Coming out fighting off basketball court

HE HAS spent most of his life in Manchester, but made millions abroad, becoming one of Britain's highest-paid sportsmen over the past decade. By the barometers of his profession, he is eloquent and savvy, which is why his recent arrival back in the United States was marked by wall-to-wall coverage, columnists and talk-radio hosts debating his impact from dusk until dawn.

John Amaechi's present berth on the A-list of celebrities is not derived from remarkable gifts with a ball. To be sure, a Briton making it as a starting centre in the National Basketball Association is notable, but his was a supporting role, not the lead. His career is over, ending last year when he was 35 and having helped England to a Commonwealth Games bronze medal. His statistics are footnotes in record books, yet every show in town wants him as a guest.

Why? Because John Amaechi is gay.

The London-based giant was outed to the public at large with the publication of his autobiography in the past few days. In the maelstrom of the American media, headlines with the flavour of "Top male athlete likes other men!" were greeted with frenzied analysis and feverish discussion - and somewhat predictable hate mail arrived in his in-box.

During a brief respite in New York, Amaechi reflected: "Overall, I'm hugely surprised by the reaction. I didn't expect it to become an international incident, which it seems to have been. The general public - straight, gay or otherwise - have been overwhelmingly positive. That's been very reassuring.

"I can't say there hasn't been any negative reaction at all, because there has. But I've been wildly overwhelmed by the positives. But that's good. It's a conversation which is long overdue."

No NBA player had previously been confirmed as gay. In stepping forth, Amaechi has simply enhanced the legend, of sorts, that he gained during his playing career. He was different: he talked with a funny foreign accent (Mancunian posh), he drank tea (the very thought) and he refused to buy into the mainstream of rich, middle-class Americana (by being anti-guns, pro-choice and a fully paid-up Star Spangled Sceptic).

It was an approach which drew attention, but also an amount of flak from those who prefer their idols simply to smile and to play dumb.

But Amaechi can fight his own battles and formulate retorts without the need for masters of spin. Since quitting the game that he treated as a profession and not as a love affair - another distinction for which he stimulated opprobrium - he has espoused a variety of causes, including sporting facilities, gun control and children's welfare.

Such advocacy is not new. In his book, Man In The Middle, an omnipresent theme is evident of wanting to use his small slice of celebrity to give back. It was inherited from his mother, Wendy, who studied medicine in Aberdeen before moving with Amaechi's father first to Nigeria, then to Boston, before returning to the UK as a single parent of three children.

During his playing days, his newest cause was one whose name he dared not speak. "It was the pervasive environment," he recalled of the locker-room. "The feeling you have always that people wouldn't like you or love you, if they knew you. That somehow you are not part of it. That this part of you wouldn't be judged on your merits."

Amaechi clearly believed, and still believes, that being out and proud would have rendered his basketball career over and out. His life's story is largely one of the triumph of diligence and determination, a transformation from a chubby rugby-playing teenager to a self-confident slam-dunking sensation fulfilled by his drive and a plan drawn up and backed to the hilt by his mother.

The G-word, connected to his name, could have scuppered the project. Hence, he experienced years of celibacy, fear and denial rather than self-fulfilment.

"While people in, quote, civilised society like to imagine it's not been an issue for a long, long time, we all know different. It's not just in sport. It's in school. It's in the work place."

Few of the comments emanating from former NBA cohorts contradict his view. Though his former coach in Orlando, Doc Rivers, observed: "I think if he would have come out, they would have got on him jokingly ... and I actually think when guys do come out, when that day happens, it will make things easier."

Others, notably former Miami Heat guard Tim Hardaway, have merely confirmed the concerns. "You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known," he said. "I don't like gay people, and I don't like to be around gay people.

"I am homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States. I don't think he should be in the locker-room while we're in the locker-room. I wouldn't even be a part of that."

Amaechi asserted: "It's not about my comfort or my courage. This is about workplaces. It's not the employee's job to make the place comfortable. It's not the employee's job to change it. Just like it's not necessarily the job of the individual to change society. Society has a responsibility, just as organisations do, to make a place which is open and embracing and accepting for all people."

What of talk that, if it had been a star who had chosen to out himself, things would have been different? "That's bollocks. That is some of the most naive and ridiculous talk. It's absurd."

Undoubtedly, though, his pronouncements would have counted for more if they had been made them while he was still within the NBA.

Nonetheless, Amaechi believes that he was the victim of homophobic discrimination. In Utah, where he played his final NBA games, he found a gay community which not only embraced him, but threw a protective cordon around him.

On the court, he fell rapidly out of favour after signing a contract worth around 3m a season. He alleges that the Jazz's owner, Larry Miller - whose cinema chain refused to show the cowboy film Brokeback Mountain - edged him to the fringes of his organisation. And he maintains that their coach, Jerry Sloan, used anti-gay slurs against him.

His claims have been denied, but not vigorously so. In the three years since he left Utah, and subsequently the NBA, Amaechi feels that little has changed, despite the outpouring of protest to the contrary.

"I don't think we can pretend it's just in America. You can't tell me that there are no gay players in the Premier League. Or in rugby?

"The difference is that in the UK there is the advantage of legal protection for gay people in the workplace. Whereas in the USA, there are around 30 states where you can be fired for being gay.

"There are certainly advancements, but let's not pretend the issue is over. We sometimes put rose-tinted glasses on when it comes to homophobia.

"We haven't got over racism. We haven't got over sexism. And we haven't got over homophobia."