Sports Nut

The Loneliness of the Gay Basketball Player

John Amaechi’s Man in the Middle, the memoir of an NBA misfit.

NBA journeyman John Amaechi’s coming out has already spawned hundreds of rote conversations about homophobia and sports. Beat writers have probed players about how they’d deal with a gay teammate, producing few revelations other than that Shavlik Randolph probably hasn’t attended many LGBT barbecues. Whether it’s a mark of progress or the triumph of collective cynicism, Amaechi’s confession has mostly been seen as either an attempt to sell his memoir, Man in the Middle, or an irrelevant, self-indulgent gesture. Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel, for one, squawked that Amaechi’s coming out was “so ‘90s”—a response that might’ve been appropriate if a former NBA player had proclaimed his love for MTV’s Real World-Road Rules tandem. Then, on Wednesday, former NBA star Tim Hardaway finally cut to the chase. “I hate gay people,” he told radio host Dan Le Betard. “I am homophobic. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be in the world or in the United States.”

Amaechi responded by calling Hardaway’s rant bigoted. “But it is honest,” he continued. “And it illustrates the problem better than any of the fuzzy language other people have used so far.” Hardaway’s loud-and-proud prejudice is also a reminder that beat writers needn’t bother asking straight players how they’d respond to a gay teammate. The more interesting question, and the one Man in the Middle tries to answer, is: How would a gay man react to a teammate like Hardaway?

Most of the time, Man in the Middle reads like a conventional sports memoir. An awkward, fat, working-class kid finds refuge in basketball. After learning the fundamentals, he emerges from his shell. With the encouragement of his courageous single mother, Amaechi makes it big and sees the world.

In the latter half of the book, Amaechi tentatively delves into his own sexuality. Early in his career, the closest he comes to announcing he’s gay is introducing his Orlando teammates to the wonders of Earl Grey tea. Little by little, he affords himself allowances in, of all places, Salt Lake City. During his final season with the Jazz, he invites queeny friends to the family room at the Delta Center and starts hanging out in the town’s gay enclave. This leads to one of the book’s most affirming moments, when young Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko urges Amaechi to attend a party at his home: “You are welcome to bring your partner, if you have one, someone special to you.”

Amaechi doesn’t soft-pedal the NBA’s homophobia, but he believes it’s more “a convention of a particular brand of masculinity than a genuine prejudice.” A team bus ride past a billboard reading “SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS GAY,” for example, launches a “cacophony of shock and horror.” Rather than rant about his teammates, Amaechi points out the locker room’s sexual ironies. “They checked out each other’s cocks. They primped in front of the mirror. … They tried on each other’s $10,000 suits and shoes. … And I’m the gay one. Hah!” While cocks were being checked out, Amaechi says, he “stood in the corner in baggy clothes or wrapped in an oversized towel.”

That scene—Amaechi, standing alone, as his hetero teammates engage in homosocial behavior—is the book’s lasting image. Unlike, say, JuicedJose Canseco’s homoerotic steroids homageMan in the Middle doesn’t revel in titillating erotica. Other than a few anonymous encounters with a volleyballer in the locker room at Penn State and a short relationship when he played in the British Basketball League, he seems to have led one of the most celibate existences of any athlete since A.C. Green. (Amaechi self-deprecatingly ascribes this to personal incompetence as much as intolerance.)

Amaechi doesn’t speculate what percentage of the league is gay, and he doesn’t name any names. One gets the sense that this is partly by design—innuendo just isn’t his style—and partly a consequence of the distance he keeps from his fellow jocks. Amaechi’s alientation from the culture of the NBA was not merely sexual. Surprisingly, his disaffection seems to be as much a product of his literacy as of his homosexuality. In Man in the Middle, Amaechi comes out as an intellectual—a creature almost as alien in the NBA as a gay man. He frequents art galleries on his off days, loves poetry, and is one of the first pro athletes to author a blog. The guy is smart enough that he can make something as dull as a fondness for Twinkies—”I loved their spongy richness and I devoured them by the dozen”—into a thoughtful disquisition.

Twinkies are just one of many things that Amaechi loves more than basketball. He writes with the most zeal—and at the most length—about mentoring, a passion that culminated in his official adoption of two teenagers in Orlando. (In passing, he reminds us that it’s illegal for gays and lesbians to adopt in the state of Florida.) The more involved he gets with his off-court charity work, the less he cares about hoops. “Nobody could make me love something I picked up more or less because I was tall,” he says.

The most interesting revelation in Man in the Middle has nothing to do with homosexuality. The profoundly isolated Amaechi says he finds common cause with other players on at least one matter: seeing sports as a means to an end. He writes that the pros play the game for a lot of reasons—money, fame, groupies, self-esteem—but that very few NBA players love basketball. “The fan sitting at home … wants us to love the game like he does,” he writes. “If he knew why we really play the game, for the most part, he might not love the game. He might not even watch it.” The average fan, gay or straight, will probably find that contention more troubling than a former player’s homosexuality.