Basketball; Amaechi's high life in a million

Andrew Longmore meets the basketball giant who mapped out a route to the NBA

Healthbeds of Rotherham Limited had not seen anything like it. Enough photographers and reporters to warrant the term "media circus" and all for a bed. A big bed, mind. Seven feet long by six feet wide, dimensions which would allow John Amaechi a few inches of spare room at head and feet. Amaechi is six feet 10 inches tall and weighed nearly 200 pounds when he was 11. He was nicknamed "the whale" at school and has been battling stereotypes ever since.

Several hours - and a double portion of fish and chips - later Amaechi drove to Manchester to appear on Alan Green's Radio Five Friday-evening talk show. Green is from the Manchester area and knows Amaechi's story, but the majority of listeners must have been puzzled. Basketball is one of those sports always on the verge of boom here. Amaechi has strong views on the state of English basketball and expresses them articulately enough to discomfort the powers of the English Basketball Association and the floundering Budweiser League. "You could give them pounds 500m to spend tomorrow and they'd still mess it up," he says. The EBA wish he was back in Cleveland.

Amaechi is not the hero of a rags-to-riches fairytale, but there is a romance about his journey from the suburbs of Stockport to the star-spangled world of the National Basketball Association which the man himself rarely conveys. His speech is dispassionate, calculating, his tones upper-class English. He is a bright, sceptical, logical man who sounds like a literary pundit on late-night television. His father was Nigerian, but he has never met him. His mother, Wendy, was a doctor in Stockport. John went to Stockport Grammar School and was forced to play rugby. He hated it and hated school. But through a local coach called Joe Forber he discovered basketball and once a week, when Channel 4 beamed images of these soaring giants from New York and Los Angeles into his living-room, Amaechi watched in awe, apeing the commentary and memorising the moves. The only problem was that Mr Bird, the headmaster - "and you can print his name" - did not approve of such a backstreet sport.

"Whenever I came back to the school for reunions or whatever," Amaechi recalls. "He would say, 'John, are you making any money from that sport of yours?' So one day I went back and parked my Mercedes right in the middle of the drive."

The rest is quite straightforward, the way Amaechi tells it anyway. One night he sat down with his mother and they mapped out route one to the NBA: go to high school in the States, graduate on a scholarship to college, get drafted into the bigtime. Bingo. And that, give or take the odd hiccup, is what happened. In November 1995, the name and face of John Amaechi ("from Manchester, England") appeared on the jumbo Sonytron at the "0" Arena in Orlando as the starting centre for the Warriors, the first Englishman to start a game in the NBA.

"I'd watched that moment when the lights go down and all the players come out a million times on TV and then it was my face," he says. "It was a little unnerving. I can see the picture right now, with a little line under it where my stats would be. I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. It was a great day." Then what? The first fixtures were brutal: Orlando Magic, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and the Bulls. On almost his first play, he featured on the Dunk of the Week, except on the wrong end. "I wasn't used to the patterns of play and for a second I thought 'Where am I supposed to be?' and Horace Grant smacked one right down the middle."

Typically, Amaechi had rationalised the moment of fulfilment, taught himself to cope. Besides, he couldn't let his mother down nor Joe Forber, the two lone voices in a chorus of scorn. His mother had died of cancer the summer before. "Once you've got the jersey on, you've earned it and some might say I'd earned it more than some others because they weren't playing rugby at the age of 18 and paying for a badminton court's worth of gym to shoot a few hoops when they were 19. They didn't have to leave their families. That's the way I looked at it and it helped me to compete."

In fact, Amaechi knew he had made it a few weeks earlier, at the dreaded rookie camp where the last selections are made for the season. Amaechi's name was on his locker in medical tape initially, but on the third day it was written in plastic. Welcome to the NBA. Twenty games into the season, the idea was beginning to look as jaded as Amaechi himself. "I was a wreck. Every morning I would wake up and say 'I cannot play today'. But I would get up at 10am, drive 15 minutes to practice; practise, shower, drive back home and go to sleep; wake at 7pm, eat and go back to sleep. I spent three months like that." And his shoulder went. But Amaechi did not disgrace himself.

Yet it was not his year in the NBA which gave him the key to his Mercedes. Profitable stints with Panathanaikos in Greece and this season, Kinder Bologna, have made Amaechi a millionaire, given him the luxury of pursuing his studies in child psychology back at Penn State and of playing for Sheffield Sharks on a busman's holiday. His wages are being donated to the Joe Forber Centre of Excellence in Manchester, a two-court purpose- built facility which will give some much-needed focus to the patchy development schemes in schools. "Time is not a factor in getting basketball off the ground here, it's getting better development programmes in League clubs and coaching the coaches properly."

At the age of 27, Amaechi has unfinished business in the NBA. His contract with Cleveland ended after a year. "I know I can be a factor in a team." He just has to brush up on his vocabulary. "Have you ever tried trash talking with an English accent? It sounds stupid." Fitting in is Amaechi's eternal problem.

New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Kellie Bright as Linda Carter and Danny Dyer as Mick Carter

EastEnders Christmas specials are known for their shouty, over-the-top soap drama but tonight the show has done itself proud thanks to Danny Dyer.

Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy
tvCall the Midwife Christmas Special
Laura Trott and Jason Kenny are preparing for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth with Tess Daly in the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special
tvLouis Smith wins with 'Jingle Bells' quickstep on Strictly Come Dancing's Christmas Special
Arts and Entertainment
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor


Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there