Amaechi becomes first NBA player to come out

In a groundbreaking revelation that began to reverberate around the NBA on Wednesday, former player John Amaechi has become the first professional basketball player to openly identify himself as gay.

Amaechi, who played at Penn State and spent five seasons in the NBA with Orlando, Utah and Cleveland, comes out in an upcoming book entitled "Man in the Middle" to be released later this month by ESPN Books (owned by the Walt Disney Company, parent company of ESPN).

Martina Navratilova, perhaps the most famous openly gay athlete in the world, praised Amaechi's decision and said it's imperative for athletes to come out because of what she called an epidemic of suicides among young lesbians and gays.

"It's hugely important for the kids so they don't feel alone in the world. We're role models. We're adults, and we know we're not alone but kids don't know that," she said. "He will definitely help a lot of kids growing up to feel better about themselves."

Three years after his playing career ended, Amaechi become the sixth professional male athlete from one of the four major American sports (NBA, MLB, NFL, NHL) to publicly discuss his homosexuality.

Former NFL running back David Kopay came out in 1977; offensive lineman Roy Simmons and defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo came out more recently. Glenn Burke, an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland Athletics in the 1970s, and Billy Bean, a utility player in the 1980s and 1990s, have also come out. Former major-league umpire Dave Pallone has also said he is gay.

Burke died of complications due to AIDS in 1995.

"What John did is amazing," said Tuaolo, who came out in 2002. "He does not know how many lives he's saved by speaking the truth."

Tuaolo said coming out would be a relief to Amaechi.

"Living with all that stress and that depression, all you deal with as a closeted person, when you come out you really truly free yourself,'' Tuaolo said. "When I came out, it felt like I was getting out of prison."

Amaechi, a 6-foot-10 center, averaged 6.2 points and 2.6 rebounds before retiring from the league in 2003 after his contract was traded from Houston to New York. He never played for the Rockets or Knicks. He is currently known in Britain as a television personality and for helping fund the Amaechi Basketball Center in Manchester.

In the book and in an in-depth interview with ESPN's "Outside The Lines" to be shown Sunday, Amaechi speaks and writes candidly about his pro career, his relationships with teammates and coaches and how he began to live more openly gay while he was playing for the Jazz -- frequenting gay clubs, both in Salt Lake City and in other NBA cities.

In the book and in his interview, Amaechi called Jazz owner Larry Miller a "bigot," said former teammate Karl Malone was a xenophobe and said coach Jerry Sloan "hated" him.

Sloan, who was asked after practice Wednesday about Amaechi's allegations that the coach had made homophobic comments and treated the player crudely, said he did not know about Amaechi's sexuality when Amaechi was playing for the Jazz.

"We didn't see eye to eye on a few things," Sloan said.

Sloan later released a statement through the Jazz's public relations office.

"I have coached more than 100 players during the past 19 seasons, and 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 and have nothing further to add," he said.

But Amaechi also spoke fondly of former teammate Greg Ostertag, who he said was the only player ever to ask him if he was gay (Amaechi answered: "You have nothing to worry about, Greg"), as well as another former teammate he calls "Malinka" (Russian for "little one") who Amaechi felt was aware and accepting of the fact he was gay. Amaechi's publicist, Howard Bragman, confirmed to ESPN.com that the player was Andrei Kirilenko.

"Some time after Christmas of my last Utah season, as the team was sliding out of contention, Malinka instant-messaged an invitation to his New Year's Eve party, explaining he was only inviting his 'favorite' friends. Then he wrote something that brought tears to my eyes: 'Please come, John. You are welcome to bring your partner, if you have one, someone special to you. Who it is makes no difference to me,'" Amaechi wrote. "I was hosting my own party that night, so I had to decline his sweet invitation. But I was moved. I had Ryan deliver Malinka a $500 bottle of Jean Paul Gaulthier-dressed champagne.

"The whole exchange was a revelation. Malinka's generous overture made the season more bearable. It also showed that in my own paranoia and overwhelming desire for privacy, I'd failed to give some of my teammates the benefit of the doubt. The sense of welcome and belonging, so often denied gay people even by their own families, meant the world to me, especially in the middle of a dreadful season in a strange desert state that in the end provided some of the best days of my life," he wrote.

NBA commissioner David Stern said a player's sexuality is not important.

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

Orlando's Grant Hill, who said he didn't know Amaechi when he was with the Magic, applauded the decision to go public.

"The fact that John has done this, maybe it will give others the comfort or confidence to come out as well, whether they are playing or retiring," Hill said.

LeBron James, however, said he didn't think an openly gay person could survive in the league.

"With teammates you have to be trustworthy, and if you're gay and you're not admitting that you are, then you are not trustworthy," James said. "So that's like the No. 1 thing as teammates -- we all trust each other. You've heard of the in-room, locker room code. What happens in the locker room stays in there. It's a trust factor, honestly. A big trust factor."

Injured Philadelphia Sixers forward Shavlik Randolph acknowledged it's a new situation.

"As long as you don't bring your gayness on me I'm fine," Randolph said. "As far as business-wise, I'm sure I could play with him. But I think it would create a little awkwardness in the locker room."

News that Amaechi had come out surprised some players.

"For real? He's gay for real?" said Philadelphia center Steven Hunter. "Nowadays it's proven that people can live double lives. I watch a lot of TV, so I see a lot of sick perverted stuff about married men running around with gay guys and all types of foolishness."

Even so, Hunter said he would be fine with an openly gay teammate.

"As long as he don't make any advances toward me I'm fine with it," he said. "As long as he came to play basketball like a man and conducted himself like a good person, I'd be fine with it."

Orlando's Pat Garrity acknowledged reaction was bound to vary throughout the league.

"They would have teammates that would accept them for being a good person and a good teammate, and there would be people who would give him a hard time about it," he said. "I think that's true if you're playing basketball or in an office job. That's just how the world is right now."

In his "Outside The Lines" interview, Amaechi discussed how he realized his sexuality as a young teen and kept it hidden through his collegiate career at Penn State and in his early NBA days with the Cavaliers and Magic.

Amaechi also said he believes there are other gay players in the NBA.

"I don't know if there are a lot, but there are some," Amaechi said. "But you know … I don't really want to talk about it because I think that the coming out process for these individuals that for some I have been privy to and some I have not, um, it is theirs and theirs alone. And I don't think that they should be pressured or pushed for the good of the gay community or otherwise. They should not be pressured or pushed."

Has Amaechi conversed with them?

"Some," he said.

What are their reservations about coming out?

"It's a frightening prospect. It's terrifying," Amaechi said. "There are people for whom their entire world is based around this idea that people will look at them and when they look at them, they are NBA superstars, NBA players. And any change to that would be physiologically devastating. Emotionally devastating, financially devastating."

"Man in the Middle" will be excerpted next week in ESPN The Magazine and on ESPN.com.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report. Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.