ESPN The Magazine: Free to be himself

Editor's note: This article appears in the February 26 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

I've called John Amaechi a friend for more than five years, and I can tell you
he is brilliant, introspective, complicated, brave, eloquent and generous beyond
words. I can't imagine anyone I've met in sports being as qualified for anything as he
is to be a spokesman for whatever he is passionate about. But I've never heard him
the way I recently did, when the news broke that he is gay a few days before he was
prepared for it to break. His breathing, not unlike the decision to come out, was heavy
and labored -- as if he'd just finished running wind sprints. Terror -- it is so draining.

"I feel exhausted already," he said. "All this is about to happen, this complete
unknown. I like structure. I've planned my entire life to this point. This wasn't in there.
I'm in the vehicle, but I'm a passenger now. There is no driver. But I did choose to open
the door and get in, and it's the right choice for a number of reasons. I'm sure that will
become plain soon."

It just wasn't plain in the moment. What's the saying? Courage isn't the
absence of fear but the ability to overcome it? Amaechi has never been so scared,
which says plenty. Consider: When asked if he ever felt free in the NBA, he said,
"Never. Just lonely and isolated and afraid." The biggest relief in his career?
When he got the call that it was over. He felt, in his words, "the deepest and most
profound of sighs -- every muscle in my body relaxing at once."

The mantle -- as the first openly gay NBA player -- fits him. In two decades in journalism,
he's the smartest athlete I've known. He's an activist and a scholar and qualified
to be a therapist. Amaechi wants to go on O'Reilly. I can't wait to see that.

There aren't many barriers left to break in sports. The only way an athlete can be
Jackie Robinson today is by being an active male player in a team sport who is gay.
Amaechi considered coming out during his playing days, but feared losing everything,
from his livelihood to the respect of his teammates to his profoundly important
work with children.

"The person who does it while he's active is going to have to be a quality player with
a long-term contract," Amaechi said. "I left my dying mother, my home and everything
I knew to pursue this highly unlikely career, and I couldn't risk all that by coming out
during it. In six years, I went from fat bookworm to the NBA. People are going to try
to diminish this by saying, 'He wasn't any good. Why should I listen to him?' But I was
there, in the league. Somebody has to do this first and properly, and I'm going to
attempt to do that. It's what any principled person of conscience would do when
they're confident and ready."

Fear notwithstanding, Amaechi is all that -- confident, principled, a man of
conscience. He turned down the chance to play with Shaq and Kobe and a six-year,
$17 million contract (read: lifetime security) because staying for far less money
with the Orlando team that discovered him was the right thing to do.

I talked to him again 12 hours after that initial fright, and he sounded confident,
stronger, ready. Like himself, in other words.

"I'm back!" Amaechi kept saying, breathing so much easier.

John Amaechi's book "Man in the Middle" (ESPN Books) is now available at Amazon.com.