When we really boil down professional sportsmen to their bare essentials, there are two ends of the spectrum to which they will invariably fit. At one end there are those who have all the talent, all the support and all the funding to get where they need to be. At risk of incurring the further wrath of the Real Madrid President, the Cristiano Ronaldos of this world. At the other end there are those who start off from unpromising beginnings, have only so much outstanding talent but through sheer hard work and tenacity manage to make it to the top. John Amaechi certainly fits into the latter of those two categories.
Born in Boston in 1970, Amaechi and his mother fled to Manchester when he was just four years old in order to escape from his emotionally abusive father. Arriving at his grandparent’s house in Stockport with just $2,000, his father’s presence haunted the family for much of Amaechi’s upbringing. John admits that he remembers little about a man who he describes as having no more than a biological attachment to, but tells tales of threats of kidnap and his father’s infrequent appearances in the UK as he sought to wrest his children back to his native Nigeria.
Compounded by chronically low self-esteem, Amaechi was a lonely child who was bullied at school and hated sport. For the vast majority of his formative years a career in the NBA seemed about as likely as Richard Dawkins taking up the holy orders.
“My journey to get to the NBA was incredibly implausible. I was a fat kid who ate steak slices until the age of seventeen and then I changed my mind and decided to play in the NBA and there I was, playing in the NBA.”
Amaechi’s story sounds all the more unlikely when you discover that his introduction to basketball could not have been more coincidental. The much travelled NBA star was always a big kid – he now stands at 6’10” – and this was all it took to persuade two basketball coaches to approach him on a street in Manchester and ask him if he fancied taking up the sport. Dwelling on his lack of sporting prowess and aversion to physical activity, Amaechi was sceptical at first, but no more than a year later he had moved to Chicago to pursue a career in one of sport’s most star-studded leagues.
Many a seventeen year old would have baulked at the suddenness of totally rehashing a life plan which involved such complete upheaval and a step into the unknown, but perhaps it was the dizzying spontaneity of it all that compelled Amaechi to take the jump.
“For me there was nothing about it that I didn’t want, it just seemed that the journey was not a straightforward one. As an adult we can understand that difficult goals will have correspondingly difficult journeys, but at that time the fact that my plan got thwarted at some many different points made me question whether that journey was possible at all but it didn’t quell my desire to get there.”
Amaechi’s path to success was littered with setbacks. He went undrafted until the Cleveland Cavaliers offer him a contract in 1995 and spent three years in the European wilderness before taking one last shot at the big time in 1999.
At the age of 29 he was running out of time, but he had received some positive reports from his time in Europe and that proved enough to convince the Orlando Magic to grant him another chance. A year later, the unknown Amaechi was at the heart of a story that reverberated around the NBA.
‘Meech’, as he became affectionately known, had impressed to such an extent that the legendary LA Lakers offered him a 17 million dollar contract. Amaechi’s sense of loyalty, however, would not allow him to leave the side that had taken such a risk in signing him, although the financial sacrifice he was making may have been softened by the Magic’s promise to make up the difference the following season.
If anyone ever needed proof of the fickleness of sport then they need only know of what happened next. As Amaechi’s form fell by the wayside, he was gradually edged out of the Orlando set-up, contrary to all pledges and promises.
In his memoirs Man in the Middle, released in 2007, Amaechi described the snub as a ‘colossal mistake’. With time for reflection on his side and a new career as a performance psychologist in full flow, is it a flashpoint that still plagues the Amaechi conscience?
“I think it’s important for people to know that I have regrets for not having the products of that decision because going to LA would have given me everything I had ever wanted. Nobody in Britain would have been able to question that I was the best there ever was. I would have had four Championships rings; it just would have just been a self-evident truth that I was the best.
“But the reality is, is that what I have by not going is greater. It’s not materially greater but in the course of my everyday work now as a psychologist the authenticity of my word is the most powerful tool in my arsenal and that was cemented in that decision.”
There was also something else a little closer to home that Amaechi had gained by staying on with the Magic. Whilst he was still a student at Penn State, John started what is now a burgeoning CV of community work by signing onto a Big Brothers/Big Sisters scheme in which young adults were assigned misfiring teenagers to help them get back on track. Amaechi took to the programme to such an extent that the local police began seeking his help in watching over the neighbourhood youth.
In Orlando, Amaechi had taken up the guardianship of two teenagers, Jeff and Martin Jones. They grew so close that, after discussions with their biological parents, Amaechi took the Jones brothers under his full-time care. Staying with the Magic allowed Amaechi to honour this commitment.
Given the positive role that sport played in transforming his own life, you would be forgiven for thinking that it would be an activity that he would strongly encourage in his everyday charity work with disadvantaged kids. But Amaechi is surprisingly sceptical about the impact of sport on young people’s lives.
“The largest percentage of money going into sport is actually for this kind of issue, not sport for sport’s sake but it’s what they call ‘sport for development’. But it is misnamed because the truth is there is no evidence for sport doing good in society. The evidence, to use a good social scientist term, is equivocal at best. If you look at people like Professor Fred Coalter, who has written extensively on the power and use of sport in society, the evidence is just not great.
“What we do know is that it is not the individual sport that matters but it is the way that the sport is coached. The reason that sport gave me some benefit in terms of my personal development is that the people who coached the sport that I took part in, took that aspect very seriously. The sad part is that most people who get involved in sport have coaches who are either ill-equipped to teach what they do so that they are technically unskilled, or the larger problem is that they teach sport in a way that is antithetical to results you want. You are not going to produce emotionally literate, intellectually curious young people by communicating through screaming and shouting at the kids who are involved.”
Amaechi articulates strong views on ‘screamer’ coaches throughout his memoirs, expressing his distaste for management styles that revolve around verbal abuse and psychological torture that he has associated with the prevalence of depression in sport. It is a philosophy that Amaechi looks to put into practice at his Basketball Centre in Manchester.
“For our staff it is vital. I insist that at my centre we coach in a way that is likely to produce intrinsically motivated, emotionally literate, communicative young people. I am attempting to do some work with the government on improving the standards of coaching. We need to ensure that we have a better standard of coach in touch with what are now increasingly vulnerable young people.”
Perhaps the new FA Commission could learn a thing or two from Amaechi’s ideas on coaching.
John remains in touch with a large proportion of his kids; in fact moments before our interview he had just finished making a video for one his adopted sons who is now a school teacher back in the States. But, despite his parental instincts, his arrangement with Jeff and Martin remained an informal one out of necessity. Florida was one of several states that had banned gay people from serving as foster or adoptive parents, based on the belief that they would not make good role models. Amaechi’s charitable and caring character makes a mockery of such arguments, but it is just one example of the prejudice that he had to deal with throughout his career.
Amaechi was side-lined at the Utah Jazz by coach Jerry Sloan because he disapproved of John’s lifestyle. Even his golden year with the Magic was tainted by the homophobic views held by his cherished team-mates. One incident in particular stands out in his memoirs, where Amaechi talks of a flight back to Orlando during which one of his closest friends launched into an assault on homosexuality, spouting words along the lines of ‘they get what they deserve’. That Orlando squad was famed for its sense of team spirit and togetherness, but for Amaechi hearing such sentiments from those whom he respected most was hard to stomach.
“It’s hard to fully trust the people around you and sport is one of those places where teamwork is not optional. You can’t win against high quality teams if you are not cohesive and it is almost impossible to be cohesive if you know that, secretly, the people around you harbour animosity towards you.”
Amaechi is open and honest in his book about the depths of depression that hiding his sexuality had caused. Time and time again he speaks of his desire to let loose and enjoy the eclectic collection of gay districts that he came across in his travels. However his fear of being outed and the damage he believed that would cause to the locker room stopped him from doing so.
Amaechi argues that the presence of an openly gay player would expose the homoerotic elements of the male bonding that is so commonplace in sporting environments and that, influenced by uninformed views of gay men, heterosexual players would be concerned that homosexuals would sexualize this behaviour. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, did his desire to lead a normal life ever take him to the precipice of quitting?
“I would suggest to you that a person does not leave their home, travel 6,000 miles on their own as a seventeen year old and then just give up.”
Sounding almost offended by the suggestion, the conversation moves to the problem of tackling homophobia within the game itself. In the past, Amaechi has been vocal in his criticism of various governing bodies, branding the FA as ‘dinosaurs’ for their lack of proactivity. So what does he believe needs to be done differently by the authorities in order to rid sport of its widespread homophobic attitudes? Amaechi’s response takes me be surprise:
“I’m not really interested in whether they tackle homophobia; I’m interested in whether they are interested in winning.” After a dramatic pause, he continues:
“I’m a performance psychologist who works in business and the businesses I work with are not interested in being nice to people. They are interested in what gives tangible performance returns. So I simply question any organization that creates a toxic environment where certain percentages of their employees will be unable to function at their best. I question their interest in being the best.”
So, granted that, whether a humanitarian or performance issue, homophobia remains a problem that is not being dealt with properly, where exactly are they going wrong?
“Well the logic of all this is completely understood to the FA. They understand that if they allow monkey chants then their black players will not play as well. But their ability to understand this extends only so far as skin colour, which seems a bit obtuse to me.”
But the picture is not just one of dinosaurs and pre-historic attitudes. Amaechi admits he is encouraged by the progress made by society, even since he retired just under ten years ago.
“Legally the framework in America has changed radically with the new President. In Illinois for example, just yesterday they passed marriage equality, so that is another state that you can add to the list of states that have become more progressive. People in general have become more progressive. But there is still, in America in particular a very strong Republican, socially conservative focus and there are still plenty of people in influential positions who are not interested in equality in the way that you might expect.”
Judging the progress made and the distance yet to travel, one could argue that Amaechi’s words about difficult goals having correspondingly difficult journeys may be just as apt in this case as they were in relation to his own life.
As we conclude our interview, we return to the very beginning. Before he moved to the States, Amaechi sat down with his mother to devise ‘The Plan’, a comprehensive document setting out how he was to achieve his goals. ‘The Plan’ included areas of his game which needed to improve, which colleges to choose as well as other practicalities of his ambitious journey.
But John being John, he decided to imbue ‘The Plan’ with his own set of values to ensure that he stayed true to himself. His final document consisted of eleven rungs, the last of which was ‘the role of legacy.’ Fearing a rather coded response, I ask what he would like his legacy to be. He points me to a quote I had used at the very start of our interview when I had asked him to explain something he had said in a television interview some years ago: “The most improbable of people, in the most unlikely of circumstances, can become extraordinary.”
“I try to live by it. I want to point out that the extraordinary is not necessarily about the height of the mountain that you end up climbing; sometimes it’s about the distance you travel from the foot of the mountain. I freely admit that I was a very average NBA basketball player but for different people ‘extraordinary’ can be very different things depending on where you’ve come from. It made me understand that for very different people there were equally implausible but equally laudable journeys out there.
“When I look at the world around me I try to recognise that there are some people who are considered lowly or worthless who can become extraordinary and I think that way of looking at the world is an empowering one.”