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Jazz: Center's lifestyle was 'open secret'

Published February 9, 2007 12:36 am

Former teammates say Amaechi's troubles with Sloan had nothing to do with the player's sexuality
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

John Amaechi's homosexuality was rumored, discussed and speculated about in the Jazz's locker room during his tenure in Utah, two of his former teammates said Thursday. But Matt Harpring and Jarron Collins say none of the conjecture affected their relationship with the British center, and they're not certain that knowing for sure would have, either.

"Speculation arises but nothing is confirmed and you just move on. It wasn't a big deal," Collins said, adding that he agrees with Amaechi's opinion that his sexuality eventually became "an open secret" among his teammates. "But to him, obviously it was."

Neither of the Jazz players believe, however, that the feud that developed between Amaechi and coach Jerry Sloan was because he was gay. Amaechi makes that accusation in his forthcoming book, "Man in the Middle," in which the 6-foot-10 center becomes the first NBA player to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality.

"I'd been sent packing," Amaechi writes of his Sept. 2003 trade to Houston, "because Sloan couldn't comprehend me, especially my sexuality."

That's not Harpring's recollection, though. "I don't think it had anything to do with being gay vs. being straight," said Harpring, one of three remaining Jazz players - Collins and Andrei Kirilenko are the others - to have played alongside Amaechi.

Sloan would not comment further on Amaechi's book Thursday, though he said it would not matter to him if a player was gay. And he said he had no knowledge, until Amaechi's revelation this week, of ever having coached a gay player.

Sloan and Amaechi could not hide their animosity toward each other after the Jazz signed the former Cavs and Magic center as a free agent in 2001. They had confrontations in the locker room and on the practice floor, and Sloan twice suspended Amaechi for insubordination, once after the player says he responded to a vulgarity from the coach during a game with one of his own.

"Yanking me from the game, he pointed a long, bony finger in my face and ordered me out of the arena," Amaechi wrote in his book, which will be published later this month. "I refused, planting myself in the middle of the bench. What was he going to do, have me arrested? After the game, he suspended me."

Collins believes the root of that conflict was not homophobia, but of incompatible attitudes toward the sport. Amaechi portrays himself in the book as being neutral toward basketball, willing to work hard at it but admitting that he believed his responsibility ended the moment practice or a game finished.

Collins' memory, though, is that Amaechi wasn't just indifferent toward his job, but irritated by it and the pro sports atmosphere. "He just wasn't interested in basketball, period," Collins said. "I never knew someone who just disliked the game. I would say that everyone has different motivations to play the game of basketball. John was very clear that money was his. But it really was like, he didn't like the game. It's kind of hard if you hate it."

Amaechi once told Collins that "No other job will pay me what I make in that short amount of time," the current Jazz center said. "He was very rational about it. It makes sense when you put it through his logic - well, you're right. OK."

But that attitude was a terrible fit for Sloan's style of coaching, Collins said, for his desire to mold a team that cares about winning. "If I've got a player on the team that just has no interest in the sport whatsoever, it's going to be difficult for me to coach, or to be around that person," Collins said.

He got along well with Amaechi, Collins said. "You could talk to John Amaechi about anything in the world, and quite frankly, he had an opinion about it. Very intelligent," he recalled. ". . . But you ask the question, was he a good teammate? And that's difficult to answer."

Harpring was a teammate of Amaechi in Orlando before both ended up in Salt Lake, and "I liked him. He was always very cordial with me," said Harpring, whose locker was next to Amaechi's during their one season together. "We talked a lot."

He never knew for sure that Amaechi was gay, though he heard the rumors. "I didn't care," he said. Would it have been different had Amaechi revealed his sexuality to his teammates? "I really don't know," Harpring said. "I think you would have to walk in the shoes of John Amaechi to see what he was feeling."

"It's tough to say. We don't live in a vacuum," Collins agreed. "In the real world, there are a whole bunch of other issues that John was very conscious of if he had made that announcement. Who's to say how the team or the community or the fans or anyone would have reacted? It's a big thing for him to come out now. That's something that he had to deal with, and with his own peace of mind."

pmiller@sltrib.com