having a full understanding of yourself, not setting off before you know who are and where you are. A pragmatic self-assessment was always something that my mother was interested in.

In your book you repeatedly talk about the importance of hard work and dedication. Is that part of The Plan, or is that something separate?

It's part of it. It's integral to it. Part of the pragmatic self-assessment is knowing whether you're willing to put the work in. It's all very well to give yourself lofty goals, but if you're the kind of person who just isn't going to do the work, then there's no point in setting out because it will just lead you to personal torment. So it's integral to it that you're willing to do the work, but doing the work alone is never enough.

You still follow The Plan. Where are you with The Plan now that you're out of the NBA?

It's been reformed. The way I describe it is that every good plan releases you at the end of one cycle, and gives you enough distance from your last plan to start again on fresh ground. And that's where I am right now. I'm starting again on fresh ground, for the last few years certainly.

That leads to what you're doing now. You love children, and you've been a guardian and a Big Brother to many kids. How are you continuing that work in your post-coming-out world?

Nothing's changed. I do the same things. I mentor kids who I come across, and as a psychologist I work with others in a mentoring role and a teaching role.

I haven't put myself in a position of adopting or being a guardian of new children, for no other reason than, for example, in the last four days I've been in nine states. I simply don't have the time to take on that responsibility at this moment.

Why do you feel you have this desire to help others who are less fortunate? Does it come from your own struggles?

There are two levels to this. Sometimes an honor is just an honor. Sometimes people just do things because they just feel right. I don't believe in altruism. Everything I do brings me multiple rewards—feeling good. When I hear about some young person who was in their own mind heading down one path and then 10 years later they're married with kids and a stable job, that has its own reward for me that I feel as tangibly as if someone had deposited a million pounds in my bank account. And that's one level of it.

And on another level, when I was in primary school we would learn about heraldry and knights and chivalry and things like this, and I distinctly remember hearing the phrase, "A noble knight is touched by his deeds." This would be about when I was nine or 10 years old. And that just stuck in my head: "A noble knight is touched by his deeds." Very simple.

Can you talk about your foundation, the ABC Foundation, and what it does?

The ABC Foundation tries to build holistic community centers for young people, where yes they do play sports—basketball, football, volleyball, netball, whatever—but on the site they also have access to counseling services, a library, and a computer where they can do their homework. I've got a lot of partnerships with other charities, and they add value by coming in and doing, [for example], a session for parents on how to better access resources for themselves or for their children in their local area.

I am involved in the training of all of our staff, so instead of them being just coaches they are proper mentors, people who know what signs to look for... They're obviously not psychologists, but they know what to look for, early signs or warnings of difficulties any child might be going through, so that we can offer a level of service that is beyond what they might get at a regular sports club.

And most importantly, it's affordable. It's not just for poor people, but I want to make a place where the block to your participation is not your income.

People often ask me, "Why didn't you come out earlier?" Part of the fact was that I wanted to make sure my club and my charity in England would stand alone on its own two feet with an irrefutable track record. And I think one of the problems that people have when they criticize me is that, for all of my various negative traits—and I have plenty—my track record stands up on its own. And though I am at many different times many different things, I have a track record that suggests that on the average I try to do the right things and behave in a normal fashion.

In your book you write a lot about your struggles with junk food, weight gain, and so on. What helped you overcome those struggles? Was losing your job a primary motivator?

Nope. I was a professional, so during the season my weight was not an issue. I know I never looked like a cut and honed athlete, and many people thought that meant that I was fat. But the fact was that when I was in the NBA I had seven percent body fat, which only seems a lot when you put me next to someone who has three percent body fat.

So while I was playing it wasn't an issue. The temptation to eat was always there, the temptation to eat too much. Comfort eating is something that I still to this day struggle with.

The fact is that when I started to lose weight the first summer that I actually drastically lost a ton of weight was when I realized I wanted to be attractive. It had nothing to do with performance, it had to do with the fact that I was starting to make some friends... and I realized that I wanted to be a bit more attractive. [I felt] that it would help me and my self-esteem and my confidence.

As someone who has struggled with your weight at times in your life but also been on the other side of the fence as a professional athlete with seven percent body fat, do you find the body consciousness of gay male culture disheartening or disappointing?

I think it's disappointing when it's to the exclusion of any other characteristic. I think anytime you're talking about people spending seven days a week at the gym for no other reason than they fear that they will not be loved if they don't, that is incredibly sad. When you hear about people who get involved in drugs in order to make themselves thin, that is incredibly sad.

On the other hand, I enjoy people who are tough and fit, despite the fact that I am not as fit as I would like to be. I'm on a diet through pride because I don't want to be sitting on a float feeling like a fat pig.

For those of our readers who want to become professional athletes, what do you think is most important? Talent? Hard work? Or do you just need everything, plus luck?

You don't just need everything, but there is a threshold point that makes you good enough versus not being good enough. The thing that people don't realize is that there are only so many components of being a professional athlete that you can control.

The problem I see with most young athletes is that they do not maximize the areas that they have the most control over. So, if you are somebody who is not innately skilled and talented, then you need to make sure that your conditioning is second to none, that no one is in better shape than you. I got in the NBA because when I showed up at trials, despite the fact that I couldn't jump over a telephone book, no one was in better shape than me.

In terms of the skills, the things that you can learn, most people access the stuff that is fun and exciting and ignore the stuff that is monotonous, which is why basketball players generally are more comfortable shooting from the field than they are from the free-throw line. One is interesting and one is not that interesting to practice. So [you need to] work on all of the skills, not just the ones that are flashy and interesting, but also the mundane but essential basics. And if you do this, then it reduces the impact of talent.

Every single day there were people who came up to me and said "I should have" "would have" "could have" been in the NBA. And I said, yes, you are more talented than I am, but I'm far better. I work.