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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 3 Welsh Teacher vacancy in Penarth

£110 - £120 per day + Travel Scheme and Free training: Randstad Education Card...

Senior Developer - HTML, CSS, PHP, JavaScript, VBA, SQL

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: We are working with one o...

Male Behaviour Support Assistant vacancy in Penarth

£55 - £65 per day + Travel Scheme and Free Training: Randstad Education Cardif...

BA/PM,EMIR/Dodd-Frank,London,£450-650P/D

£450 - £650 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz