Tunde OyedoyinWednesday, October 8, 2003
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London, UK



John Amechi
ohn Uzoma Amaechi will dwarf many of today's sporting icons, and that has nothing to do with being 6' 10 tall. It won't be an easy task to find those who will match him pound for pound, or virtue for virtue, many celebrities will need to run for cover. In fact, some of our 21st century stars will have to scream:'"I'm no longer a celebrity, get me out of here," if placed in a room with him, they would have realised this is a 92 carat jewel. Of course, you don't come across such precious stones so often.

Its a noble idea raising money for charities, and many of today's five-star celebrities have always done that - good lads. But we don't usually see - if any - those who have actually parted with their 'Skilled Gotten Wealth' to cater for their communities, or build a monument for the youngsters who spend their lives idolising them and asking for autographs. We probably won't be able to reel out 10 names on either side of the Atlantic.

To be honest about it, when my friend, Tolu Somolu asked if I knew someone called John Amaechi last year. John who? I responded. Sounds a familiar phrase to that of a London newspaper when Arsene Wenger was about taking charge of Arsenal some years back.Arsene who? the paper asked. What of all those big time managers? Wenger needs no further introduction.

So, John who? I repeated. Miss Somolu said he's just spent four million dollars - two and a half pounds-to build the Amaechi Basketball Centre, ABC in Manchester and shuttles between the UK and America, where he plays basketball. That sounds interesting, I'll like to talk to him. It was too late then and he had to return to the US for the season. But one incident led to another and I forgot about it until last month when, like a stalker, she called me and said:"If you're still interested, I can get his agent to arrange an interview."

Why not? I told her. But hope its not the other guy I complained about? "He's not," according to her. Why decline the offer? Afterall, he's the only British player to have ever started an NBA game - hang on a second. John also has the singular honour of being the only player, among the current playing NBA mates, whose name is in the NBA's Hall of Fame - of course, the only Briton ever as well. To cut a long story short, out of the two options of either London or Manchester, I chose to meet him at the ABC in Manchester on the second monday of August, where he told me his story.

As a preamble, John, presently studying for a Ph. d in Child Psychology, began his career in the United Kingdom, and has played in France, Greece and Italy. He was signed by Orlando Magic in 1999 and two years later, he moved to his current club, Utah Jazz on a four year contract. His name entered the NBA's enviable Hall of Fame three years ago, when he scored the first two points of the new millennium in Miami's American Airlines Arena-by implication, the first NBA points in the new millennium. Again, one could ask, John who? Here's he.

One of the three children born to his Nigerian businessman father, John - now late- and his medical doctor wife, Wendy,in Boston Massachusetts on November 26th, 1970. John 's family moved to Manchester, where he was raised by his late mother, who had a medical practice there. While many of the household names in sports such as Lennox Lewis, Hicham El Guerrouj were inspired into their careers through their idols, John's case is entirely different.

So, how did you come into basketball? "By chance, really. Actually, some people walked up to me on the street of Manchester and asked:"Do you want to play to play basketball? and I said yes. Then about three or four weeks later, they got in touch through my school, Stockport Grammar school, and that's how I was linked with Joe Forbe, who was my first coach."

When was that?" I was 17 then, its a long time ago."

You mean that was it?"Yes, there was no organised induction or recruitment. I was just on the street doing some shopping."

What prompted you to give your consent then?"I don't even know why I said yes. I wasn't really a sports fan and I didn't like sweating, or anything that puts physical pressure on me, but I just said yes. Maybe, its because I'd played Rugby before then and I didn't like it and anything else-apart from Rugby-would do.

"So, three weeks later, I went to the club they suggested and started playing." A great relief it was." I enjoyed it because I met new people who didn't look at me like as a freak. At 6' 9 then, I get tired of people looking at me like a tree or someone too tall." That, he said, had him getting bored." It makes you feel unusual all the time." But in basketball,"I met other tall people and those shorter than me wished they were tall. They didn't look at me as unusual, but like a commodity, something really good and nice."

Did you feel out of place in rugby or what?

"No, but I was a big target."

Having found what could be referred to as a niche for himself, John's ultimate desire was, to one day play in the National Basketball Association's League. Long before then, his parents had split when he was just three and a half years old. The only person who could share his dream with him was his mother.

How did you map out the plan to play in the NBA with your mum?

"I just walked into her bedroom one night and said, I don't know if I wanted to go to University or not. My mum thought I was talking about not wanting to go to the University of Edinburgh or Manchester, but what I meant was that I wanted to go to the US. When she understood this, she was quiet for a moment. Later, she said, okay, 'show me how you'll get there from where you are - being 17 and overweight, coupled with being just 12 weeks into the game. Mum asked me:"How're you going to get to the NBA?" Its just an illusion or a nightmare, someone would have said.

"She made me plan what type of High School I was to attend, the type of coach I would need, what type of family I'll need to stay with over there and also which part of the US I'll be staying and all that. She felt these things would be important if I was to succeed. Infact, she visualised the type of University I would need to go and how to also meet the academic requirements. But we also thought about a situation where I didn't get admitted to the college I wanted, what was I to do? In essence, we had a plan and a contingency for every idea and every stage of my proposed career."

But do you have to be academically sound before making it to the NBA?

"Not at all. Generally, they don't care and there are Universities you can get to where they don't bother what you're in class, as long as you're dunking and slamming. But there's another group where you have to be as good in the class, as you're on the court of play. I was lucky to have made it to a school that cared for both."

Does that help in any way?

"Yes, I'm strongly of the belief that you can't be very good in one area of your life and be slack or an under achiever in another. You can't be really good academically, working hard in class and then be a lazy fellow, not wanting to do anything with your body at all. If that be the case, you can't get to the peak of your potential, one area will suffer. For me, it was good to keep myself academically sound and this was carried over to basketball, and it helped."

Could that be why you were able to win the Academic All Achiever's award twice?

After a small pause as if something was wrong with the question, John answered:"No, I won it three times," not two. In my first two years, I was in the top five, but in the final year: I was the one. I went up overall."

How were you able to do that?

"I don't know, but its not that quite hard."

Really? But many students I know seemed plagued with a:"Let my people go," syndrome. This buddy 's different then.

He told me:" There're lots of students out there who work as well as school. So, because you play basketball, its no different, a job is a job. I'm not giving more or less than those other students working in Pizza Huts and supermarkets. In fact, they're working more hours than me. I'm just doing what others are doing. People think basketball is different from academics, but its not. They both take a lot of similar things, such as being able to stay focused and the ability to concentrate. Although I don't get physically tired when I'm studying, but its mentally exhausting and you have to deal with that."

As an NBA star, don't you get distracted by your mates in school and do you not get tempted to dump your Ph. d programme?

"To start with, I was never interested in just being a basketball player and I always feel insulted when people tell me I must be a basketball player alone. I don't have to be." That sounds familiar to what Dr Vitali Klischsco - Ph. d in Sports Science - told a journalist before failing to dethrone WBC heavyweight champion, Lennox Lewis in April.

But What are you talking about, John?

"There're other things I could do. It was important for my mother and it was also important for me that I have a career outside basketball. Everyone needs something that excites their mind, as well as their body. When you play basketball, that takes care of all the physical energy in you, but if your mind is down, you can't even enjoy your success. You can't enjoy the money and you won't know how to spend it wisely, so you need to do something with your mind."

Could that be the reason why someone like Mike Tyson is now bankrupt despite making more than a hundred million dollars from boxing?

"Tyson had terrible, terrible, terrible advisers, that's one clear thing. The people who have advised him throughout his career have not got it right." I felt like screaming, preach on brother.

"They've not done anything good for him. I don't know how many people have made how much from him, but they've not given him the right advice. I think if someone had taken him at the age of 16 and said, you know what? You're going to box, you're going to box, but after that, you're going to do some school work, things might have been different. Or if he was allowed to have another year or two of education, so that he could be disciplined and question his advisers, he'll be a different person and he probably won't be bankrupt. He could have made better decisions in his life. It's obvious people have kept education away from him because he's been easier to handle."

Do you inculcate that into your protégés?

"Yes, that's the way we do it, but I'm not going to force somebody to study. They can come to this Centre and learn how to be administrators, or how to organise referees during games. They also get to know how to order the equipment's we use and they could be running the office themselves. They're so many things to learn in Leisure Management and at the end of the day, you'll find things that are of interest to some of them. Its not just academics and neither will I insist you must have an O/level or A/levels.Your interest could be vocational education, there're stuffs people can do outside sports and there'll be nobody here who's just into basketball."

John works with a number of children and youth charities, this prompted me to ask why he focuses these two groups

"Its simple. I work better with young people, its what I'm good at and its where my expertise is. They give me energy and its what I enjoy, its just fun."

Don't you get tired by them?

"I do, but its worth it"

tell me more,

"Well, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty against Children, NSPCC deals with every area of child protection and running a sports club where over 2,000 kids visit weekly, child protection has to be one of our topmost priorities. They come here to learn, but it will be impossible to concentrate if you've been abused or the home environment is not good. When children are troubled, they won't be able to learn properly," he argued.

But what's your business with the One Family Charity?

People, he told me:"Are stereotyped," about those from one family settings."Most one parent families are well adjusted and I want to be a testimony to that. My mother raised me very well."

Great, what about Kids Disarm Charity? Why are you into that?

"Simple, an average of 10 children get killed in America everyday by guns. For me, that's too much. I'm involved in that Charity because it doesn't make sense in my life that those children should continue to die. The point is this, if I was a person who enjoyed hunting and if I knew that putting away my gun will stop just one child from buying one, I'll do it."

By the way, do you ever have the chance to talk to the children on a one to one basis?

"Oh yes. There's a website where they can email me directly and this doesn't go to anyone, but me. It's not through a personal assistant or something. It comes to me directly and I get back to them."

You did mention that your mum raised you very well, can you be more specific?

"She sacrificed, and that's one thing you have to do as a parent. She was also part of our lives. On a typical sunday, she would have made all the meals for the week, freeze them and instruct us how to schedule our school work, without leaving out our domestic chores. Mum went hungry, but we never missed a meal. There were times in primary school when we had her sandwiches and she was left with none."

What else? maybe other parents can learn from it.

"Mum was instrumental in everything I've done and she's the most important figure in my life. If you're a parent, the bottom line is, you want to, and must have been the most important figure in your children's lives. Its not that you want them to do anything for you, but you want them to keep you in mind when they make decisions.

"A reporter once asked her why she had to let me go to America. It may have looked foolish because I've not played for long, so why should you let him go to pursue a false dream in the US, the journalist asked her. She answered him saying, its her goal to help me find, pursue and reach my own dreams, not hers. She may have wanted me to be a doctor, but she didn't want me to fulfil her own dreams. She wanted me to fulfil mine and that should be the goal of every parent. No parent should say, all that matters to me is for you to become a doctor - because I'm one.

"I've seen families where they wanted one child to be a lawyer, another a doctor and all that, but what do the children want? Maybe it won't be great if they're basketball players, but they could be influencing thousands of children every week. That's a great job and a great person in the community."

How did you deal with peer pressure without getting derailed.

"If you expect a lot from your children and also sacrifice to let them have what is needed to fulfil those expectations, you'll be surprised what length they 'll go not to disappoint you."

Here's his golden rule for parenting:" Have great expectations for your children." But, you must have sacrificed on their behalf. "That's when they'll make sure they don't disappoint you."

Let's look at this facility, when did you conceive the idea?

"Joe and I thought about it for years, but essentially its here today because we need it. There's no other facility like it in the country, so we felt we needed it. We were trying to raise the game in this country and we went about telling kids what we expected from them, so it was necessary for us to provide them with the means of fulfilling our expectations. I mean, we expected a lot from them, we knew we had to provide and that's what we've done."

While ordinary users pay a token of just a pound every week, ABC has a boarding facility for those in its Academy of Excellence. The Academy, he revealed:" Has ties with Manchester University, so that our students can play as well as study."

So, Who and who gets to the Academy? "Anyone can." But why's everyone not there?"You have to show real promise and attitude, without that you can't progress from being in the grassroots to the Academy. That's the route to the University and probably, the NBA." John should no better than arguing with him.

Of course, it was time he told me how he had his break to the NBA." Oh, it was really hard, because I wasn't really considered physically talented enough. There was a report about me while doing very well in Orlando Magic. The writer didn't understand how I could play, despite being considered to be in the bottom five per cent of those in the NBA. It is true that I'm in the bottom five per cent, but I didn't jump there. I had a great foundation with Joe and that's what we're trying to do here."

What will you say to anyone aspiring to join this elitist group of playing in the NBA?

"I'll say to them, you have to be realistic."

What does that mean?

"There are things beyond the reach of anyone, and there're things you can't achieve through no fault of yours.

Like what? "I, for instance couldn't be a Nuclear Physicist, because I 'm not good at mathematics, its one of those things. I can do social sciences but not the physical sciences. So, you have to know your limitation, but that shouldn't stop you. I was considered not good enough to be in the NBA, but you can make up for it by working hard, learning and developing your skills and techniques. I always tell anyone hoping to be in the NBA, show me by your attitude. When the practice is at 7pm, be there 30 minutes earlier. If your coach gives you advice, I want to see you soak it like a sponge, then do it. When you're in practise - even though it can be sometimes boring - stay focused, because you're not practising for today or tomorrow. You're practising for your future and 10 years down the line, you'll be playing in the NBA. That's what you've got to do."

Going down memory lane:"When I was in the gym with Joe and doing all kinds of things you might consider as really boring, I wasn't practising for then. Neither was I practising to play in England or Europe, I was preparing myself for playing in the NBA. That's how you do it. Every small piece you can control has to be managed right. There're things you can't control, but those you can, you've got to do it."

For someone to have shouldered the responsibility of building a four million dollar facility, he couldn't be pauper. While acknowledging that it's a lot of money, he was also quick to add:"It's nothing much, but enough." Despite that, John doesn't like discussing money or the worth of his contract - when asked. All he said in his trademark relaxed manner, underlined by a noticeable Manchester accent was:"Enough, enough," he repeated." I don't like talking about it, but its the product of 15years work. What I earn spread over a 15 year period is pretty average."

But did you know it would be that much, and isn't it a heavy financial burden?"Yes, its a lot of money and I won't lie about that. But when you see what's going on here, you'll know its worth the money. Moreover, when you consider that about 2,500 kids come in every week to be influenced by the experts we have, you can't put a price on that. The reality is, we've got the entire community involved, many of whom are not just users, but volunteer workers as well," this includes parents.

Anyway, How's your club doing?

"I don't know what next season will be, but we've been in the play-offs for the past 20years and hopefully, we'll continue to do so."

But how's it that of all those currently in the NBA, you're the only one in the Hall of Fame?

"Basically, I'm the only current player in the Hall of Fame. There're no playing players there at the moment."

I know, but what's not clear to me is how you got there. Call it destiny or whatever, but:"I was the first player to score two points in the new Millennium and I feel good about it."

Did he go for it or it just happened?

"Well, it just happened." Though he heard and knew that's one of the ways of joining the legends whose names are carved there, but John told me:'"When you're playing a game, its not in your mind that you have to score the first two points, but it happened and I'm happy about it. I'm the only Briton to be there," he added.

While many others would have taken a well deserved break in summer-there's really nothing wrong about that-he spends about 10 to 11 weeks in the UK every year, after the hectic NBA season that runs from October to May."Its a very long season, more demanding and hectic than football. We play 100 games every year," and sometimes their season continues till June because of the play-offs. Every week, his team plays four times.

Before catching my return train to London, but why take the trouble to stretch yourself to a Ph. d, level, I asked. Why didn't you stop after the second degree?

"Well, I needed to do what I want to do. I'm not doing it to measure up or something. The fact is, I'm not a basketball player."

What's that meant to be? Basketball players only play basketball. But I spend some of my time on other things and sometimes I play basketball, so there's a huge difference."

On a lighter note, John told me the first time he heard someone speak Igbo was whe he went for a game in Russia. Two of the spectators saw the name and assumed the best way to greet him was: "K'edu."

He couldn't respond. He's spent all his life in the UK and the US. While admitting that his community is the environment where he grew up, "I don't want people to think I'm not interested in Nigeria." But, he's just learning and getting used to the African Community.

Author's note: The story was first published in the Sunday Guardian of september 28th, while Amaechi was later transferred to the Houston Rockets two days later.