John Amaechi talks the NBA’s support for the LGBTQ community and offers advice to newly drafted rookies
As the first former player in the league to come out, he’s using his life after basketball to help create inclusive workplaces
Former NBA player John Amaechi knew he wanted to be a psychologist when he was just 7 years old.
“I didn’t know what type of psychologist, perhaps, but I knew I wanted to be a psychologist,” he said.
But before conquering that goal, he picked up a basketball for the first time at 17. He attended Penn State University and worked on his doctorate. Then his path led him to the NBA, where he became the first British player in the league, spending five seasons with Orlando, Utah and Cleveland.
In February 2007, four years after retiring from the NBA, he became the first former NBA player to come out publicly. It was in his book Man in the Middle that he revealed to the world a part of his life he’d kept hidden.
“I’m also a person who after that career has found another completely different way to maintain a sense of excellence and purpose in my life,” he said. “And I think that’s the kind of encouragement we would want to give to any athlete from high school to college, from college to the pros, from pros on to the next thing, having in mind that sports will not always be enough.”
Nowadays, he can be called Dr. Amaechi, an organizational psychologist, New York Times best-selling author and CEO of Amaechi Performance Systems (APS), a psychological services and management training firm.
Man in the Middle chronicles Amaechi’s journey from English lad to jet-setting NBA star. Along the way, he endured endless obstacles, including being abandoned by his father, being cut from his first college team, recovering from a life-threatening injury, playing for abusive coaches and losing his mother.
“As my career was winding down in the fall of 2003, such perspective proved critical. I still marveled that a man like me would end up in a place like this — an awkward, gay British kid raised by a single mother, playing for an amazing franchise …,” he wrote in the memoir.
For Amaechi, life after basketball is “brilliant.” He praised the NBA for its advocacy for the LGBTQ community and other marginalized communities and also works with the league on some of its mental health programming.
“I think that within the NBA, it’s very clear that there’s a huge amount of support,” Amaechi said. “And not just in the kind of pins, posters and T-shirts kind of way, though the NBA does do that. It’s also that when you hear the language around inclusion, and not just for Pride Month but around issues like Black Lives Matter, around issues of women in sports and women in society …”
While Amaechi’s work is not glamorous, it’s necessary. He offers improvement models for businesses and often speaks to company leaders about solving intractable problems for people and creating inclusive workplaces despite the challenges and disruptions of the modern world.
“Every week I am walking into a different organization. I’m with a different organization helping to solve some of the problems that they’ve found a bit intractable. Some of the challenges that they haven’t been able to solve on their own, we partner with organizations to help them … to be able to deliver on the promise that they make both to their stakeholders, their shareholders, their workers and indeed their own mission,” Amaechi said.
He recently spoke to employees at RedPeg Marketing Company about inclusiveness. According to RedPeg, companies are struggling to create an inclusive company culture that embraces diversity – a topic dear to Amaechi. RedPeg, a 20-plus year old marketing agency based in Arlington, Virginia specializes in connecting brands with their target audience. Their series is designed to inspire and motivate team members.
“It’s part of the job that I do. I’m a psychologist nowadays, and so one of the issues that workplaces have to manage and part of the culture and leadership of any organization is how to make sure everybody feels like they belong, how to make sure the people feel like they fit and can contribute in the best way possible. So this is not an unusual part of the job. It’s certainly not every day that I do it, but in terms of this particular topic, it’s a really core part of creating a workplace where people can thrive.”
Just in time for the NBA draft, Amaechi offers advice to newcomers into the league.
“I would say that preparation has to start the day you step onto the court in the NBA,” he said. “That’s the day that you at least think about the end of your career. But it’s also the day when, amongst the chaos, you [are] getting familiar with your surroundings and solidifying your game.
“Climbing at that stage means that at the end of your career you have a mature plan that’s really well thought through that’s been investigated and challenged so what you’ve come up with at the end is actually a plan that’s going to make you content after your career.”
Amaechi believes in preparing for life financially while playing, but he also encourages players to reach further.
“Being involved in something that keeps you financially sound and safe is not the same as planning for a career after sports,” he said. “Because it’s not just about where your finances will stretch. It’s about whether you’ll have something in your life, a gainful activity in your life, that will help maintain a sense of meaning and purpose. And that’s what I have, and that’s what I would hope every player wants to try and deliver for themselves.”
As for leaving the game, Amaechi said the hardest part is not being in tip-top basketball shape.
“The hardest part is getting fat,” he said. “It’s not being in the same shape that I used to be. But also on the same front, not being willing to do the work that kept me in the shape that I used to be in. But in terms of my career, there isn’t any day that I don’t wake up excited about what I’m doing. I just spent four days with a $2 billion startup, working on their culture and their leadership, and it’s just enthralling every day to have something that invigorates my mind the same way that the NBA used to invigorate my body.”