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Amaechi, John (b. 1970)  
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Closeted throughout his professional basketball career, John Amaechi is the first player from the National Basketball Association to acknowledge that he is gay. Since coming out, he has become an eloquent spokesman for glbtq rights.

Amaechi's parents, Wendy Hall and Jon Amaechi, met in Scotland while Hall was a medical student at the University of Aberdeen. After earning her degree, Hall took a job at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston but left it to follow Amaechi to his native Nigeria, where he fought in support of his ethnic group, the Ibo, in the Biafran war while she served as a medic.

When it became clear that the war was lost, the couple fled, enduring treacherous conditions before getting back to Boston, where they married.

Amaechi's mother returned to the practice of medicine, and his father established a manufacturing business. John Ekwugha Amaechi, their first child and only son, was born November 26, 1970. Within two years the couple also had two daughters.

The Amaechis' marriage was not a happy one. Jon Amaechi was, according to his son, "emotionally abusive to his wife" and also left her with "a mountain of debt" after signing over his business to her without her knowledge before going back to Nigeria. After a short while he returned, but the marriage was over.

In 1974 Wendy Amaechi took her three children to her native England, and they all moved in with her parents in a suburb of Manchester. Jon Amaechi turned up in England from time to time, threatening to seize the children and disappear with them in Nigeria. Wendy Amaechi prevented any contact, however, and by the time Amaechi was ten, his father ended his relationship with the family.

When Amaechi learned of his father's death through an e-mail many years later, he felt no grief at his passing and declined an invitation to speak at his funeral.

As a boy, Amaechi was an unlikely prospect to become a sports star. He enjoyed reading, had little interest in athletics, and loathed physical education classes. A fondness for sweets led him to be overweight. Because of his corpulence, combined with his extraordinary height--he was almost six feet tall by the age of ten--classmates dubbed him a "whale," among other hurtful taunts. Teachers did nothing to stop the name-calling, but Amaechi's mother tried to reassure him by explaining that the bullies suffered from "a poverty of spirit." Nevertheless, the young Amaechi was stung by his schoolmates' attitude and wished that he had not been singled out for being different.

While in his teens, Amaechi became aware of another kind of difference. Daunted by the alleged escapades of his classmates with girls, he considered "sexuality . . . a bigger mystery than any Hardy Boys caper." His "first glimmer" of his true nature came at the age of fifteen when he was assigned to shower monitor duty and beheld a "procession of young men, clad only in underwear, . . . [which] for some reason that was lost on me . . . was an exhilarating sight." Amaechi did not immediately appreciate the implications of his feelings, chalking them up to "a generalized kind of eroticism kids feel at that age."

Although Amaechi's classmates made fun of him, school sports teachers felt that the hulking youngster's sheer size could be used to advantage. A lacrosse coach put him in goal, where he was peppered with shots from a hard rubber ball. Physical education teachers later reassigned him to rugby, which Amaechi describes as "an even more brutal sport" for which he felt no enthusiasm.

It was a chance encounter that sent Amaechi into basketball. When he was almost seventeen and already six-foot-eight, two representatives of a local amateur basketball club spotted him walking in town and invited him to join their team. Basketball was not a sport with which he was familiar. "Brits think of basketball the way Americans think of cricket," he notes, "a bizarre game played over there." Nevertheless, he signed up and discovered that "despite my physical awkwardness, it was clear I'd found a home on the court. There was no talk of whales or mutant freaks."

Amaechi's performance earned him notice in the small world of British basketball. He joined the Manchester team under Coach Joe Forber, who not only helped him develop his athletic skills as no other sports teacher had, but also remained a supportive force in his life and a true friend over the years. "Joe Forber," states Amaechi, "is more of a dad to me than my father ever was."

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John Amaechi. Photograph by Greg Hernandez.
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