John Amaechi became the first player from the NBA to come out and the former player is on a book tour promoting his autobiography 'Man in the Middle.' Outsports interviewed Amaechi two weeks after his coming out was announced. He sat with Cyd Zeigler in New York in mid-February.
OS: Tell me a little bit about the last couple of weeks.
JA: It's been chaotic, hectic. Rushed. I've had so many interviews, I can't even remember what I've done. I've started getting to the point when I talk to people, I can't remember if I've said something to them already, or if it was the person before them. But it has been good. I know there are conversations in the last weeks that we would not have had a week prior. And that's a good thing. But I haven't really gotten to the point where I'm enjoying it much. It's too hectic for me. There are times when it's a little embarrassing because I go places and people know who I am. And there are some very touching things that are happening. I arrived in San Francisco and the room that ESPN had booked me was apparently not a very nice one, so they upgraded me. They put me in the penthouse. They took care of me like I was part of their gay mafia. I went down for breakfast the next morning and the night manager was still on. He came in while I was eating breakfast and said he didn't want to bother me but he wanted to tell me what it meant to him. He started fighting back the tears and then he ran off. It's incredibly emotionally laden stuff.
OS: I was just watching your interview with Bill Maher on HBO, and I wondered what, of all the interviews you've done in the last couple of weeks, was your favorite.
JA: I think my favorites are the ones that get adversarial. I did an interview with [Steve Malberg, the guest host of the John Gibson Radio Show on Fox News Radio]. He was a bigot of the highest order. He just kept cutting me off. I think it went very well because he ended his conversation with his contention that he shouldn't be assaulted with gay stuff when he watches the NBA with his 7-year-old son. His contention was that it is inappropriate for his son to know there are gay people at that age. He asked me if I thought it was appropriate that children knew about this. I said age-appropriate information is appropriate. And he said, "you think young children should be exposed to gays?" It really revealed him as a bigot. At the end he said he'd rather his son see Janet Jackson's nipple at the Super Bowl than know there were gay people in the NBA.
OS: You were gay in the NBA, and you were British in the NBA. But you're also very bright, very astute. Which of those things – being gay, British and intellectually different from the rest of the players – made you feel most different.
JA: I don't think that there's one part. I know that when people looked at me, the thing that made me really different was the way the words came out of my mouth. That's what made me different to reporters and fans, and even in the locker room. However, I think it's the interplay of all of those things that gave me the aura of differentness all together. None of them were as identifiable on their own as they were together.
OS: Which one made you feel the most different?
JA: Both the fact that I looked at basketball in a very different way [and that I was gay]. It was absolutely my ultimate goal to play in the NBA. But at the same time, I always looked at it as what I was doing before I did something more important. So that made me feel very different. And the gay thing was obviously very different. That was a separator. That meant I didn't do stuff with other players. That meant that I would be [hit on] by women when I went out. And so I just avoided those environments and stayed in my house a lot, which did create some separation.
OS: You talk about women. Did you sleep with women or try to be seen with women to put up a good front?
JA: Nope. I didn't have mythical girlfriends. I had friends who were girls. But no, it never even crossed my mind, actually. I always felt to go through all of that subterfuge was beneath me.
OS: You say in the book that you were hoping that a reporter would ask you a question about your sexuality. If you wanted someone to ask, why didn't you just tell them?
JA: I spent a lot of time being indignant in the latter stages of my career in the NBA. [I was] thinking about what I want to do next, the important stuff, while doing this job that's very difficult to do, and having no social life. I just started to get indignant. But I realized, on a team whose owner wouldn't [in 2006] show Brokeback Mountain in his theaters, would it really help my situation to come out? Would it even personally be better for me, in Salt Lake City, to be out? No, I didn't think so. I thought that would be even worse. And as far as daring people to out me, when people talked to me for interviews, the questions they wanted to ask about [my personal life], I would answer in a way that had subtext much more clearly present than ever before. In a way, it's easier to get outed. All of the fallout, all of the crap that you have to handle with dignity, it's not your fault. Whereas this way, I get emails from people telling me that I am a media whore, and telling me that I'm getting J.K. Rowling-like advances from the book, which if I were, I would tell people.
OS: You said you were indignant near the end of your career. Were you a pain in the ass when you were with the Utah Jazz?
JA: In what way?
OS: Did you give them reasons to be pains in the ass to you?
JA: I responded in equal magnitude to what they did to me. When I heard at the early part of my second season there that I hate white people and I'm anti-American, I was done then. I'm not going to engage in this ridiculous kind of war. I'm not going to battle when people have those opinions. I'm a dual-citizen. My mother's white. It's monumentally insulting to suggest these things. But if you have those opinions of me, and then I hear from the ballboys that you call me a fag every five seconds when I'm not around, then I have problems with that. So yes, did I become obstinate and British in the very worst of ways? Yes, yes I did. I would follow every instruction to the letter, and nothing more and nothing less.
OS: In your trips to gay clubs as you started to get more daring while you were in the NBA, did you ever see other players in those clubs?
JA: Yes. Players, officials.
OS: Did you talk to them?
JA: Some of them.
OS: And what were those conversations like?
JA: Very odd. I have become friends with a couple people, and those are people I don't think I would have become friends with otherwise. And it was probably six or eight or 10 months of seeing them around and ignoring them completely, and them ignoring me completely, before they were bold enough to come up to me and say, "hello, perhaps we should have a chat." And now we're kind of fast friends.
OS: About how many people associated with the NBA, either active or retired, do you know are gay or bisexual.
JA: Quite a few. It's less than 20, but more than 10, that I know of.
OS: Are there more that you strongly suspect or have heard?
JA: Maybe it's my own lack of curiosity, but I don't speculate that much. I don't know any of the rosters of any of the teams now. I just don't watch sports. And there are probably people whom I've met or seen, and I just don't know because I don't know who they are. Certainly I've been introduced to a lot of baseball and NFL officials and players whom I never would know, because I don't know who they are. So I'm sure there are more than I know. I just don't pay attention to that.
OS: Of all the reactions to you coming out, which reaction were you most surprised by?
JA: To be honest, I haven't been. I've been surprised by the volume of positive responses, people who take the time to write me an email. But I knew that it would touch a nerve with people to the point where it would be very impactful positively. And I was definitely anticipating the negative.
OS: A lot of gay people like to claim that athletes can't be gay because they like sports, kind of this reverse discrimination. Have you found a lot of that?
JA: I like sports less than most people. I like some of the tangential stories, which is why I read your Web site, because I always find the stories interesting. But it would take a considerable amount of money to get me to watch a game. Unless it's tennis. And Rafael Nadal on clay. The reason people might think I'm not gay is because I'm big and black and, unless I've had for or five gins, reasonably butch.
OS: How do you like your gin?
JA: Hendrick's with slim lime and diet tonic. Not that I like diet tonic, but I just have to cut down on the calories.
OS: Have you found that some guys hit on you because you used to be in the NBA?
JA: No. In the past, I've found people were wildly and universally uninterested in me. I don't really tweak the melons of many men. I have a ladies' face, a face that ladies like. But I'm not complaining.
OS: People keep telling me how horribly homophobic sports are, and I've started to take issue with it because, over and over again, when I talk to athletes who have come out, I hear positive stories. The positive stories outweigh the negative stories 10 or 20 to one. And one of the things I hear you say is how there is all of this homophobia, and that it is a big problem. Am I wrong?
JA: No. What I'm saying is that people want to suggest that it's just sports, and what I'm saying is that's nonsense, and that it actually is everywhere. The fact is, the vast majority of people are not out in any job anywhere. We're talking about everyone up to CEOs on Wall Street. This isn't about sports, sports is just a convenient foil for this particular conversation. There's no doubt there's homophobia in sports, but it's only because there's no doubt there's homophobia.
OS: So, when David Stern says this isn't an NBA issue...
JA: Oh, that's just nonsense. It's an NBA issue. As a participant in society, it's everybody's issue. Organizations have a responsibility to be progressive. Corporations in general are leagues ahead of society in terms of the way they regard equality issues when it comes to the GLBT community. And sports organizations need to be a part of that, even if they have to drag along their constituent pieces. And not by having "gay days," which I'm sure are fun, but by actually making it so that you cannot be fired for being gay within your organization.
OS: One of the things I've been asked a lot is something along the lines of, Will John's mission to help kids be hurt by his coming out?
JA: I've been asked that question a lot. It's so blatantly homophobic to suggest that. What it actually means is, "gays molest children, John's a gay, John molests children." That's what it means. I understand that's not what they're saying, but it is what it means. There's no point in messing around with the subtext. [That thinking says] gays are less trustworthy, less responsible, less good with children, and possibly damaging to children. John is a gay, therefore John will be all those other things. It's syllogism. The question is rooted deeply in homophobia, an unfounded fear that gays will be damaging to children. The problem with the question is there is no logical answer to it, because the fears that surround it are illogical, so I can't defeat them. I can give you a persuasive argument about my track record, I can give you a persuasive argument about my training and my experience working with children. There are a lot of children who will give you recommendations [for me]. But the bottom line is, because the argument is illogical, none of that information is valid for people who hold these beliefs. And that's why I think the question is dangerous and why I always challenge it. If people pull their children out, it won't be based on anything in my track record, it will just be based on an unfounded fear. It will be based on bigotry.
OS: Is there anything you haven't said about Tim Hardaway's comments that you've been thinking?
JA: I feel a little sad for him. I respected him as a player. And I feel a little sad for him that his empire is crumbling, while I understand that he deserves it.
OS: That his legacy is being tarnished?
JA: Yes. I think that's mostly because legacy is very important to me. I recognize that it's not as important to other people, but when it crumbles, all of a sudden it becomes more important.
OS: If you could give a young closeted athlete any advice on coming out, and how to get that across to their teammates if they're thinking about doing that, what would it be?
JA: I think they need to find an ally. Someone with whom they can get a real and tangible connection, someone who can share their burdens, someone with whom they can discuss their strategy. But essentially it has to start with one. Unless you are a very influential senior member of a team, the idea of having a team meeting and just walking in and announcing it would be quite difficult. Sometimes you want to come out and you just don't care how, and it could be more damaging to you if you just let it slip out one day. Make sure that you control your coming out process. It's a personal process for you. You control it. Don't let people tell you how fast to do it or how slow to do it. Find someone with whom you have a real connection and make a concerted plan.
OS: Whom did you seek out for advice when you were planning to do this?
JA: I'm not really an advice-seeker. The bottom line is, I'm a loner. And although I have a number of really close friends who have always been really supportive, especially during this time, I have a plan, "the plan" that's in my head, that directs me how to behave. I knew I needed it to be carefully planned.
OS: So "The Plan" is still in effect.
JA: Yes. I think I’m lucky in that it always will be.
This interview by Cyd Zeigler was originally published on OutSports and provided in partnership with www.outsports.com.