Amaechi an attraction in Magic Kingdom

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The Independent Online

It was big news in Britain in 1997 when John Amaechi, an Englishman who had NBA experience, arrived in Sheffield and led the Sharks to the Uni-ball Trophy.

It was big news in Britain in 1997 when John Amaechi, an Englishman who had NBA experience, arrived in Sheffield and led the Sharks to the Uni-ball Trophy.

But now an even a bigger story is unfolding in Florida where Amaechi has returned to the world's elite basketball league to help the Orlando Magic prove there is life after Penny.

Anfernee 'Penny' Hardaway, the last vestige of the Orlando team which reached the NBA Finals in 1995, was traded to the Phoenix Suns in August for journeymen players and future draft picks.

His departure followed the summer trades of Horace Grant to Seattle and Nick Anderson to Sacramento. Shaquille O'Neal, the 7ft giant, had left before the 1996-97 season.

Orlando, in rebuilding mode, signed Amaechi to a $31,000 (£20,000) contract until the start of the season and gave him a chance to make the squad.

The forward/centre, just a few months removed from leading England on their tour of Hungary, did make the team - and has paid big dividends.

His 18 points in 29 minutes in a comeback win over Houston has turned him into a celebrity in Disneyland.

"As much as anyone," the Orlando Sentinel wrote today, "he (Amaechi) typifies their odd collection of cast-offs, youngsters and over-achievers who have banded together to prove they are more than just taking up space until management taps into the next college draft and free-agent market."

"I can't jump. I'm not a great athlete. I'll never be a great player, never," said Amaechi, who leads the Magic against Philadelphia tomorrow night.

"But I think I'm capable. I can play a role with this team. That's why this has been so satisfying."

Amaechi has played in four of the five Orlando games, averaging 11.8 points and two rebounds per contest. He has made 19 of 22 from the free-throw line.

"No question, John has been huge for us," said rookie head coach Doc Rivers.

"At times, we've had to ride him. I can't say I'm totally surprised because he did that in the summer league for us. But that was against guys who aren't in the NBA now. I'm not sure we knew what to expect."

Among the players he has outplayed - Rockets centre Hakeem Olajuwon, a player in the twilight of career but one who is bound for the Hall of Fame, and Washington big man Isaac Austin - a high-priced flop in Orlando last season.

Some people in England probably wanted to see Amaechi, who has also had stops in Greece, Italy and France over the past three years, fail.

He has been one of the loudest critics of the running of the game in this country, having frequently blasted away at the Basketball League for allowing too many Americans on club rosters, and hitting out at the English Basketball Association for failing to support the national team, even calling the EBBA "negligent".

Amaechi called the Outdoor Basketball Initiative, a multi-million pound scheme which instals outdoor basketball goals around the country, a waste of money, declaring the money could have been better spent building indoor facilities.

He was not popular at the Sharks, where his play, and crusades deflected attention away from his team-mates. Amaechi was not given the Sharks' most valuable player award.

Many scoffed at his chances of returning to the game's biggest stage, where he first played in 1995 with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

It is clear, though, that England coach Laszlo Nemeth will miss Amaechi, who will not play in England's European Championship semi-final games against Switzerland, the Slovak Republic and Latvia since the NBA do not release players for internationals.

Nemeth will miss his work ethic, leadership and honesty.

"I admit my game is ugly, and it's probably disappointing to some fans, but it's effective," Amaechi said. "I hope that's enough."