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Amaechi, John (b. 1970)  
 
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During his time at Penn State, Amaechi also had to grapple with his sexual identity. He had recognized that he was gay, and he had a few casual sexual encounters but did not form any romantic attachments or explore the scene at State College's one gay bar. "I never hated myself; my desire for other men felt as natural as my right-handedness," he writes in his recent memoir, "It was simply incompatible with how I'd defined myself at the time, with whom I'd become on campus." He was also acutely aware that acknowledging his homosexuality would almost certainly put an end to his dream of playing in the NBA.

Although Amaechi had played well in college and had been named an Academic All-American in both his junior and senior years, his performance at pre-draft camps failed to impress the NBA scouts, and he went unchosen in the 1996 draft. In subsequent camps, however, he was more successful, and the Cleveland Cavaliers signed him to a one-year contract.

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At the end of a season in which he had been played sparingly, Amaechi decided to join the European leagues, where he could earn more money and gain experience. He signed with Athens Panathanaikos, but quickly became unhappy with the sports culture that he encountered in Greece. Unruly fans furled dangerous objects--including ignited road flares--at players during games and sometimes vandalized the cars of those with whom they were dissatisfied. Alarmed by the violence, Amaechi quit before the end of the season and returned to Britain.

In 1997 he planned to attempt an NBA comeback, but a broken toe prevented him for participating in the Portland Trailblazers' try-out camp. His agent found him a spot on another European team, the Kinder Basketball Club of Bologna, Italy. The atmosphere in the arenas was much more congenial than it had been in Greece, but Amaechi felt isolated and lonely. "I'd been coming home to an empty apartment for far too long," he recalls.

He turned for emotional support to Sandy Meyer, who had been his academic advisor at Penn State. In the course of a tearful, two-hour, trans-Atlantic conversation, "I finally worked up the courage to use my name and gay in the same sentence."

Shortly after the emotional discussion, Amaechi went home to England. He had been wishing to leave Bologna, where he felt so alone, and the fact that the club was behind in paying him only hastened his decision.

His new team was the Sharks of Sheffield, a city not far from Manchester. Amaechi was delighted to be around his sisters again but nervous about coming out to them. They were, however, completely supportive, as was an old school chum who said that he had known that Amaechi was gay since they were sixteen.

Amaechi began exploring the gay scenes in Manchester and Sheffield. After some tentative forays at dating, he entered into this first real romantic relationship with a male nurse whom he identifies in his memoir simply as Darren. The companionship made him feel that he had "finally found a safe place in the world."

Prior to the 1998-1999 NBA season, Amaechi returned to the U.S. for a try-out with the Toronto Raptors. He performed well, but the season began with a lock-out by the owners, and so Amaechi's agent lined up a lucrative deal for him to play in Limoges.

Amaechi, who is fluent in French, enjoyed his time in France because of the culture and the fact he was only "a Chunnel ride from home" and could still get together occasionally with Darren in London or Paris.

Amaechi was playing so well that he was attracting renewed attention from NBA scouts. His work as a non-roster invitee at the Orlando Magic's 1999 training camp led Coach Doc Rivers to choose him for the team. Amaechi was back in the NBA.

Amaechi and Darren had kept their romance alive across the English Channel but agreed that a trans-Atlantic relationship would be too difficult. They parted as a couple but have remained friends.

Amaechi began as Orlando's back-up center, but by mid-season he had been promoted to the starting line-up, and his fine play contributed to the Magic's surprising success in the 1999-2000 season. Sports pundits had predicted a dismal year for Orlando, but instead they were strong contenders, only eliminated from the play-offs in the last game of the season.

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