Big Think Interview With John Amaechi
John Amaechi is a British psychologist and a former NBA basketball player. At the age of 17, when he first picked up a basketball, Amaechi was not considered athletic enough to have any chance of success in domestic sports, much less overseas. Six years later he became a starting center in the NBA for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Over his eight-year career in basketball, he also played for the Orlando Magic and the Utah Jazz.
Since retiring from sports, Amaechi pursued a Ph.D. in psychology, recently co-authoring a paper on the subject of self-esteem, goal setting, and personality. He is a fifteen year veteran of the American Psychological Association (APA) and a member of the British Psychological Society (BPS), its division of occupational psychology, and the BPS Psychometric Testing Group.
In 2007, he released his bestselling memoir “Man in the Middle,” chronicling his life and work and revealing to the world that he was gay, making him the only openly gay man ever to have played in the NBA.
Amaechi also has his own charity, the ABC Foundation, with a center in Manchester that sees 2,000 young people per week go through its doors. He has teamed with researchers at the Pennsylvania State University and the San Diego University for Integrative Studies to create a program that promotes social emotional training in young people who are coached in life as much as in sports.
Question: What advice would you give to someone who wants to achieve something extraordinary?
John Amaechi: I think trying to get to the NBA or trying to do anything that is extraordinary and also very improbable—just by statistics—when you look at something like that you have to have a crystal clear picture of what you’re trying to achieve. But more than that, you have to have I think a really pragmatic assessment of who you are at the beginning. One of the things about goal-setting that makes me a little crazy is that people always think it’s about looking into the future, looking two, five, ten years in the future and knowing that is where you’re going to get and then they just set off without any clue where they are right now. And just in terms of simple cartography, you can’t get anywhere if you don’t know where you are now.
So for me when I started off it was a question of looking at myself and saying "Yes, I’m fat. I’m a fat 17 year-old in England. I’m a nerd. I like to sit in the library. I don’t like to sweat. And yet at the same time I’ve been captivated by the idea of being on a basketball court and being surrounded by people who made me look a little bit less like a freak. And so in order to get to the NBA, this ultimate point I had watched Larry Bird and Magic Johnson at the time playing, and I was like that is where I want to be, so from then knowing who I was I put steps in place knowing that I’d have to get in shape, knowing I’d have to stay motivated, knowing that I’d probably have to leave home in order to become a basketball player of any note. So I set up a plan that had all these different stages in, but also allowed me flexibility because the thing about plans is that they tend to go wrong at certain stages. You tend to let yourself down. Environmental factors step in and mean that you aren’t where you thought you would be at a certain point and great plans allow flexibility. They allow you to revise your position and yet still stay on the ladder.
Question: How concrete should these plans be?
John Amaechi: I think the more unlikely the goal that you are trying to achieve the more logistically sound a plan has to be. It is one thing to want to be a senior manager of a department shop somewhere—not that in this economy is particularly easy, but it’s certainly more probable than many other types of jobs. And so to get that way perhaps you don’t need to identify every single type of shop and what their particular needs might be, and what each of these shops might be looking for in a person.
But in order to play in the NBA you need to know exactly what the NBA is looking for. You need to know how close to that you can get. You know for me there was simple things like I knew the NBA was looking for athletes, and I knew I wasn’t one. So I also knew that I didn’t really like to sweat and work hard, so I had to find a trainer who I could respond to, and had to know my personality type—so I didn’t find someone who was a screamer; I found someone who showed his disappointment if I wasn’t working hard, and I found that was the way to motivate me. I knew I was kind of lazy, so I built my house 500 meters away from where my trainer trained athletes, so there was never an excuse. I could just fall out of bed and be there ready to go every day. Knowing yourself, knowing where you want to get, combining those things gives you the pragmatic steps.
Question: At what age did you suspect that you were gay?
John Amaechi: I suppose I knew I was gay at age 11 or so. I don’t know if... I mean I’m smiling about it now, but I don’t even know if there is any particular thing that kind of made me think about it. I had gone on a few dates. I thought kissing was good with girls, but I always thought you know it probably could be better, so there was nothing really... There was certainly nothing really sexual about my youth growing up, simply because the fact remains if you’re the fat kid in a school and I was the only fat black kid in the school—in fact, I was the only black kid in the school—but if you are kind of ostracized on many different levels in your school the last thing you’re worried about is sex. I just wanted to fit in, so probably early on I knew, but it was... social life was such a distant part of my existence when I was in school that I didn’t even think about it too much.
Question: Was it easier to come out to your friends and family or to the media?
John Amaechi: I came out to my friends and family much earlier, probably a decade, 15 years earlier than I came out kind of to the whole Universe. And it was lovely because... Well it was lovely in a way. I think I was a little bit disappointed because everybody who I knew, my best friend said that he had known since I was 16, which I was really mad about. Because I was like "Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you tell me when I was 16?"
My sister who I felt great trepidation about telling and not because I thought she was judgmental, but because I you know she was so important to me. I told her and she just looked at me and kind of shrugged and said, “I’ve always thought of you as asexual.” Which I don’t think is particularly complimentary. But then... and the great part about it is that is a normal coming out that you do and you’re surrounded then by people who love you and know you fully, which is great.
Coming out in 2007 to the universe is a very different thing because then you find yourself... I always think coming out is something that you do for people who really deserve it. It should be. It shouldn’t be something that you just tell random strangers, just so you know, unless you’re trying to make a political point, which I think is what I was trying to do. But when I came out to the universe it had this really strange reaction from people. I think the vast majority, maybe 85 percent of people were wonderful and warm and supportive. And then there was this 15 percent minority that was so weirded out by it. You know they looked at me and they looked at this body and they just thought "How can that be gay? And if that is gay that is terrifying. You know he is massive and he is black and he is gay," and it was like any more things and the world would explode. So it just became a little difficult for me because all of the sudden I had gone from being what I thought was this pretty multidimensional person with lots of different identities that I was really quite cool with all mixed up, and then the day after that day in February of 2007 I was just that big gay guy. A bit disappointing really.
Question: How did being in the closet affect you psychologically?
John Amaechi: I think one of the most damaging things about being in the closet for anybody is that when you’re in the closet not only does it isolate you from normal relationships because it forces everyone you know and everyone who knows about you into the closet as well. But more than that, especially when you’re doing a job that requires a high level of focus... You know, there are some jobs that people go to and 75 percent of their mind is all that is required for them to get the job done. In the NBA you need a little bit more than that when Jordan is front of you. You need a little bit more than that when it is Barkley or Karl Malone or Shaq or whoever else. You need a lot more than that frankly if you’re the English kid who can’t jump. And what I found was that you only have a finite amount of psychic energy in your head and certain portions of it and sometimes it was only two or three percent, but certain portions of it were always reserved to protect my ego when I heard my teammates talk about fags. Certain portions of it were there to protect me when... to keep me mindful of when I was talking about what I was doing to use gender neutral pronouns and that two to three percent of my energy was just never available for basketball even when it was basketball was on the line, even when I wanted it to be it was just never available because it was already being used.
And I think that is the biggest shame about being in the closet. It’s really about performance in your life and in your workplace. If you’re in the closet, there's energy there that will never be available for the daily tasks.
Question: Do gay celebrities have a responsibility to come out?
John Amaechi: I think in an ideal world yes, celebrities do have a responsibility in many different areas to be role models, to... and in terms of LGBT celebrities to be out and show the world our diversity. At the same time, especially in a country like America, there are places, many states here still where coming out means you lose your job, where coming out means division, where it means potentially abuse. We’ve seen it.
And I also think that coming out it is personal, but more importantly than it’s personal, it’s like a gestation period. For some people it’s like a rat’s; you know, in a matter of days we see kids and celebrities who the moment they get famous it’s like "Yes, I’m out," boom, ready. But there are some people the gestation period is like an elephant’s and it’s just years and years before they’re ready. And I would just never want to have someone come out for the greater good who was a celebrity and then find them slipping into like Lohanville with alcohol or drugs or something else just because they couldn't cope. I want them to come out. I want them to show that we are diverse and safe and regular, but I want them to do it in a way that protects them as well.
Question: How can we combat homophobia?
John Amaechi: I think the things that people have to bear in mind are that out professional athletes, out celebrities in film, for example—and we still have very few male out celebrities in film. Out people in these... the people who are on the parapet that will be a consequence of a positive change in society, not a precursor. It won’t be because some X number of athletes come out and therefore a bunch of people in right-leaning states suddenly say "Right, well if X baseball player and Y basketball player are gay, then I’m perfectly fine with it." All of the sudden Leviticus gets thrown out the window and no, there is no problems anymore.
The reality is that in this country there are still laws being put on the books every month that are anti-gay, that are designed to redefine family to mean one thing and not to include LGBT people. There are a constant stream of bullying going on in schools and in workplaces, and the deaths and murders of young LGBT people. And this means that if you’re 16 and you’re not in New York and you're not in Chicago and you're not in Los Angeles then you look around you and you think it's not safe yet.
I think it’s true that in some businesses like finance, some Wall Street banks, some investment banks have changed. You will find more LGBT people there. But I also know that you’ll find more LGBT people in the client-facing side of their banks, but there are still parts of their banks that are very, very strongly traditional; trading floors, et cetera, where you’ll find it hard to find a woman, never mind a gay person, so there is a lot of work still to do. It would be helpful if laws didn’t keep coming up on the books that marginalized and impacted LGBT people and we’ve got to make the words that offend and damage LGBT youth more taboo. The N word sucks the air out of a room, and yet people can say the F word as if it means nothing.
Question: Are black identity and gay identity in conflict?
John Amaechi: I think it’s too easy to just say that there is a direct and necessary conflict between black identity and gay identity. I think it’s more nuanced than that simply because I think black is a color and then people layer on top of it all kinds of socio-cultural elements. I think there is unnecessary conflict right now between the vehemently religious and the LGBT community. The extremes of religion I think and the LGBT community have an issue and because a lot of black families in America are more religious, I think that is where the conflict comes into play.
But I also think that we just don’t... you can’t identify... you can’t label identity in the kind of ways that we do. If I took my understanding of what it was to be gay from popular culture in America—and in Britain basically—then I just wouldn’t fit because there are no gay people that look like this. I would have to change everything. I would have to change the drink that I choose to drink. I’d have to change the clothes that I wear. Everything.
And the same with being black. We need to get past the point where being black and a male means that I am likely to mug you for your wallet, likely to have a minus 15 on my IQ, likely to not go to college and likely to wear my pants below my arse. I mean there is more nuance to what it is to be black. I think if we got to that point perhaps we would see the conflicts between black, what it is to be black and what it is to be gay within individuals as well as in communities dissipate.
Question: Is gay culture becoming too homogenous?
John Amaechi: I think we are falling foul of our own stereotypes within the LGBT community. The idea that you can tell what gay is by looking at it is really pervasive. I haven’t often, but I have occasionally experienced the fact that I walk up to the door of a gay bar and be knocked back because people look at me and say well you can’t possibly be gay, you know: "Kiss him." I was like "I don’t know him. I’m not going to." But I think if we really want to advance our cause in terms of taking our place as a valued part of the spectrum of diversity then we need to look within the LGBT community and say within us there is this similar spectrum. There are parts of us that are very, very different and that can be found across the country and across the world and we need to embrace each bit of that and that includes ending things like people writing straight acting on their profiles as if to be camp is awful. We need to accept that some people are camp and some people are butch. Some people are pretty and some people are average, but we all fit.
Question: Why do so many athletes spend all their money so quickly after they retire?
John Amaechi: I think that we ill-prepare athletes from the very beginning. From the moment they pick up a ball or kick or whatever it is they’re doing. We ill-prepare them. Especially with the major sports. What you see is this cycle of entitlement that gets thrown their way, so the kid who is in junior high and hasn’t finished his test, but still gets to play because he is an athlete, fails the test and still gets to play because they’re an athlete, gets to get away with not doing chores at home because they’ve got practice. All these types of things build up and then in college... I love college and I think many colleges aren’t as good as the one that I went to in terms of taking care of the whole athlete, and they focus on weightlifting and practice and academically they just let you get by. I went to Penn State. Nobody was allowed to just get by. They wanted academic all-Americans if they could have them, but that is not the case everywhere.
And then you get to be a pro and all of the sudden a lot of things are possible for you that are impossible for anybody else. You know, the fact is that I’ve been stopped more than a handful of times by the police for driving just a little bit too fast and I’ve never had a ticket in this country, never had a ticket because I’ve signed plenty of tickets for police officers, but I haven’t actually been given the ticket.
So all of a sudden if you’re not careful this feeling comes over you that you are a bit omnipotent and you can do anything. And this is a really dangerous combination once the adulation stops. It’s really dangerous. Paired with that—and I think maybe even more important—is the fact that when I played basketball I never thought I was a basketball player. I played basketball. I was a man who played basketball and after I played basketball and before I played basketball I was going to be a psychologist, whereas most people who play their occupation is their definition—and then when they stop doing who they are, they become nothing. And that is when you see so many of these problems where they’re desperate to try and find a new way to be relevant even to themselves. So this combination of entitlement and then the fact that when your career is over you stop being relevant even to yourself is just deadly. We’ve got to educate athletes—not only in the pros with great programs that need to be implemented, but in college and in high school and even before.
Question: What is the biggest problem facing young students?
John Amaechi: I mean my particular interest area is working in issues of emotional literacy. What I see of the way that we educate boys and more than that, the way we socialize boys within their families and then in schools to me is tantamount to just removing any element of emotional intelligence from them. And then we wonder why we have problems with outbursts. We wonder why we have problems with affect management, with emotional management, with executive skills—simply time management issues and things for especially boys in school. And I think for me one of the largest things I see is that as you deplete emotional literacy, as you take away from the emotional intelligence, as you tell boys, you know, being in touch with your emotions is not valid or in fact makes you more like a girl or even worse, makes you gay... what you find is their ability to cope with stress, their ability to handle adversity and their ability to creatively manage the educational kind of forum... it just diminishes. I think one of the biggest problems you have with education is that this lack of emotional literacy as just having a massively deleterious effect on the success of boys.
Question: Is this true of all boys or particularly among minorities?
John Amaechi: I think what is clear is that the impact of this lack of emotional literacy is not evenly spread over demographics, so I think especially when you start looking at Latino, Hispanic and African-American boys—black boys in Britain—you see that these impacts mean that they do less well compared to their peers, which is really unfortunate because you’ve got such a stereotype pressure on young people from minorities to be and act like people think they should. So combining the lack of emotional literacy they may be imbued with, with the fact that if you’re black you’re not supposed to be that smart and if you... as a boy you’re not even supposed to like school. All of the sudden you’ve got kids who are afraid, black kids and Latino kids who are afraid to be great, afraid to bask in the enjoyment of education, lest they be labeled less than black, less than Latino, less they be called the oreo. I think it’s a really deadly combination.
Question: What is your personal philosophy?
John Amaechi: I am an atheist. I would say that I’m not... not that I shy away from this at all, but I’m not a radical atheist in that I’m not one of these people that says "If you believe in God you must be a complete moron." I may hold that thought in my head at times, but I’m not one of these people that thinks I should bash other people over the head. Because I’ve been to nearly every type of church or synagogue or temple and when I watch people leave that place, even if it is just once a week, even if they only go because they feel they have to... and if I see them leave that place filled with a bit of joy, better able to handle the next week coming, then I’m happy for that. I know many atheists are not. However, for me, I don’t need that kind of vertical framework. I don’t need to think that I’m being loomed over my shoulder in order to behave in a way that's moral.
I think my guidance came from my mother. She was also an atheist, but she was a doctor and I used to watch her go on visits—because in Britain doctors actually visit you when you’re sick. And she used to go on visits and I wouldn’t go upstairs to see her dong medicine stuff with whoever was ill, but I would be downstairs—this was when I was 7 years old—and sat around in a room full of relatives who were very, very anxious, very, very scared, panicked about what was going on because if a doctor visits you you’re very sick. And I would watch my mother sit in the room and just be... calm everybody down just by talking to them. You’d see the tension drop and release. And so this for me was amazing. This was in '77, '78 maybe and Star Wars was all the rage. And I literally spent my youth imagining, believing that my mother was a Jedi, because she could talk to patients and be like "It’s all right, you’ll be able to cope." And I would see them just relax and it wasn’t that they thought the problems had gone away, but they were able to cope because my mom said so and so that is my framework.
I grew up thinking the best job in the world would be a Jedi and being a psychologist is the closest thing I could get, so I wanted to be a Jedi and I don’t want to be a Sith, so that is what keeps me on the straight and narrow.
Recorded October 7, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
A conversation with the former basketball player and psychologist.