John Amaechi’s life changed forever the first time he stepped on a basketball court.
As one of the few black kids growing up in Stockport, England, he was routinely bullied over his skin tone. By the time he was 10, he’d ballooned to almost six feet tall, and he’d grown accustomed to seeing a fearful expression on the faces of others. But when he walked onto the hardwood at the age of 17, the now six-foot-eight teenager saw something unusual in the eyes of his teammates — acceptance.
“Instead of tackling me to abuse me, to fight me, it was a bunch of kids running toward me and yelling loudly at the top of their voices, ‘He’s on our team,’” Amaechi told me in a phone conversation at the end of March. “It was such a heartwarming experience. I was like, ‘I am never leaving this environment.’”
Amaechi’s mind was made up shortly thereafter: He was going to the NBA. He started watching games on television and drafted “The Plan” with his late mother — a personal guide to making it to the league.
He moved to the U.S. when he was 18 and eventually earned an athletic scholarship to Penn State. After three standout seasons with the Nittany Lions, he got passed over in the 1995 NBA Draft but signed a contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Then, on Nov. 3, 1995, he started his first-ever NBA game, becoming the first undrafted free agent to do so. But the 49-year-old doesn’t think that’s what most NBA fans associate his name with.
“I started playing basketball when I was 17 and made it to the NBA in six years,” says Amaechi. “Is that what I’m known for? Or am I just ‘that gay guy’?”
Amaechi spent parts of five seasons in the NBA between 1995 and 2003, amassing 1,837 points and 772 rebounds. Four years after his final game, he became the first player from the league to reveal he was gay.
Today, he says that question of how NBA players want to be perceived by the world at large is at the heart of why such a small number has come out publicly. But he can also see signs of progress and reason for hope.
Now a psychologist and consultant, Amaechi was closeted during his playing days, and says he consistently heard players using anti-gay slurs. During his two seasons with the Utah Jazz, his role was limited and he remained silent when he heard teammates spouting homophobic language. But during the 1999–2000 campaign with the Orlando Magic, when Amaechi averaged 10.5 points and started in over half of the team’s games, he felt he had the clout to speak up.
“[But] I didn’t have fits in the locker room [where I would] yell and scream,” says Amaechi.
Instead, he used levity to help his teammates understand the irrational nature of their vocabulary.
“I would say, ‘Really? Really? This telephone is gay? How is it homosexual?’” he says, noting he isn’t sure to what extent homophobic language exists in the locker room today. “I’m sure it still happens. But I’m convinced it’s better than it was.”
Amaechi received mixed reaction from his former NBA peers when he came out in 2007. Retired guard Tim Hardaway, for one, went on ESPN radio and said, “I hate gay people” (a statement for which he later apologized and sought to make amends with the LGBTQ community). But many others applauded Amaechi for his courage.
Six years later, Amaechi felt comfortable letting one player know there was a community of people who would accept him if he chose to come out. Then, in April 2013, Jason Collins became the NBA’s first active openly gay player. This time, reaction around the league was almost universally positive.
Yet, more than a decade after Amaechi came out, there isn’t a single openly gay player remaining in the league. He privately speaks with some current NBA players who identify as LGBTQ, and he says their biggest concern isn’t the reaction of their teammates.
“It’s very clear the environment is less worrying from a player-to-player perspective, and more worrying in terms of certain coaches and certain management,” says Amaechi.
According to Amaechi, LGBTQ players worry that publicly revealing their sexual orientation will negatively affect their careers, as certain franchises may be discouraged from pursuing them.
“If one person wants your talent, they can cap what they pay you. If 10 people want your talent, then there’s a bidding war that happens and you can get paid more, potentially,” Amaechi says. “It impacts your bottom line.”
Amaechi also feels that a player who’s worked his entire life to reach the upper echelon of men’s professional basketball wants to be recognized for his ability on the court as opposed to his sexual orientation.
That said, Amaechi thinks there’s a likelihood that by keeping their sexuality hidden, LGBTQ players may not be living up to their full potential on the court.
“I think there’s a lot of great evidence out there that when you try to protect some part of you psychologically, whether it be your sexuality or something else, you’ve now spent a portion of your energy on that protection,” says Amaechi.
According to Amaechi, the extra effort might not be significant in a lot of jobs. But in elite roles, such as playing in the NBA, it can be the difference between adequate and exemplary performance.
“I know I would’ve been better had I not had to use that energy to protect my identity,” he says.
Amaechi knows that the decision to come out is a deeply personal one, and he was adamant that no NBA player should feel obligated to reveal his sexual orientation in the name of social progress. If a player — or anyone for that matter — comes out, Amaechi hopes they’re doing it for themselves.
“I want people to come out because being out is better than being in.”