A New Day for the NBA?

Roy L. Pickering, Jr.

Tim Hardaway has made it especially easy to view John Amaechi as heroic, the Rosa Parks of Black British Ballers.

As preface to the release of the autobiography that he is peddling -- entitled Man in the Middle -- former NBA center John Amaechi recently announced that he is gay. As a player, Amaechi did little to gain the attention of any but the most attentive of professional basketball fans. He was by no means a star in the league, but rather what is commonly referred to as a "journeyman". This is not to say that his career was completely uninteresting, for there were certainly some noteworthy accomplishments during his time on the court.

Although it is rare for a male professional athlete to come out of the closet, particularly those who played team sports (this short list consists of the NFL's David Kopay, Roy Simmons, and Esera Tuaolo, along with Glenn Burke and Billy Bean from Major League Baseball), Amaechi had already claimed rarity status prior to telling the world of his homosexuality by being a British player in the NBA. Even though the league has become increasingly international over the past decade plus, England has not been a primary exporter. Not only are players from the UK few and far between, but so are intellectuals who admit they performed not out of passion for the game, but simply because it was a logical business decision for a man measuring six feet, 10 inches and weighing 270 pounds.

John Amaechi

Off the court, Amaechi was known for being cerebral, introspective, multi-faceted, and a pretty good interview. On it, he only managed to score 6.2 points per game over the course of a career that spanned five seasons, with 10.5 ppg -- the most he ever averaged in a season. His focus was probably diluted by intentions to become a child psychologist and his various charitable endeavors. Yet he managed to earn significance from his baskets by being credited with the first hoop ever scored in Miami's American Airlines Arena, and also scoring the first NBA points of the new millennium on 2 January of the year 2000.

Other than this, his most notable play was not cashing in on his best season by accepting a six-year, 17 million-dollar deal to sign with the world champion Los Angeles Lakers. Instead, he returned to play for the Orlando Magic for about a third of that. This was a loyal and perhaps even noble decision, but not an especially bright one from a financial perspective. For his sake, the deal he made for his book is hopefully a shrewder one.

Three years after his playing career came to an end, Amaechi has again made headlines by becoming the sixth professional male athlete from one of the four major US sports (basketball, baseball, football, and hockey) to acknowledge being gay, and the first pro basketball player to do so. There was a time not too long ago when this would have been a considerably bigger issue. But in the post-Brokeback Mountain / Will and Grace era, overt homophobia is no longer politically correct. In this day and age, when an actor on a television show makes derogatory comments about the sexual orientation of a cast mate, it is not the outed actor who finds his job in jeopardy. Instead, the offending speaker is forced to remove his foot from his mouth and opt for rehabilitation.

Saying that, I'm not exactly sure what going into rehab for insulting someone's preference of mate even means. Up until the Grey's Anatomy incident, I was under the belief that rehab was strictly for substance abusers. But apparently there is a correctional facility for just about any socially unacceptable behavior. Perhaps employees of the advertising agency behind the Snickers commercial (in which two mechanics accidentally kiss and are compelled to "do something manly", lest they be perceived as gay), which first aired on Super Bowl Sunday but was quickly denounced as insulting to the gay community, were sent to rehab, as well.

Might this also be the eventual fate of Jerry Sloan, Amaechi's coach when he played for the Utah Jazz, who has been accused of being less than accepting of his former center's lifestyle? After all, when you consider that Amaechi's autobiography has been published by none other than ESPN, it seems clear that the sports establishment is officially choosing the path of enlightenment over stereotypical belittlement and old school disgust. The only thing missing is a catchy slogan. Let me the first to suggest: "You're so gay, and with that I'm okay".

Reaction to Amaechi's admission throughout the NBA has been predictably mixed. For every "to each his own as long as he does his part on the court and doesn't dare hit on me", there has been a "that is not cool because we shower together". Retired player Tim Hardaway added his two extremely insecure cents during an interview with sports radio host Dan Le Batard: "You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known. 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". Since he doesn't feel that sexuality other than his own personal variety should exist anywhere in the world, the presence of a gay man in his own locker room is clearly way too close for Tim's comfort.

The backlash that followed caused Hardaway to issue an apology that one suspects was a tad less than heartfelt, though stating that he was sorry for saying that he hates homosexuals (which is not quite the same as saying he's sorry for hating homosexuals) was not enough to give him a free pass. He had been in Las Vegas to make a series of guest appearances surrounding the league's All-Star weekend, but commissioner David Stern informed him that he could stay parked at the blackjack table, because he was no longer considered a suitable representative of the NBA. Hardaway's remarks proved the point of Amaechi's book (and perhaps inadvertently helped to spur sales of it): life isn't easy for a gay man in the NBA, hence his decision to stay on the down low throughout his career.

Hardaway would have done well to recall one of the landmark events in basketball history, which took place in 1966 when a Texas Western College team featuring an all black starting five defeated the heavily favored Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA final. The Wildcats were coached by Adolph Rupp, who refused to recruit any black players for his program. He felt confident of victory because it was his contention that "black players had talent but were undisciplined, not smart and needed white players on the floor to keep them under control". The Texas Miners were coached by the more enlightened Don Haskins who, ironically, Hardaway would play for years later. And one of the Wildcat players was Pat Riley, who went on to coach Hardaway in the NBA. Having such strong connections to a game that did so much to disprove and dismantle bigotry towards African Americans in sports did nothing to prevent Hardaway's expression of bigotry when the opportunity presented itself.

Tim Hardaway

By volunteering to cast himself as villain, Hardaway has made it especially easy to view Amaechi as heroic, the Rosa Parks of Black British Ballers. Then again, Rosa did not claim the right to sit her tired self in the front of that bus from the safety of the curb after quietly riding in the back. She took her stand, literally her seat, while in the line of fire of those angry glares from white passengers. So let us reserve the highest of praise for the first player to acknowledge he is a gay man while still an active player, preferably one who is of All Star caliber.

A journeyman player can be cut from his team and not picked up by any other without much being made of it. But imagine if Michael Jordan in his prime had said he was gay, what would have been the reaction to that by teammates, opponents, fans, sponsors, endorsers, and the media? Amaechi has ruffled some feathers with his announcement, but has done so from the safety of distance, in the arena of press conferences rather than on the hardwood. Noble intentions count for something, but it would be far tougher to drive to the basket against a player with no intention of letting a gay guy score on him.

Amaechi spoke on the subject of gays in the NBA in an interview back in 2002: "If you look at our league, minorities aren't very well represented. There's hardly any Hispanic players, no Asian Americans, so that there's no openly gay players is no real surprise. It would be like an alien dropping down from space. There'd be fear, then panic. They just wouldn't know how to handle it". This strikes me as an accurate characterization of a hypothetical situation at that point in time. But will it be accurate in 2007? 2012? 2020? The answer to that question, whatever it may be, remains to be seen.

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