Book Tells of Life in the NBA for a Gay Player
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
It's a field where homosexuality is often taboo. I'm talking about professional sports. In pro baseball and football, a few athletes have been brave enough to come out. And now for the first time, a former NBA player has admitted that he's gay.
In the new book, "Man in the Middle", John Amaechi reveals how he became a professional basketball player and how he discovered he was gay. The English native brought his story back to America and spoke with NPR's Tony Cox.
TONY COX: There's been, as you know, this tremendous reaction to the book and to your coming out. Has the reaction been what you wanted it to be?
Mr. JOHN AMAECHI (Former NBA Player; Author, "Man in the Middle"): Interestingly, that's the first time anybody's asked me that question. The reaction has certainly been bigger than I expected it to be. It hasn't been what I wanted it to be. I wanted to start a debate. I wanted people to start talking about issues that we too often sweep under the carpet. And I definitely think that that has happened.
I wanted people to have to take off the rose-tinted glasses that suggest that all the isms of society - sexism and racism and homophobia - I wanted to make it so the people realize that these things are very, very present and very, very damaging.
And I think perhaps my coming out will have a small part in igniting a bit of a debate on that.
COX: Which do you feel has been the most difficult for you, John? Racism or homophobia?
Mr. AMAECHI: I have dealt with both, and it creates a bit of a disconnect when you are both black and gay because you experience racism and you can feel a commonality and a bond within the black community, a support network there. But homophobia comes from the black community and the white community. So you feel this disconnect. They're my brothers, but they don't love me.
COX: You know, many have asked why professional athletes who out themselves always wait until after their playing days are over. And you talk about some of that in the book. Two questions: why do you pick this time, and do you regret not coming out earlier?
Mr. AMAECHI: I chose the vehicle for my coming out, and that vehicle dictated the timing. I chose to write a book because I wanted to put everything in one package, a cohesive package that wasn't and isn't just about being gay, but so much more than that. And that took me three years. So that's why it's now.
Do I regret not coming out when I played? No, not really, because I think it's not just as simple as asking the question, will your teammates care? That's a basic question, and for the most part, you know, the people are going to be like Charles Barkley, or more recently Shaquille O'Neal with their comments and support.
It goes beyond that. It's management. It's owners. It's the league as a whole. It's the fans. It's the communities that they live in. I think if anything, what's happened in the last couple of weeks indicates to people just how difficult it would be. Imagine this kind of firestorm around an active player trying to win games?
COX: Well, to follow that point, you played for Cleveland. You played for Utah and Orlando, and at the end of your career, in and out of Houston and New York. In the book, you talk about the locker room scene, where men - athletes - primp and prod in the mirrors admiring their bodies, jewelry, etc. How did this extreme heterosexual atmosphere - if I can put it that way - affect you personally?
Mr. AMAECHI: I can't say, I don't - it didn't affect me. It just I wasn't comfortable with it. And it's not that I wasn't comfortable with it because I was gay, it's just I'm a bit more reserved than that. I'm the person that would have the towel around the shoulders and around the waist and the person that gets in and out of the shower really quickly because I don't want to have to talk to the media naked after games, whereas other players just have - are a bit more free than that.
And it's not my nature. It's probably a bit of British reserve, if anything. I found it ironic because of my sexuality. I though, you know, this is like a room full of peacocks preening themselves and sizing up the competition. And yet I'm supposed to be the gay one.
COX: Let me ask you this: are you able to say - and I'm not looking for names now, I want to be clear about this - but from your observation in the locker rooms of the teams that you played, did you see other people that you could identify with from the standpoint that they were likely going through what you were going through, even though you could not communicate with one another at the time?
Mr. AMAECHI: I believe in gaydar, but I don't think in terms of the locker room that was a place where I saw other gay people, and that's where I identified them. But I do know other gay people in the league, and not just players. But it's important to know as well, I mean, just because they're gay doesn't mean you're going to be their friend.
Mr. AMAECHI: So for me, you know, I have one or two people who I have a fondness for who are friends who I know are gay. But it's not because they're gay that I'm their friend.
COX: We talked earlier about the presence of homophobia in society and in the league itself. Last week, NBA All-Star Tim Hardaway even said I hate gay people. Your reaction to that statement was, at least he was honest. What did you mean by that?
Mr. AMAECHI: I have to be clear. I think that his words were a visceral reaction of his. They are deep seeded. And in that sense, there is a truth to him. I think you have to take a thread of good from this amount of hatred. And the thread I'm taking from it is that finally, I can stop talking to people in the media and in communities who insist to me that there is no homophobia.
COX: Ah, I see your point. Have you heard from the commissioner, David Stern, personally?
Mr. AMAECHI: I have.
COX: What did he say?
Mr. AMAECHI: I speak to him on a reasonably regular basis anyway, because we're trying to pull English basketball up by the bootstraps. But he has made it very clear what his philosophical stance is on this. He wants basketball to be a meritocracy. And I think - and I know that he's planning on putting in place, through the NBA's regular programs, something that will make the atmosphere better.
COX: Contrary to that, have you heard from Jerry Sloane, who you wrote about not extensively, but rather personally in the book as someone who you felt was opposed to you because of your sexuality?
Mr. AMAECHI: No, I have not. I will forever feel that my sexuality was a part of the reason for my lack of productivity in Utah. It isn't the only reason. They are an odd office. That's the team where their staff called me anti-American because of my views about the war. And that's the staff that told me that I hated white people, even though my mother's white. So there was a lot else going on there as well, as they sexuality issue.
COX: Has the reaction to you has been different in England than in the United States since this has come out?
Mr. AMAECHI: Yeah, it's been different. I had a reporter from England tell me, quite frankly, anybody who didn't know that John Amaechi was gay in England was just not paying attention. I mean, there's been a bit of fuss, but I think it's mostly that the fuss and interest from America has kind of washed over. As in many cases, when America sneezes, England catches a cold.
COX: I have heard that before. Here's my final question: I got the sense from reading "Man in the Middle" that you do not care now who knows or what they think about you. Is that true?
Mr. AMAECHI: There are certain people I care very much about what they think of me. But those who would adore me - and, you know, wrongly, probably - regard me as some kind of hero prior to knowing that I'm gay who don't now like me, who would actively disparage me because they know that I'm gay. They aren't people whose opinions weigh with me.
COX: John Amaechi, thank you very much.
Mr. AMAECHI: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: That was former NBA player John Amaechi, author of "The Man in the Middle", speaking with NPR's Tony Cox.