Basketball; Amaechi's high life in a million

Andrew Longmore meets the basketball giant who mapped out a route to the NBA
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The Independent Online
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.