DENVER -- When John Amaechi told the world he was gay, he steeled himself for a torrent of negativity that never really materialized, the former pro basketball player told the Republican Party's largest gay organization Saturday.
"I underestimated America. I braced myself for the wrath of a nation under God," Amaechi said at the Log Cabin Republicans' annual convention. "I imagined that it would be a firestorm, that it would be some insane number of letters demanding my deportation or my death.
"And in fact, 95 percent of the correspondence I've had have been overwhelmingly supportive and positive," Amaechi said. "But I will say that the 5 percent that I've had have been unbelievably, viscerally, frighteningly negative."
Amaechi is a psychologist who works with corporations and also with children, "and I worried what America would make of that," he said. "And it is not an issue."
Among the most vitriolic of critics was former NBA All-Star Tim Hardaway, whose anti-gay remarks led to his disassociation with the league.
Amaechi, who was raised in England, played in 301 NBA games over five seasons with stops in Cleveland, Orlando, Utah, Houston and New York.
"Probably 30 of my former [NBA] teammates have my e-mail and my
telephone contacts and probably 16 or so of those I was in regular
touch with and there are probably 10 people who I have [on instant
messenger]. And zero -- nobody -- who's active in the NBA has been in
touch with me since the day I came out, despite the fact that most
of them knew I was gay in the first place."
-- Former NBA player John Amaechi
The 36-year-old former player said that while he's heard from everyone he played with at Penn State, he has yet to hear from a single former NBA teammate since coming out in February.
"Probably 30 of my former [NBA] teammates have my e-mail and my telephone contacts and probably 16 or so of those I was in regular touch with and there are probably 10 people who I have [on instant messenger]. And zero -- nobody -- who's active in the NBA has been in touch with me since the day I came out, despite the fact that most of them knew I was gay in the first place," Amaechi said.
He also wondered why nba.com, the league's official Web site, has never mentioned his homosexuality when it was such a huge sports story everywhere else.
Amaechi said he thinks the sports world is slowly accepting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender athletes but he wasn't sure if that was indicative of society's acceptance or even whether sports was an appropriate barometer.
"They are our gladiators, our heroes. On the other hand, there's not many of you would trust them with your children, with your car keys or to do your accounting," he said. "Let's face it, for the most part, the stereotype is that they -- we -- are dumb as rocks. So, I don't know if they are a terribly good group to be looked at as kind of indicative of societal change or as leaders in that respect."
At times, Amaechi said he finds himself a little out of place as a gay sports ambassador.
"I've spent a lot of time in this country and I do adore it on many levels, but we live in a country where a man can be lured to a parking lot, beaten and chased to his death on a freeway," Amaechi said. "We live in a country where a shoeless child can be strapped to a fence post and left to die. ... And yet somehow we expect that the general public will sit up and pay attention when they can focus on 'Gay Shaq.'
"I don't understand that. What happens to human empathy when the death of children, of innocents, do not inspire the kind of change we're looking for? But an athlete potentially sacrificing an endorsement here or there or the chiding of his teammates, that would cause this kind of change?"
In his speech titled "Is Pro Sports Changing?" Amaechi said not all change is relevant, a point he illustrated with a story about doing plyometric training in Phoenix with other elite athletes during his playing days. A young football player begged to be allowed to jump onto the highest of three boxes. He almost made it but clipped the edge and fell to the floor, skinning his shins.
"Until he grew up, until he got the strength that he needed, until he got the size he needed, until his physical ability and his experiences matched his will, he is indistinguishable from those who could jump on the middle box," Amaechi said. "All he has to show for his attempt at this top box is shins with no skin.
"Sometimes change has a threshold, and until you reach it, there is not really any progress."
As for politics, Amaechi chided Democrats and Republicans alike.
"It's hard for me to hide the fact that I am no fan of this administration, as much for their foreign policy as for their stance on [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] issues," he said. "However, I am no fan of the Democratic candidates who take four days before they decide that Gen. Pace's comments were not very nice."
Gen. Peter Pace is the Pentagon's top general who two months ago called homosexuality immoral and said the military should not condone it by allowing gays to serve openly in the armed forces. He later expressed regret but did not apologize.
Amaechi surprised many in the audience by declaring he's not a sports fan and that he has no desire to pick up a basketball again, although he is intrigued by the thought of playing for a gay team.
"I haven't watched a professional basketball game in three, maybe four years," he said. "And it's not because I hate the NBA or I harbor any kind of [resentment]. None of that. It's just that Saturday afternoon, I can think of something better to do."