The rookie with a British psychology

Alister Morgan talks to Stockport's John Amaechi, the 'smartest player' in American basketball
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The Independent Online
At first sight John Amaechi looks like a typical National Basketball Association player. As an athlete standing 6ft 10in tall and weighing 270lb, he possesses the basic tools needed to be an effective competitor in the world's toughest league.

However, looks can be deceiving. A BSc in Psychology from Pennsylvania State University certainly makes the Cleveland Cavaliers player unusual (he is also pursuing a Masters in the same discipline) and there is one other important difference. Only one other athlete from England has ever played in the NBA, which makes him rarer than a British champion at Wimbledon.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Amaechi grew up in Stockport from the age of five. Now 25 years old, he clearly perceives himself as British. "What you are is not based on where you were born," he explains. "Your personality is developed within the environment that you grow up in."

He played rugby, and did not play basketball seriously until after his 16th birthday. Not surprisingly the prospect of a professional basketball career seemed improbable. "It wasn't so much that I knew I had a talent for basketball," he says. "I knew I was big and that height was an important commodity."

After completing his A levels in Britain he went to St John's High School in Toledo, Ohio. One year later, he spent 12 unsuccessful months at Vanderbilt University in Nashville before transferring to Pennsylvania State. During his time there he was voted "most valuable player" three times and gained a reputation as a powerful performer. As a free agent this season, he signed a two-year contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers and achieved the distinction of making the team's starting line-up as an NBA rookie. His performances have been such that only injury prevented him from gaining selection to last Saturday's televised "rookie" game.

In addition to fulfilling a sporting dream, his present position in the NBA, and particularly the fame it affords him, has enabled him to pursue his other passion of working with children.

He spends a considerable amount of his spare time visiting local schools in Cleveland and watching their basketball games. "It's good because someone who the kids believe is important has decided to come down and spend time with them," he enthuses. "I think it's the sort of thing that someone with power, in that respect, should do."

In addition to "putting something back" into society, his work with local children also enables him to further research his chosen subject of adolescent psychology. "I'm not sure why it interests me," he says. "Partly it's because of the role I presently fulfil in the community. I suppose being an NBA player is like being a football star in England where many kids will look up to you. Some will hang on your every word and I'd like to use that to do something positive."

Amaechi's scholastic pursuits have resulted in some American commentators labelling him the "smartest player" in the NBA. While too modest to endorse such a distinction, it is clear that he holds aspirations beyond a successful sporting career. "I'd like to continue my studies and earn my doctorate," he explains. "At the end of my basketball career I'd like to have the funds to start a practice in psychology and do the kind of research with young people that interests me."

For the time being at least, continuing his successes in the NBA, by dint of hard work, is his main objective. "My first goal in life was to play in the NBA, which, though unlikely, I've done. I'm sure there are many people in England who will testify that I couldn't even catch a basketball 13 years ago. Right now I'm an average NBA player but I don't think I'm finished here yet." He concludes: "I don't really care to be average at anything."

As for the future? "I enjoy being in England, I find it refreshing. I have no intention of staying in America for the rest of my life so perhaps I'll have two psychology practices... one in each country."

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