Basketball: Briton in the big time returns to his roots

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The Independent Online

No Brit has ever succeeded in a quintessentially American sport like John Amaechi.

Amaechi, who stands at 6ft 10ins, was for a time the UK's second-highest paid sportsman during a 12-year career in the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the United States, playing for the Orlando Lakers and then Utah Jazz. But Amaechi, aged 33, never forgot his roots and tonight he will make his first appearance for his new club, Manchester Magic, an amateur team based in the deprived back streets where he grew up.

The club has not even allocated him a locker yet, only a cardboard box in the general office marked, "John's stuff". But the headline from a recent article from a local newspaper says it all: "The King is Back." Tonight's attendance of 500 will be double the normal figure for the Magic.

Amaechi's popularity is not surprising. Last summer, he opened a £2.5m basketball centre in the grounds of the Whalley Range High School for girls, which is used by about 2,500 pupils a week and is the only basketball venue in Britain given a five-star rating for its coaching by the sport's national body. It means that "Meech", as he is universally known, should feel at home tonight. He will be running into a stadium that bears his name.

Amaechi made something of a career out of speaking his mind during his stay in America. His pronouncements were mostly grounded in the superiority of British life and included open criticism of the gun culture in the US (prompting death threats from members of the National Rifle Association), race relations and the war in Iraq. Amaechi was not picked to play after the outbreak of hostilities in Iraq and he received threatening e-mails telling him to "stop taking American money" and to "go home".

And that is what he has done. The player's £3.5m contract has been paid up by the New York Knicks and he will wear his usual number 13 on his jersey against London United tonight.

Amaechi admitted this week that his mixed NBA form has had something to do with his move home. But so does his enduring philosophy that sport is not a matter of life or death.

Amaechi has not watched a football match for 19 years. He had not played basketball before a coach spotted him by chance in Manchester's Market Street 13 years ago when he was aged 16 and stood 6ft 5ins. For the "bookish, geeky" boy from Stockport Grammar School it was the first time his height could mark him out as "anything but a freak".

As a result, he has steered clear of becoming a stereotypical sportsman. He has studied for doctorate in clinical child psychology at the University of San Diego and has also become involved with the Disarm Trust, a British-based group that aims to tackle and reduce gun culture in inner-city areas. He said: "Putting a ball in a hole does not make me special. I know I'm good. I know where I've come from and I know where I was in the very beginning, too, when there were people who were better than me."

For British coaches, the presence of the nation's most successful player in their midst can be a problem. When Amaechi last played in England, for the Sheffield Sharks, his coach felt the team suffered because they had a "superstar" in their midst.

But Amaechi's arrival may do something for a game which, on his own reckoning, only tends to attract "those young people who have not made a go of it with football or rugby". Despite a surge of interest in basketball in the 1980s, after England won the last serious Commonwealth championships in1982, football has confined the sport to the shadows.

The English side never gets past tough European competition to qualify for the World Championships and the sport's "premiership" British Basketball League is dominated by overseas players.