Feb. 11, 2009
Former Penn State basketball standout John Amaechi is a man of many talents. He is a psychologist, a motivational speaker, a political activist, a broadcaster, an author and a movie producer as well as a former professional basketball player.
But what Amaechi, 38, who grew up in the Star Wars generation, would like to be known as is a Jedi.
“Psychology has always been my goal since I was 8,’’ says Amaechi, who logs over 300,000 miles between his base operations in Los Angeles and London as head of John Amaechi Performance Systems. He works with various industrial organizations, consulting them with how they work with their people and clients.
“I enjoy helping people and their organizations so they are able to have a better working relationship with their work force and their clients.
“At the age of 8, I used to follow my mother around. She was a general practioner in England, where you still visit the homes when people are sick,’’ he adds. “I didn’t see her treat the patients, but I saw how she interacted with the families and remember just how her words would reassure those families during some tough times.
“Just by the tone of her voice and the way she touched people, I looked at my mother as a Jedi. I thought, ‘I want to be a Jedi.’ What a better way to change people than just by talking to them.’’
Born in Boston, Amaechi and his family moved to England when he was 3 and he continues to make his home in the United Kingdom. But he never picked up a basketball until his late teens.
“I was walking down Market Street in Manchester one day and some men asked me if I would be interested in playing basketball,’’ he says. “At the time, I was a 6-foot-9, fat black kid and was one of only two brown kids (the other was from India) in my school. I was a real geek and really felt alone at the time, but through basketball I suddenly became a commodity.
“I remember writing in my high school yearbook that I wanted to play for the NBA championship and earn a lot of money. It was pretty vacuous thinking for a teenager.’’
Although he didn’t start playing basketball until late, it didn’t take long for the American universities to catch wind of the 6-10, 270-pounder. He selected Vanderbilt, but after one year in Nashville, he decided to seek another opportunity.
“Penn State was one of the first schools to come after me in the recruiting process and when I made it clear I was leaving Vanderbilt, Lefty Driesell (at Maryland) was a very convincing person. When I got off the phone with him, I was convinced I was the next Larry Bird. He told me how versatile I would become and I was going to be a triple threat.’’
But Amaechi never made the trip to Maryland. His first stop was to see Bruce Parkhill at Penn State and he was convinced State College would become his new home.’’
“At Penn State, they knew how to map out a plan for me to become a psychologist because even though the NBA would be a wonderful world, it would not define my career,’’ Amaechi says. “That plan involved a lighter load during the busiest time of my sport so I wouldn’t have to get up for a bunch of 8 a.m. classes and be too tired to perform both on the court and in the classroom.’’
According to Amaechi, he arrived at Penn State during one of the most exciting times in Nittany Lion sports history. His redshirt season was the final year of competition in the Atlantic 10 as the school prepared for its transition into the Big Ten.
“The atmosphere around here was amazing,’’ he says. “The big difference between playing in the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference was the big men in the Big Ten tended to be more versatile. Here you were expected to shoot from the outside and put the ball on the floor rather than just put the ball in the hole.’’
But the purpose of moving to Penn State was more than just basketball for Amaechi. Seeking to develop himself as a whole person, he got involved in student government, off-campus work with charities and even got involved with work in the city and at the local high school.
“I didn’t just want to be known as the big man on campus because of basketball,’’ he says. “I wanted to be known as the big man on campus due to basketball and my total involvement with the school.’’
Amaechi’s 1,310 points in three seasons stands 12th in career scoring for the Nittany Lions. A first-team All-Big Ten selection in 1995 and two-time Academic All-America honoree, he still holds the school’s career (38) and single-season (20) records for double-doubles.
Amaechi, who signed with Cleveland in 1995, became the first undrafted free agent to start the opening game of an NBA season. But after logging less than 13 minutes per game that first season, he went back to Europe for three years to further develop his game.
He returned to the NBA with the Orlando Magic in 1999 and posted his best season with a 10.5 scoring average. One of his highlights was scoring the first points in the new century. By the end of the year, he was a free agent again and had a number of teams to choose from, including a $17 million multi-year offer from the Los Angeles Lakers, but he chose to return to the Magic for $600,000.
“I am a man of principle and the Magic gave me my start,’’ he says. “If I had signed with the Lakers and fulfilled my NBA championship dream, I would have only been half a man with principle.
At the end of his second season with Orlando, he signed with Utah and was eventually traded to Houston toward the end of his second season with the Jazz. He didn’t play a single game with the Rockets and when he was traded to New York in the offseason, Amaechi decided to take his buyout.
“I had been away from home for 10 years and never really had more than four weeks off at one time because my job was always in jeopardy,’’ he says. “People really can’t conceive how grueling the NBA can be with three games a week and I had been postponing my real purpose in life for too long.
“I enjoyed my time in the NBA, but it was time to come home. The average NBA career only lasts three years. Student-athletes always talk about their backup plans when their sport careers are over, but what you do in life should be your primary plan and something like the NBA should be treated as your backup.’’
Amaechi, who briefly came out of retirement to help England win the bronze medal in the Commonwealth Games, got involved in the ABC Foundation in Manchester, which encourages children to become involved in sports and their communities by building youth sports centers throughout the United Kingdom. The first facility, the Amaechi Basketball Centre, was built in Manchester and became home to the English Basketball League’s Manchester Magic (men) and Mystics (women), both of which are owned by Amaechi.
Not long after, the fact that Amaechi is gay became a news story in the United States. He eventually released his book, “Man in the Middle’’ in 2007.
“My lifestyle had been known for a few years back home, it just took a little longer for word to travel to the U.S.,’’ he says. “But the book was more than just talking about my lifestyle, it dealt a lot with someone who had made it to the NBA with only six years of basketball experience.’’
Despite his heavy travel schedule, Amaechi says he loves his work as a psychologist. “I’m lucky to have been pretty good at what I do,’’ he says. “I’m not concerned with measuring my career with dollars.’’
Last month, he was in Salt Lake City attending the Sundance Film Festival as part of a new venture in his life. He helped produce the movie “La Mission,’’ which stars Benjamin Bratt.
“Someone walked up to me when I was in Los Angeles and handed me a script,’’ he says. “That is the first time that has ever happened to me, but I read it and liked it a lot.’’
Now Amaechi is helping produce another movie, “Freestyle,’’ which is being shot in the United Kingdom.
“It’s a basketball movie and typical urban love story,’’ he says. “They’re trying to get me to act in it. I’m thinking about it, but they haven’t convinced me yet.’’
Amaechi is comfortable leaving his basketball to the movies and broadcasts on the BBC although a group of his friends are still trying to convince him to join them in their pickup games on Wednesday nights.
“They haven’t convinced me yet,’’ he says with a laugh. “I still have to undergo some back surgery this year, but I haven’t found the time to schedule it yet.’’