With his autobiography and his all-star commitment to bettering the world, this ex-NBA star proved that being gay isn't the most interesting thing about him
INSTINCT: How’s this year been for you?
JOHN AMAECHI: It’s been this amazing combination of being incredibly busy and rushed off my feet, but at the same time, in moments of reflection, knowing that I’m beginning to do some important things, but only really beginning.
You’ve always been clear about your goals: morals over money.
I’ve always said there are more important things, and one that’s always been strikingly important for me has been the idea of building a legacy, something that is worthwhile—more than just putting a ball in a hole, more than the acquisition of wealth. Especially if you’re not going to have children, then I think it’s especially important to leave some kind of magnanimous ripple behind you.
What would you say to GLBT youth who dream of someday becoming pro athletes?
Growing up, I was the fat child who hid in the corner of the library, hoping to be invisible. I am living proof that the most unlikely people can achieve extraordinary things: being an athlete, a teacher, whatever. Go for it.
What’s the one thing that people would still be quite surprised to learn about you?
Oh, God! [Laughs] I think the biggest thing is that I’m an introvert. People imagine that because I can speak in front of a crowd, that that’s my atmosphere, whereas I’m really more of a hide-in-my-house, watching-Law & Order-type of person. [Laughs]
Do you still write poetry?
Not as much. I think my brain has been so busy with work that my muse has gone on holiday.
Tell me about the charity work you’re doing.
My main charity is my own: the ABC Foundation. Essentially, I try to build holistic community centers for young people, and that’s anybody from the age of 5 through 85. Yes, they can play sports, but also there’s wireless Internet, a library, counselors available—a place that can become a proper hub for the community. Creating areas where young people know that there are adults there who care about them is just so key.
It helps give them direction, too, right?
There’s a philosophical contract you sign every time you walk in the door: This is the way we treat our fellow human being, regardless of age or gender or sexual orientation. That there is this expectation that you will broaden yourself and learn about the people around you. The fact is that I’m really arrogant about this. I’m not interested in piecemeal. I want to make sweeping, significant change.
Do you think we should all aim higher?
I really do. I think sometimes people look at the problems around us, and they’re so daunting you don’t even know where to start. I had that very same feeling. But the fact is—partly it’s my bad flaw of being a bit arrogant—I just wanted to jump in there and change it anyway.
What would a date with The Meech be like?
Oh, God. Incredibly awkward at the beginning, because I’m very bad at dates. [Laughs] Then I would chat endlessly to alleviate the awkwardness. I’m not sure. It’s been a while. [Laughs]
Article continues below...
Well, you’re a very busy fellow.
That’s true, too. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.
What’s the most embarrassing CD you own?
Hmm…not to confirm any stereotypes, but I do have about every soundtrack from every musical since about 1930.
Do you sing along?
I’m not in tune! [Laughs] But I know the words.
Growing up as a young Englishman, were you bonkers for Bananarama?
Girl bands didn’t really tweak my melons, but I know all their songs. It’s a horrible indictment—I’ll never get a date now if people know all this stuff.
What do you think about the upcoming presidential race?
I think it’s going to be fascinating. I can vote in this country and haven’t missed a chance yet. I’m still hoping against hope—and I know this is really naïve—for a West Wing-type candidate to come along. I want a Bartlet: a proper educated person—and yes, of faith is fine—who understands that individual people deserve dignity and grace.
You grand-marshaled many a Gay Pride this year. How was that?
I was very cynical about Pride. It seemed to me an excuse for a party, despite the fact that I am aware of the history. But the fact is, having gone to a few now, it’s really touched me to see how there is, for that day, for that moment, a feeling of solidarity that I think, for many of the participants, really is something tangible that stays with them for the year. I can certainly associate with that feeling of having a moment where finally you fit in, even if after that day you have to go back to that place you live that’s geographically and culturally isolated.
Who’s your hero?
My mum was my hero. She was amazing. It’s hard to describe someone who was so influential in so many different ways, but the best thing I can say is that…my mother was sunlight. It’s the feeling when you stick your head out of a door and the sun is shining and it hits your face and you close your eyes and the sun is illuminating your entire brain. When the sun breaks through the clouds and it hits you, you can’t help but smile. The sun is what sustains life. That’s how I feel about my mum.
Are you happy with where you are today?
I still think I’m a professional at not fitting in—I’ll always be channeling the inner fat child who hid in the corner of the library. It keeps me grounded and helps me understand that there’s so much more work for me to do, along with my peers, not just in the GLBT community, but in society as a whole.
You really, really deserve all the credit and honors that you’ve gotten this year, John.
No, I don’t! This is one of those things that I have to make totally clear. I have seen the lists of people, and I haven’t done anything yet. I will. With the next few years, I’m really going to make certain. I absolutely am convinced that I’m going to kick all their asses and try and really assert my place, but “hero”—these types of words, they’re for special people. You don’t get to be special just because you’re popular. That’s how Paris Hilton gets to be Paris Hilton, and I am no Paris Hilton.