Last month, John Amaechi, the psychologist and former National Basketball Association (NBA) player, made a short video for the BBC’s homework site Bitesize. Stylish, bespectacled, and with a scholarly white beard, Amaechi explains the concept of white privilege simply enough for his presumed audience of school-aged children to understand. “White privilege doesn’t mean you haven’t worked hard or you don’t deserve the success you’ve had,” he points out reassuringly. “It doesn’t mean that your life isn’t hard or that you’ve never suffered. It simply means that your skin colour has not been the cause of your hardship or suffering.”
The clip went viral, with adults praising its empathy and clarity in the face of a thorny subject. But inevitably there was a backlash, too, with the BBC’s Andrew Neil chiming in on Twitter to suggest, in the name of balance, that the BBC should put out a video arguing that “white privilege is an unhelpful confection”.
To Amaechi, the main obstacle to dismantling racism seems to be that people want to avoid “personal discomfort”. It is fair to say Amaechi is not one of those people. From passing up $17m contracts out of loyalty to his team, to becoming the first ever NBA player to come out, he tells me firmly: “You can’t be a part-time man of principle.” As a sports star, he says: “You don’t have a choice in being a role model – the only choice is whether to be a good or bad one.”
This summer, like never before, it feels as though sportsmen and women across the world are taking that to heart: threatening boycotts and using their star power in every way possible to ensure the Black Lives Matter message is heard. In August, major tennis tournaments, basketball games, hockey games, football and American football games were all postponed after the shooting of Jacob Blake. Japanese tennis champion Naomi Osaka wore face masks emblazoned with the names of black victims of police brutality and racism every time she played at the US Open last week then said she would pull out of a World Tennis Association match – until the US tennis association agreed to pause the whole event. Watching from the UK, it can sometimes feel as though athletes – such as NFL’s Colin Kaepernick, who in 2016 knelt during the national anthem in protest against the killing of black people by police – are the new symbols of the civil rights movement.
Amaechi, who played 301 games in the NBA, has praised the bravery of players boycotting play-offs, calling it “this most civil of disobediences”. “Lebron James isn’t doing what he is doing now because he was taught this playing basketball,” he says. “He was taught the opposite: ‘Shut up and play.’ This is something different: athletes utilising and leveraging their position and status to influence society. That is the way you can use sports.”
It is the concrete changes that Amaechi particularly admires, he says. “Kneeling is just a symbol that forces you to think. Symbols are useful, action is better.” Opening basketball arenas as voting centres, for instance, he says, is “a brilliant thing”. But, as a basketball insider, he says that radical action against racism has always been part of its history and that US sport in general is perhaps more politically active than people assume. When he played for Orlando in 1998, he says: “We invited people into the locker room to talk to us; we had politicians, activists, Al Sharpton.” Players were running reading clubs, paying for school meals, sports camps and giving back to their communities. He cites the work of the former player Dikembe Mutombo, a humanitarian and NBA global ambassador, as well as Adonal Foyle, who is now also a psychologist doing “brilliant work” in his community in the Bay Area.
Going further back, in 1996 the basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in effect ended his career when he sat during the national anthem. Amaechi also notes that it was the Women’s National Basketball Association players who picked up the baton from Kaepaernick and began protesting during the national anthem in 2017, for which they were sanctioned by the league. The serious consequences might go some way to explaining Michael Jordan’s refusal to publicly support the African American Democrat candidate for Senate Harvey Gantt in his 1990 race to unseat the notorious racist Jesse Helms, something Amaechi says was a “huge miss”. Jordan’s infamous quip that “Republicans buy sneakers, too”, was to Amaechi a “profound underuse of power”.
What has changed, he says, is not the sports stars’ actions, but the reception of them. The closest the NBA has come to a boycott over racial injustice before this was back in 1968 during the uprisings after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Had the players sat out the NBA finals between the Boston Celtics and the LA Lakers the consequences for their careers would have been devastating. This year, when the Milwaukee Bucks withdrew their labour, the NBA embraced their message and suspended the entire playoffs. “The moment has swayed everybody,” Amaechi says simply. Yet despite this progress, he cannot help but be frustrated at the continued reality of racism, saying with resignation: “I’m 50 years old. I am going to die with racism rampant. How ridiculous is that?”
John Uzoma Ekwugha Amaechi was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1970 to Wendy, a doctor originally from the UK, and Jon Amaechi, a businessman from Nigeria. The pair had lived in Nigeria before fleeing the Biafran war in which Jon had fought and Wendy had been a medic. In Boston, as a mixed-raced couple, his parents told him one of them had to hide if they were driving through the city together, because of the racism. His father, however, was emotionally abusive and his mother escaped back to England with her three children in 1974. Even there, they did not feel safe: more than once his father tried to “steal” back John and his younger sisters, Muriel and Uki, and they would have to hide out in the local church or at his mother’s friends’ houses.
His mother, who had built a renowned GP practice in Boston, had to start from scratch when she moved back to the UK. But “despite her lack of time and constant exhaustion, it was a proper warm family that she had created”. The family moved to Stockport to be near her parents and Amaechi says it was not the easiest place for a black boy to grow up. His grandfather would shout “wog” at people out of his car window even while Amaechi and his sisters were in the back. This, he says, was “not an uncommon experience for mixed-race children”. As a child, he says, he was an extreme introvert who did not make friends until secondary school. “It was a lonely existence. I lived in books: Asimov, Douglas Adams, fantasy and comics; that’s who I was. I didn’t have much time for the real world.”
Amaechi was not only the sole black child in his year, but at 6ft 9in by the time he was in his late teens, an extremely tall one. These features ensured he stood out not just in school, but on the streets, where he was viewed with suspicion. That was until he was 17 and played basketball for the first time, in a gym in Chorlton that smelled slightly of urine. What he remembers most intensely three decades on is the feeling that for the “first time I wasn’t a freak. I wasn’t frightening, terrifying to people.” On that day, suddenly, he was the envy of his fellow players and had his first, exhilarating taste of how it feels when “everyone wants to be like you”. That was the day he decided to play for the NBA in the US.
Today, Amaechi looks back fondly at the “beautiful naivety” of his teammates, who didn’t blink at his declaration of intent. In reality, it is approaching a miracle that he achieved this, becoming a first-teamer in the NBA at the age of 26. There is currently one British player in the NBA, OG Anunoby, and he was raised in the US. In total there are fewer than 15 British NBA players in the history of the league – and very few grew up in the UK.
While he had height on his side, he points out that “there’s a lot of people who are 6ft 9in who are working in Subway”. To even make it to a high-school basketball team in the US, he sent out 3,000 letters – and received three responses. One asked if he was serious; another rejected him. But the third, from St John’s Jesuit High School in Toledo, Ohio wanted him to play for its team. The journey from there was no easier: only 0.03% of US high-school players make it to the NBA.
“You think you’ve never worked harder in your life at every stage … and then you realise, every summer, that if you don’t work harder someone is going to take your job,” he says. He moved on to playing for Penn State and Vanderbilt before he made it to the first team for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1995. After a year in Cleveland he played in Greece, Italy and Sheffield before returning to the NBA for his most successful spell with the Orlando Magic in 1999.
Amaechi credits his mother for his success. She would tell him that “the most unlikely of people in the most improbable circumstances can be extraordinary. Not that nonsense that ‘If you believe, it will come true’ – that’s bollocks – but if you set a plan, are willing to work, endure extreme mundanity, really embrace some discomfort, I think you can do remarkable things.”
After his retirement, Amaechi hit the headlines again for being the first NBA player to publicly tell the world he was gay, in his 2007 memoir Man in the Middle – a New York Times bestseller. He points out that this was not when he came out, however. During his career, friends, journalists, staffers and teammates – at least those “who were not jerks” – knew about his sexuality.
Yet the revelation sparked hostility, and even death threats. The retired NBA player Tim Hardaway famously declared that he hated gay people and would ask his team to trade any player who came out. (Amaechi says he has never apologised to him.) Today there are plenty of gay athletes who have come out, he says, but not publicly – and he entirely understands their decision. When you go public “you stop being the person who scored this many goals, ran this fast – you’re just the gay guy and that’s disappointing”.
What convinced Amaechi was attending Pride in Manchester. While there he noticed a teenage boy watching from the cathedral gardens, “hiding behind the tombstones”. As Ian McKellen drove by on the back of a pink Cadillac, the actor waved in the boy’s general direction. Amaechi watched as “this kid kind of emerged from his shell – just for a minute. I thought: ‘Maybe I could do that for people who don’t look like Ian McKellen.’ People need to know that black people can be gay. And that one does not make the other lesser.”
But being a black, gay man does put Amaechi at an intersection that can at times be uncomfortable. Black communities are often accused of homophobia. Amaechi says the real issue is around religiosity; religious people are more likely to come out against same-sex relationships, and black people are more likely to be religious.
The racism he has experienced in gay spaces means he does not “really feel like a gay person at all in terms of belonging to a community”. Being refused entry to a gay bar in Manchester in 2010 because the bouncer thought he was “big, black and could be trouble” is just one example he has faced. Family is important to him and in Orlando he adopted two brothers, Chris and Martin, whom he prefers not to talk about publicly, although they are doing well, he says. But speaking to him you get the impression of a life shaped by a feeling of being alone. “I don’t fit in anywhere. I am a weird anomaly. I lament it, I wish I did,” he says.
He thanks his mother for inspiring him to become a psychologist (he now runs Amaechi Perfomance Systems, which specialises in workplace psychology). As a seven year-old he would accompany his mother as she made end-of-life visits to families, and watch her deal with distraught relatives. In those rooms, he remembers, the “air was heavy, it was really hard to breathe”. But at some point his mother would “wave a finger at them and say: ‘You can do this.’ I just thought it was magic.” He saw an unlikely echo in Star Wars, when “Obi Wan Kenobi waves his hand and says: ‘These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.’” It is certainly something that has stayed with him; Amaechi has a “working lightsaber” that he plays with on his balcony. It is on his desk as we speak.
He says he is proud of his move “from being an entertainer to doing something that has a substantive impact on people’s lives”. Despite his OBE for services to sport and the voluntary sector, he seems ambivalent about his basketball success. His Commonwealth Games bronze medal is “in my sister’s house somewhere” and he repeatedly reminds me that he simply “put a ball in a hole”. Yet his remarkable life and achievements have given him a unique platform to drive the changes he wants to see in the world.