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LGBT History: NBA’s first openly gay player recalls his Utah days

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Coming out as the NBA’s first openly gay man solidified hall-of-famer and former Utah Jazz player, John Amaechi’s, spot in history. In his 2007 New York Times best-selling memoir, Man in the Middle, Amaechi made public what was already known by some of his teammates and close friends.

Amaechi joined the ranks of the Jazz greats in 2001 and is perhaps best known for scoring the first points in the new millennium and turning down a $17-million contract with the Lakers. In his 1999-2000 season he averaged 10.5 points with the Orlando Magic and was a standout player for Penn State from 1992 to 1995. He was named First Team Academic All-American during his collegiate career. He was the first, and so far the only, Brit to be in the NBA Hall of Fame and he has been a part of two European championship teams.

Unlike some other players, and the traditional stereotype, Amaechi is an intellectual that focused on his studies and went on to earn his doctorate degree after leaving the world of professional sports. He now runs his own practice as a psychologist in England, where he grew up. His philanthropic enterprises include a non-profit sports center for urban communities. More than 2,000 children a week utilize the program. He is also working with the 2012 Olympic Games in London doing volunteer coordination for diversity and inclusion.

Amaechi said he enjoyed his time in Utah and visits occasionally, but living a semi-closeted life was more difficult than he would have liked.

“I enjoyed getting involved with groups and people who were interested in the same things I was, outside of sports,” Amaechi said. “I relish the memories of sitting around in a coffee shop in the 9th and 9th district, just talking with friends.”

Coming out of the closet while playing would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, he said.

“I wish that I would have been able to come out. I really do, but knowing the owner at the time and the coach at the time, it just wouldn’t have been impossible,” Amaechi said. “Keeping that hidden absolutely affected my play. Anything that can distract from your absolute focus will be detrimental to your play, and keeping all of that hidden was very difficult.”

Amaechi used gender-neutral pronouns when discussing his personal life and avoided as many specifics as possible. But the landscape is changing, and it might be possible to have openly gay players, he said.

“I think the NBA, like some other sports, has improved in their level of acceptance,” Amaechi said. “But there’s still so much more to improve. So much more to do, and other sports, the NFL for example, have even further to go.”

Amaechi didn’t come out as gay to be a role model or to pioneer, he said. But he does relish the opportunity to help others, and being an example is his favorite part of once being a professional athlete.

“I think I had a choice to come out at the age of 16. Of course if I had, I’d be a happy, chubby psychologist living in Manchester,” Amaechi said.

Seth Bracken

Seth Bracken is the editor of QSaltLake

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