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Former Jazz center writes of trying to hide homosexuality

Published February 8, 2007 7:03 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Posted: 7:04 AM- John Amaechi's two seasons with the Utah Jazz were a disaster athletically. But "I was having the time of my life away from the game" in Salt Lake City, Amaechi writes in a forthcoming book, and for a reason that defies the stereotypical portrait of conservative Utah.

"I was astonished," Amaechi's autobiography reads, "that [Salt Lake City] is the hippest, gayest place east of San Francisco."

The fact that he was a part of "this flamboyant minority" in Utah, as he wrote, on Wednesday began making more of an impact on the NBA than his pro career ever did. Amaechi, a 6-foot-10 center whose two disappointing seasons with the Jazz in 2001-03 concluded his five-year career, is the first NBA player ever to publicly acknowledge he is gay.

"I vowed that if I made it [in] the NBA, I'd do whatever I could to carve out a safe little gay niche for myself," Amaechi wrote. "And after my career ended, I could obliterate the closet door in a big way."

His new book to be published next week, Man in the Middle, a copy of which was acquired by The Salt Lake Tribune, accomplishes that by detailing his life as a gay man trying to keep his sexuality a secret in a locker-room culture he considered decidedly homophobic.

"Homosexuality is an obsession among ballplayers, trailing only wealth and women," he wrote. "They just didn't like [gays] - or so they insisted over and over and over again. It soon became clear they didn't understand [gays] enough to truly loathe them."

NBA commissioner David Stern, however, disputed that a teammate's sexuality matters to his league's players, saying ability is far more important.

"We have a very diverse league. The question at the NBA is always, 'Have you got game?' " Stern told the Associated Press. "That's it, end of inquiry."

Amaechi, who averaged 2.6 points and 1.8 rebounds in 104 Jazz games after signing as a free agent in 2001, said his two seasons in Utah were among the happiest of his adult life - off the floor, where he "lived relatively freely among my gay peers" for the first time in his NBA career.

But the book harshly criticizes Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, who frequently clashed with Amaechi and twice suspended the backup center for insubordination. "He was pale and withered, a body gradually losing the war it had waged against the world. Yet he had the arrogance of an aging gunslinger who'd survived so many bullets that no one dared challenge him," Amaechi wrote. At one point in the stormy relationship between coach and player, Amaechi said, "I couldn't help fantasizing about a Latrell Sprewell moment," a reference to the Golden State player who choked his coach.

When he was traded to Houston in September 2003, Amaechi concluded that "I'd been sent packing because Sloan couldn't comprehend me, especially my sexuality." He also asserted that "smart, independent people threatened Sloan," and that "friends who worked in high-level front-office jobs with the Jazz" had e-mailed him with accusations that "Sloan had used some anti-gay innuendo to describe me."

The longtime Jazz coach, however, said Wednesday that he did not know Amaechi was gay. He acknowledged that their relationship was "shaky - we didn't see eye to eye on a few things." He did not address Amaechi's accusation, and the team later released a statement from Sloan saying in part that "It has always been my philosophy that my job is to make sure Jazz players perform to their maximum ability on the floor. As far as his personal life is concerned, I wish John the best."

Amaechi, born in Massachusetts but raised in England, also criticized Jazz owner Larry Miller as a bigot, saying he feared if his sexuality became public knowledge, Miller might try to take action against him. He also described the owner as "as much of a screamer as Sloan. After a tough loss, [Miller] would stride into the locker room and yell, 'You f---- ass----, I'm gonna sue every f----- one of you for breaking your contract.' "

His teammates were more accepting, though he never admitted to being gay, Amaechi wrote. Center Greg Ostertag, described as a close friend, "asked me point-blank in the tunnel, 'Ya gay, dude?'

" 'Greg, you have nothing to worry about,' I said. It was clear Greg couldn't have cared less."

Amaechi also recounted a text-message he received from Andrei Kirilenko, inviting him to a New Year's Eve party with "your partner, if you have one, someone special to you," Amaechi wrote. "Who it is makes no difference to me."

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