John Amaechi became the first undrafted free agent to start the opening game of an NBA season and the first player in the NBA to out himself as a gay man. The retired Cleveland Cavaliers NBA decorated player admitted that he was gay via his controversially revealing memoir Man in the Middle (ESPN Books, 2007). No other NBA player regardless of color had accomplished this feat prior to Amaechi.
Originally met with disbelief and unfortunate wrath by his former teammates and acquaintances, Amaechi’s very public coming out was later recognized within both the LGBT and black communities as a very important step towards equality in America and around the world.
Amaechi was born to a Nigerian father and English mother on November 26, 1970 in Boston, Massachusetts. The family moved to Stockport, England when Amaechi was three years old. He remained in England until U.S. basketball beckoned and he returned to the states to settle in Toledo, Ohio. He would go on to attend St. John’s Jesuit High School before signing up at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee to try his luck there. Amaechi ultimately made the decision one year later to transfer to Penn State and became a two-time First Team Academic All-American selection. Pennsylvania agreed with the 6-foot-10-in. 270 lb. basketball player.
The Big Ten Conference website in 2009 asked Amaechi how he got his start in American basketball. He replied:
“I was walking down Market Street in Manchester [England] one day and some men asked me if I would be interested in playing basketball. At the time, I was a 6-foot-9, fat black kid and was one of only two brown kids (the other was from India) in my school. I was a real geek and really felt alone at the time, but through basketball I suddenly became a commodity. I remember writing in my high school yearbook that I wanted to play for the NBA championship and earn a lot of money. It was pretty vacuous thinking for a teenager.’’
Amaechi had bigger goals in life than just playing basketball. He wanted to become a psychologist, motivational speaker, political activist, and broadcaster. Penn State backed him up on his ambitious journey into changing the world.
“At Penn State, they knew how to map out a plan for me to become a psychologist because even though the NBA would be a wonderful world, it would not define my career,’’ Amaechi said in the same 2009 interview with The Big Ten Conference website. “That plan involved a lighter load during the busiest time of my sport so I wouldn’t have to get up for a bunch of 8 a.m. classes and be too tired to perform both on the court and in the classroom.’’
With his NBA career now behind him, Amaechi owns and runs Animus Consulting, which provides motivational speakers, and is back in school to get his Ph. D. in psychology.
* Photo ©2006 Robert Severi. Photo used with permission.