Monday, September 26, 2011

Book review: Man in the Middle, by John Amaechi

A re-post from our affiliate book review site, Books with Balls.

John Amaechi's NBA career comprised a series of "What if" moments. What if he hadn't been spotted in the street by a basketball talent scout? What if he went to a different college? What if he hadn't turned down $17 million guaranteed from the Lakers to stay in Orlando for one thirtieth the salary?

In his memoir "Man in the Middle", he adds one more: what if he had stepped out of the closet during his basketball career?

When England wicketkeeper Steven Davies came out this year, his actions were seen as heroic and a positive step in the battle to fight bigotry in the testosterone-fuelled major leagues.

When Amaechi published his autobiography in 2007, it was met with disdain from Tim Hardaway and comments from stars like Charles Barkley and LeBron James which were equal parts helpful and harmful. The truth is that no matter how much it may have helped others, John Amaechi would have been seriously disadvantaged - or unable even to play in the League - by admitting his sexuality. Telling a teammate would almost certainly result in pariah status and significantly lessen his chances of making a difference in the world.

Where some deny themselves snacks, business opportunities or even a normal social life to play in the NBA, Amaechi denied himself so much more.

A nerdy kid encouraged to take up basketball in his late teens, Amaechi worked hard to go from Manchester to the NBA via high school in Ohio and a couple of colleges (Vanderbilt and Penn State). First discovering his true sexual orientation at Penn State, he kept it a secret for nearly a decade before coming out to a counsellor from his alma mater while struggling to live with crippling loneliness playing in Greece.

His book isn't a tale of victories, stats or achievements. He was good player in certain situations, but not a star; his book is a tale of a man who enjoyed basketball, but found it a means to an end. He seems more settled and comfortable now, excised from a me-first environment and running his business, Animus Consulting.

There's a certain amount of egotism - but surely Amaechi has more to be proud of than the average basketball star. His most telling statistical indicator is not a matter of average, but of luck - he scored the first basket of the year 2000. While at college, he was active in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program and basically adopted a bunch of kids coming from unfortunate backgrounds. He did likewise in Orlando - leading, along with a bunch of enjoyable teammates, to his infamous rejection of the Lakers' millions.

Basketball autobiographies are often a glimpse into the psyche of the athlete, no matter how flat-batted they attempt to be. For example, Larry Bird's Drive is without question the most boring autobiography I've ever read - but this indicates much of the man. He is boringly obsessed with basketball. Bird the player was admirable - Bird the man, not so much. Drive, like Bird on anything other than hoops, never says anything worth reading. Amaechi is the polar opposite - basketball provides a background to which he nods occasionally, but his life seems so much broader.

You never get away from Amaechi's sensitive - and frequently pretentious - nature. But to deny either would bear false witness of the man. Any pretentiousness isn't overpowering - just his manner. But certainly, you can see how he wasn't universally liked (especially by Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan) simply because he refused to adhere to the overwhelming jock mentality of regular basketball stars. Where others pay lip service to the importance of basketball, Amaechi does not.

Man in the Middle is an easy read. It's rewarding, as well. Like many sports stars, his perspective has become his reality - events large for him sometimes not seen as such by others - but his perspective is panoramic, rather than focused intently on basketball. In fact, Man in the Middle is one of the first books in a long while that I've made time to read. Footballs.

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