John Amaechi encourages treating strangers well

By Alexa Jankowski, Emily Boardman, and Zachary Nosanchuk

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The world would be better if people paid more attention to those around them.

“The truth is, it’s just paying attention to people and being there, not just with your body,” John Amaechi, a retired NBA basketball player turned psychologist told students in the small auditorium second period Oct. 22.

John Amaechi speaks speaks to students in the small auditorium second period Oct. 22. Amaechi, who played for the Cavs and who became the first openly gay NBA player upon coming out after retirement in 2007, is now a psyschologist and author who speaks on social justice. Social Studies teacher Amanda Ahrens arranged Amaechi’s visit. Amaechi explained his arrival in America as a high school student. He said that when he was 17, a man had told him that he would be good at basketball and, excited by the positive comment about his size, he traveled 300 miles by bus to London. There, he visited the U. S. embassy and bought a book listing all U. S. high schools. He wrote a letter introducing himself as large and British and asking if the schools would want him for their basketball teams. He sent 3,000 of those letters. “That was pre email,” he said. He received only three responses, two of which suggested he was naive and would never succeed. The third came from from Toledo’s St. John Jesuit High School, which offered him a chance. He later played at Vanderbilt University and Penn State before joining the NBA.

Maggie Smith
John Amaechi speaks speaks to students in the small auditorium second period Oct. 22. Amaechi, who played for the Cavs and who became the first openly gay NBA player upon coming out after retirement in 2007, is now a psyschologist and author who speaks on social justice. Social Studies teacher Amanda Ahrens arranged Amaechi’s visit. Amaechi explained his arrival in America as a high school student. He said that when he was 17, a man had told him that he would be good at basketball and, excited by the positive comment about his size, he traveled 300 miles by bus to London. There, he visited the U. S. embassy and bought a book listing all U. S. high schools. He wrote a letter introducing himself as large and British and asking if the schools would want him for their basketball teams. He sent 3,000 of those letters. “That was pre email,” he said. He received only three responses, two of which suggested he was naive and would never succeed. The third came from from Toledo’s St. John Jesuit High School, which offered him a chance. He later played at Vanderbilt University and Penn State before joining the NBA.

In an informal, interactive talk, he spoke about his life, growing up in England, being the first NBA player, active or inactive, to come out as openly gay and later becoming a psychologist.

During the speech, Amaechi, who is 6 feet 9 inches tall, described his childhood: “When I was young, I ate pie and read books. I got huge but I got smart.” He said he retreated to food and books because people would laugh at him — or even scream and run away — as he walked down the street.

“I just stuck out like a sore thumb,” Amaechi said. Everywhere he went people would point and whisper. “It’s hard not to take that to heart,” he said.

His mother was a doctor, and when he was 7, he often went on visits with her to patients’ homes. The families were generally distraught and found it hard to think positively.

“The family would talk to her, and my mum would just say, ‘No, you can do this.’ ” Amaechi was amazed by the way that his mom could communicate and change people’s minds.

After seeing “Star Wars” in 1977, he had a realization about his mother and her talents for influencing others.

“My mother is a Jedi,” Amaechi said he concluded as a child. He raced to the library to find a book on becoming a Jedi, but the librarian told him that what his mom was doing was actually psychology. He later realized that was what he wanted to do as well.

“Psychology is all about being there,” he said.

Amaechi ended the talk with a personal story. Once while a member of the Orlando Magic, he was training in the team’s public facility. He met two teenagers there named Chris and Eric. When he asked them why they were not in school, they said they had some kind of pass. He saw them there the next day and eventually learned that they came from difficult circumstances.

He invited them to Magic games, and eventually to England, where they attended his basketball camp. While there, Chris broke his ankle. In the ambulance, Chris asked Amaechi, “Will you take care of us?”
Amaechi said being a parent was not in his plan, but that after about 24 hours, he returned to the hospital and told Chris he would.

Amaechi later adopted the boys and is now a proud grandfather of four.

Many years after the incident, Chris told Amaechi that the two boys had wanted to be adopted by Amaechi not because he was “an instant NBA dad” but because he had remembered their names the second time they had met.

“Because of remembering somebody’s name, I now have kids and grandkids,” he said, using the point to emphasize his message that small interactions with people in your life can lead to great things.

Privilege is not having to consider what people think of you. Being big, black, and gay in this country, I am a super predator.”

— John Amaechi, former NBA player

After his speech, Amaechi answered questions from the audience about privilege and sexism.

“Boys, at one point you will go up against very smart women, and you will get the job because she has ovaries,” Amaechi said when asked about sexism. He explained that women hold only 20 percent of middle management jobs and 4 percent of upper management posts.

“Privilege is not having to consider what people think of you,” he said. “Being big, black, and gay in this country, I am a super predator.”

In elevators or at ATM machines, Amaechi said he can feel people tense up when they see him because of his race and size. He said that when he rides in an elevator, he knows where every male passenger keeps his wallet, because men cover their left breast pocket containing their wallets as soon as he boards.

He explained the pointlessness of this gesture, as well as it’s offensiveness. “I’m six-foot-nine and 360 pounds, and we’re trapped in a steel box,” said Amaechi. “If I want your wallet, I’ll have your wallet.”
Amaechi however, keeps an open mind about others.

“If everyone thought, ‘I don’t know anything about you, but I’d really like to know,’ the world would be a better place,” he said.

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