My idea was to write a piece about a fictitious gay NBA basketball player on the threshold of coming out of the closet. The timing seemed right as sports talking heads (1, 2, 3) and NBA power brokers are suggesting the first pro athlete playing a team sport in America will imminently be calling that press conference.
Of the 7billion human beings ambulating around our planet, there is a single leading authority on this subject, John Ekwugha Amaechi. In 2007, four years after retiring from his NBA career, John publically declared he was gay. He is the only NBA player, past or present, to come out of the closet.
John is a six-foot-nine-inch homosexual and black Englishman who played basketball in the NBA for five years. The summation of those attributes alone makes him an outlier. But there are more: he has donated millions to philanthropic causes in his hometown, received the Order of the British Empire civilian medal for being a guiding light against social inequality, and holds a PhD in psychology.
Three seconds into our interview it became evident that, as far as John was concerned, I was dead wrong about my assumption that just around the corner a pro athlete would be popping out of the closet. Instead of us putting flesh on the bones of this imaginary player by considering who, what, where and when, John asserted that the most important question was 'why?' Why would an active gay player put himself through a public meat-grinder if he didn't have to?
JA: Republicans have moved sharply to the right since Obama's election, and Democrats, far from countering that pull to the right, have marginally drifted to the right as well. What it means is the middle has become significantly skewed to the right, and that is the direction America is heading.
TK: Do you think someone is going to come out in the near future?
JA: Nope. Someone will be outed probably, but not of their own volition.
TK: You don't think anyone will have that press conference?
JA: Why, for the good of the children? If pro athletes were made that way then someone would probably have said something about child labour in China or India where their shoes are made.
Just before I pulled the plug on the interview, John threw me a lifeline: "This player will come out not because he is looking to change the world. You take the risk because you are desperately, desperately lonely, because every relationship you have, outside of the few familial ties, is inauthentic. You take the risk because you are so tired of sitting with people who smile at you and put their arm around you as teammates and friends and then say horrible things about you - not knowing that they are talking about you. That is why this player comes out."
TK: This is what I want us to dissect. What makes this guy tick?
JA: Okay, fine let's do this. You ask the questions.
And so I did. For the next 30 minutes we built a profile of my imaginary player. Was he an All Star? What was his family and friends dynamic, his love life, the relationship he had with teammates, the press, the owner of his team? On and on we went constructing our own outlier from scratch.
Looking back, I wonder why John hadn't pre-emptively pressed his size high-teen boot deep into the throat of this conversation. I can only surmise that he used valuable time out of his busy schedule to better educate one more person on the cold reality regarding the current landscape for homosexual athletes in the US. These days, his life's mission is to line 'em up and knock 'em down, I was the cross-alley ten pin, an easy spare to be picked up along the way.
My last questions of the day were, "Why did you decide to come out? Why not just seep back into an anonymous gay life in Manchester?"
JA: I have an issue with injustice. But the resentment is there. It is appropriately handled, but it is there. This is not about "Oh, I feel so good, or this is the right thing to do", it's just that I look around and I think, "For fuck's sake, can we not get somebody who can give a great answer to this so I don't have to? Because I have the answer to this."
TK: You are going to be a torchbearer for a while. There are not a lot of guys who can do what you do as well as you do.
JA: I am aware of that. Not pleased about it.
That was it. We took stock of what every closeted gay professional athlete in America must be ruminating about on a daily basis. As for John Amaechi, do you remember the shy, socially awkward and brainy kid in high school that we all knew; the egghead that stayed too long in the library to avoid eye contact and confrontation on the street? That was the massive teenager in Manchester, England in the mid 80s. In 1988 everything changed for him when an American basketball landed in his hands. He wasn't Lebron James, he could barely jump over his passport and his lack of coordination would always be a challenge. What John did have was six feet and nine inches from head to toe. The old basketball saying goes, "You can't coach height." The door cracked opened and, with a smart plan and hard work, John ripped it off its hinges; he stepped through.
And what about my story? The one where an NBA player will soon be coming out of the closet? Yep, against John's onslaught of real world truths, I still wrote it. I guess you can take the American out of idealistic America (10 years and counting), but you cannot take idealism out of the American. The piece is called: An Outlier Amongst Outliers.