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EXCLUSIVE: A NIGHT OUT WITH JOHN AMAECHI

By / 03.15.07

Almost nothing on this website should be taken seriously. It's here to provide laughs, not make serious statements or accusations or shed light on injustice or any of that. It's fun: I truly enjoy calling Canada "Canadia" and pretending that everyone from South America speaks Mexican. It's much more fun — and easier — than providing serious commentary. So you'll excuse me if, for just one post, I avoid cheap jokes.

A friend of With Leather who works in radio tried to get me a telephone interview with John Amaechi. Excited yet woefully bad at journalism, I emailed several prominent bloggers (oxymoron noted) about what I should ask the retired NBA vet who publicly came out of the closet with his new book, Man in the Middle (Big Daddy Drew: "Tell me more reasons why Jerry Sloan is a fucking asshole").

Naturally, the interview fell through, so instead I went to his book-signing at the Astor Place Barnes & Noble in Manhattan with the hopes of asking a question or two that could make decent blog fodder.

I ended up getting a lot more than that.

The event was crowded, and I took the first open seat I could find. The person next to me was Rich Merritt, a former Marine officer (like me!) with a USMC tattoo on his shoulder (like me!) who wrote a memoir (like me!) that shares details of his erotic gay experiences during "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (ummm…). But it's not like I give a shit if a guy is black or white or straight or gay or what have you. Former Marines who are also writers are hard to come by in New York, and as far as I'm concerned, that's enough common history to be friends.

As chance would have it, Rich has the same literary agent as Amaechi, and all of us went out together for drinks afterwards. What follows is a series of non-journalistic observations I culled from John's long question-and-answer session with the crowd and our subsequent travels around the Meatpacking District, Chelsea, and the West Village as we sought out booze and a scene where John could see "pretty people."

  • First and foremost: John Amaechi is really fucking smart. He uses words like "ethnocentrism" and "empathic" and speaks with refreshing candor. Every response he gave was infused with so much perspective that I found myself repeatedly thinking, "Yeah, why DO people care that he was a gay in the NBA?" Example: Spurred on by some excellent insight I got from Kevin Arnovitz at ClipperBlog — he's the only openly gay sports blogger I know — I asked John about how a lot of writers and fans had talked about how the bigger development would be when an active player came out, and how much that hypothetical player's talent level could make it an easier transition. He laughed off the notion of it somehow creating monumental change in America's attitudes toward homosexuals. He took a metaphorical step back and wondered how, if the hate crime against Matthew Shepard couldn't erase prejudice against gays, what would "gay Shaq" be able to do?
  • On his NBA career, and choosing retirement and working with kids over suiting up for the Knicks: "They needed a lot more help than what I could give them." And again, the perspective (I'm paraphrasing): "What I did, when you boil it down, was put a ball in a hole. Ten years of my life: putting a ball in a hole. I was good at it. I could do it from 18 feet, even. Sometimes 20 feet on a good night." His stance is that working with other people and affecting lives positively is more important than playing sports professionally.
  • On the level of support versus animosity from the American black community: the majority are intelligent, empathic, open-minded blacks who simply aren't very vocal in their support. "Unfortunately, the sound of a million people shrugging is silence," so the voices that carry are the loud, bigoted ones, and it's an unfortunate coincidence that much of the immediate, public face of bigotry right now is black (Tim Hardaway, Isaiah Washington).
  • Near the end of the Q&A, Ebony Haith from the first season of America's Next Top Model, who is openly gay, praised John for his honesty. How did I know she was from ANTM? She began her little speech by saying, "My name's Ebony, and most people recognize me from the first season of America's Next Top Model." John later admitted that he was surprised that someone would introduce herself in the style of Troy McClure.
  • On religion, and the persistence of many Americans who "pray for him" and encourage him to "find Jesus": "I'm not agnostic and I'm not atheist. I honestly don't think about it. I think about this [motioned between him and the crowd]." His priorities are people; he's bothered by people who "wander around, staring into the sun, all the while stepping on people"; and people who quote Leviticus to him need to understand that that was the Old Testament: "It's been revised, you know. There's a new edition." He was also confounded by people who pick and choose what leftovers from the Old Testament are and aren't sins: "It also forbids eating shellfish. If being gay is as bad as going to Red Lobster, I'm not really worried about it."
  • John finished his Q&A by demanding that the audience not clap, suggesting that they instead "buy him gin."
  • Are there gay players currently in the NBA: yes, and he's friends with them. Or was. They haven't been showing up on his instant messenger buddy list recently.
  • He insinuated that he had had romantic encounters with at least one other NBA player, but noted that merely being gay in the NBA wasn't enough to build a relationship around.
  • On Garrison Keillor's Salon article about how gays need to tone down the stereotype of effeminate flamboyance if they want to be accepted as parents and couples: "My response to that would be for him to go screw himself." In all fairness to Keillor, that's Amaechi's response for just about anyone who says or writes anything that smacks of or reinforces homophobia. He used that phrase several times last night.
  • His favorite gin: Hendrick's. Bonus points for me: that's what I keep in my liquor cabinet. It makes the best martinis. We also agree that Tanqueray No. 10 is too sweet.
  • A six-foot-nine, 320-pound man can down a gin and tonic VERY quickly.
  • For those of you who don't have gay friends, gay men check out men the same way straight men check out women. John Amaechi is no different. This seems like a mundane, obvious detail, but then a woman at one of John's recent signings told him, "I didn't realize gay people could be black." Yeah.
  • My friend Billy joined us at G Bar (yes, that's a gay bar). Billy is an actor and close friends with T.R. Knight of Grey's Anatomy, who was the recipient of Isaiah Washington's "f—-t" slur. In the "it's a small world" department, Amaechi had spoken with Washington earlier that day — apparently Washington is making an effort to clean up his image in the gay community and the public eye.
  • Take note: Having a beach house in Malibu is a lifestyle. Being gay is a life.
  • He's looking forward to going home to London tonight for nine days, and getting back into shape (note: he doesn't look out of shape, at least as far as us regular-sized people go). Next week he'll appear on Bill O'Reilly via satellite. He gave the impression that he wasn't welcome in the studio. "Well yeah," I joked, "they might catch what you've got."
  • Another Big Daddy Drew question: Are there gay NBA groupies? Answer: no. At least not remotely in the way there are women available for the straight players.
  • Several of the bloggers I reached out to wanted to know: is Amaechi a top or a bottom? Seems a bit of a personal question to ask of a celebrity I don't really know, and I struggled with a way to pose the question. Well, Billy and John and I had a nightcap at Soho House, a ritzy Meatpacking District club where you have to be a member or be with a member in order to get in (I fall into the latter category). While Billy spoke with an acquaintance, I asked John, "How'd you come up with 'Man in the Middle'? Shouldn't it be 'Man on Top' or 'Man on Bottom'?" Alas, he didn't take the bait, and I was left with a mundane explanation of the position of center, and not intimate details of his sex life. Sorry. I said I was bad at journalism.

And that was that. Sometime around 1:30 a.m. we went our separate ways — John across the street to the Hotel Gansevoort, me to the subway for an hour of waiting and changing trains. I felt badly that I couldn't be a better a wing man for him in his search for pretty boys, but he didn't seem too upset by it and gave Billy and me hugs as he left.

I went home just absolutely impressed by Amaechi as a person. Not as a gay man; not as an NBA player; not as a mixed-race gay Brit in the NBA. He's simply a phenomenally intelligent, good-hearted, and good-humored person. And he probably looks forward to the day that all people see him as such: minus the labels.


TAGSADVENTURES IN JOURNALISMJOHN AMAECHINBA

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