Basketball: British star reveals the difficulties of coming out in sport

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The Independent Online

John Amaechi, the basketball player who briefly became Britain's best-paid sportsman after playing in the US NBA league, says "the music stops" for sports stars who declare they are gay.

Amaechi, 36, who comes out in his autobiography Man in the Middle, published next week by ESPN, told the cable TV channel that his action ran against the image that all sports are obsessed with. "[Sportsmen are] a testosterone-riddled group - [as is] professional sport," he said. "[Sport is] very ancient Greek in its philosophy; it's the pinnacle of man - that's what people think. [Players are] men women want to be with and men men want to be like - or something like that. It knocks the deck and makes the music jump when you have to think, 'Oh, maybe the person that I really love and support is gay.' The music stops for a second."

Amaechi has never been afraid of making bold pronouncements. While in the US, he received death threats for ridiculing the country's gun culture and George Bush's foreign policy. But his latest declaration - making him the first NBA star to come out - created more media exposure in the US yesterday than he received in five largely unspectacular NBA seasons for Cleveland, Orlando and Utah, which saw him command a £3.5m contract.

One of Amaechi's NBA coaches, Doc Rivers, said the player's sexuality had been well known and was accepted. "It was brought up to me and you say, 'So what? Can he rebound? Can he shoot? Can he defend?'" he said. But debate raged over whether a basketball player might ever come out before retiring. "We know [gay players] are there," said a former player, Greg Anthony. "But there is homophobia out there. [The question is] how will their team mates or organisation respond?"

The cause of gay rights in sport could hardly have a more articulate spokesman than Amaechi, who was born in Boston, Massachsetts, but raised in Stockport, Greater Manchester. After retiring in 2003, "Meech" (as he is known in Manchester) returned to the city and ploughed £2.5m into a basketball centre in the deprived Whalley Range district.

He has studied for a doctorate in clinical child psychology at the University of San Diego, worked with the Disarm Trust, a UK group that aims to tackle gun culture, and is also an ambassador for the 2012 Olympic Games. He is confident about his revelation. "I am gay, black, British, smart, dumb, patronising, stubborn, all these other things - flawed in many ways - and I am now asserting my activism," he told the gay website Advocate. "People have these boxes that they want to throw you in. If you're big and black, it's not the first conclusion they jump to."

His bookhints at his experience of Utah's gay community - the "hippest, gayest place east of San Francisco". "The Mormon majority seems blithely unaware of this flamboyant minority in its midst," he writes.

Amaechi is the first British star to come out since the footballer Justin Fashanu, who committed suicide in 1990. A survey by The Independent of UK professional footballers last year revealed that most felt their industry was homophobic and the only openly gay man on the Football Association's council believes that the major hurdle in coming out is concern over how a player's value might be damaged.

Amaechi's move would help many people, the tennis player Martina Navratilova said. "It's hugely important for the kids so they don't feel alone in the world." But the reaction of Shavlik Randolph, of the Philadelphia 76ers, said everything about the ongoing struggle for gay stars. "As long as you don't bring your gayness on me, I'm fine," he said. "As far as business-wise, I'm sure I could play with Amaechi. But I think it would create a little awkwardness in the locker room."

Gay pride: the stars who spoke out

Justin Fashanu

Came out in The Sun in 1990 but after allegations of sexual assault, he hanged himself in a London garage in 1998. Suicide note read: "I realised that I had already been presumed guilty."

David Kopay

Gay rights activist who played for 10 years in the NFL before retiring in 1972. His book 'The David Kopay Story' was a New York Times bestseller.

Ian Roberts

Australian rugby league star who came out when he was 30; 11 years on he is still a world-class player for Manly.

Martina Navratilova

Pressed over her relationship with the author Rita Mae Brown, she came out as bisexual in 1980 - but paid a price in lost sponsorship revenue. A tireless gay rights campaigner.