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Gary Younge
'I'm not just that big gay bloke'

"At 400ft they see a big black man and they cross the road to avoid me," he explains. "At 200ft they cross back because they realise that I'm a professional basketball player and they want a closer look." But recently, he says, they have come a bit closer and then crossed again. "At 50ft they recognise me as the gay bloke who just came out and then they cross back across the road again."

Amaechi, 36, takes it all in his ample stride. As a Brit - he grew up in Stockport - he finds the reactions easier to deal with in the UK than in the US.

"In Britain I think they find it easier to take it all in," he says. "Here in the US they say, 'He's black and English and a basketball player and clever and gay ...' It's all a bit overwhelming. They can only deal with one thing at a time and that one thing now is the gay bit. It's disappointing, because you spend all that time studying, researching, training, and after all that work I'm just that 'big gay bloke'."

It is not difficult to see why such crude definitions would be particularly frustrating for an all-rounder like Amaechi. Having excelled at basketball - scoring the first basket in 2000 made him the only British player in the NBA hall of fame - he is now studying for a PhD in clinical psychology. In the course of an hour's conversation Homer, Einstein, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Oscar Wilde all make an appearance to illustrate various points. While he was playing he spoke out against the war and the National Rifle Association. "Meech," one of his team-mates, Tariq Abdul-Wahid, once told him, "you are the only person I have ever met who is an expert at not fitting in no matter where you are." And that was before he came out.

He has confidence without guile, which along with a plummy brogue that articulates ideas in full paragraphs, could be mistaken for arrogance. When he got five As and three Bs at O-level, he cried. "I have high standards," he says. "I don't understand or respect the average. It bothers me."

This flexible mind was shaped by a unusual upbringing. Born in Boston to a Nigerian father and Mancunian mother, he was brought to Britain aged four when his mother fled his abusive and controlling father. She arrived with $2,000, a few suitcases, John and his two sisters, and started rebuilding her life. John grew both upwards and outwards into a tall, plump, bookish, somewhat nerdy and very bright boy. He had little interest in sport when he was spotted by a scout in Manchester city centre and introduced to basketball. He was 17. He had never picked up a basketball before; his life was about to take a whole new turn. With the help of his mother he devised a plan to guide him to success. He moved to the US, where he could pursue both his education and his basketball simultaneously and, with considerable effort and after a number of knock-backs, reached the premier division of international basketball - the NBA - playing centre and power forward positions.

Amaechi had long known he was gay but now that he was famous he felt he had to decide how was going to play his sexual orientation so that he could continue playing basketball. He decided to tread a thin line between actively lying and simply concealing the truth. He did not hire girlfriends for show nor hide the photographs of his mostly male friends in his home. When in Britain, he would visit gay haunts in Old Compton Street in London and Manchester's gay village.

Many in the US clearly knew or suspected. He recalls one article that, among other things, referred to the "fabulous" decor in his house and ended with the question: "He's such a wonderful guy one wonders why he's still single." "That's like a throwback to the kind of talk they used for 1920s film stars," he says, with some exasperation.

If he was asked outright, he would not deny it. When reporters pried, he would give them a direct answer only if they asked him directly, revelling in their discomfort. For the most part, if the question came up he would deflect it and move on.

"You gay, dude?" a team-mate asked him once. "You have nothing to worry about," was Amaechi's reply.

One former partner tried to blackmail him. Amaechi called his bluff. The partner blinked. Wouldn't it have been easier just to come out? In response, Amaechi describes the psychology of sports stardom. "Say you're a footballer. You've been great with your feet. From six, you've been the golden boy. And there's a real reverence for what you can do. There's hero worship upon meeting you. For some people it's almost like a holy experience. You've made all this effort to get to this stage and then you risk jeopardising the whole thing. It's about the owners, the fans ... and it's about the money a bit, too."

The reaction of some of his former colleagues illustrates his dilemma. Another former star player, Tim Hardaway, said: "I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people." When asked how he would interact with a gay team-mate, he said: "First of all, I wouldn't want him on my team. And second of all, if he was on my team, I would ... really distance myself from him."

Amaechi couldn't win. If coming out would clearly make him the target of intense homophobia, then remaining in left him vulnerable to the charge of deceit. Questioned about Amaechi's news, current NBA star LeBron James said: "You take showers together, you're on the bus, you talk about things. With team-mates, you have to be trustworthy. If you're gay and you're not admitting that you are, you're not trustworthy. It's the locker-room code."

Amaechi finds the locker room a curious place to make a stand for heterosexism. "The locker room is one of the most homoerotic places there is. They stand there, butt cheek to butt cheek, naked and reading the newspaper. Introducing gay people into that environment makes them sensitive to that. Turn the soundtrack of any sport off and just look at the pictures. After a game, the men take their shirts off and hug each other. Since Homer, sport has been homoerotic. Everything is hypermasculine."

He finds being gay in Britain easier than in the US. "In Britain we've basically got to a point where it's a human rights issue ... with objections," he says. But in the US, the intense levels of religiosity make the debate tougher. "It's the inconsistency I can't stand," he says. "If you're going to quote Leviticus, then don't eat shellfish or wear mixed fabrics. Poke your eye out if you look at women other than your wife ... then come to me."

Now a retired 36-year-old millionaire, Amaechi divides his time evenly between the US and the UK, running both a consulting company, Animus, which teaches motivational speaking and executive training, and a charitable foundation in the UK that encourages young children to become involved in sport and their communities. His working life may be transatlantic, but his heart remains British. "I feel fundamentally quite British," he says. "I feel a great responsibility to English youth - that I should be giving back there despite the fact that I had much more success here in the US."

Amaechi still has a great deal to do. The things that have made him famous are not the things he wants to be known for. "I don't want to be this national heritage site for basketball fans and gay people," he says. "I want to be a role model. When I'm done and finished, I want hearts and minds to be changed".

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