I haven’t really paid attention to professional basketball since the last time Patrick Ewing sweated all over the Garden’s courtside seats. I used to love the NBA, and almost everything about it, but my fandom lapsed several years ago; as I write this, the All-Star Game is going on, and I’m watching “Patch Adams.” (I love it when Robin Williams cries.) Yet in the last week or so, my attention has returned to roundball, and specifically, to the story of John Amaechi. If you haven’t heard, he’s a former NBA player who has just come out of the closet. His book’s title? Man in the Middle.
Now John Amaechi was never a star, which is a nice way of saying that he wasn’t very good at all. The only thing that ever stood out was his Britishness. But this month comes the revelation that he was closeted, and in returning to a sport I once loved to play and watch, I wonder, really, what Amaechi’s disclosure proves. This is not to say his decision was not courageous or indeed quite difficult; that’s not my point at all. It’s just, well…I’ll say it: the fact that there was a gay player in the NBA should not, on its own, be particularly shocking.
Estimates of gayness-per-capita vary, but on a twelve person roster, with a few coaches and trainers thrown in, chances are one of these men is in Amaechi’s position. On Bill Maher’s intermittently amusing HBO show, Amaechi explained that there was a weak network of closeted NBA players, and that only a few of these men felt secure enough to give each other support in times of need. But what is really new about this situation? It is most certainly unfortunate, and as Amaechi said on the same show, when two minority groups (that would be the blacks that make up most of the NBA, and the gays among their ranks) are at odds with one another in a society that doesn’t fully embrace either, no one wins.
The Amaechi Situation has had some predictable results, whether it’s having Dallas Mavericks owner – and goofy billionaire – Mark Cuban christen him a “hero,” or former All-Star Tim Hardaway ranting in a radio interview about how much he dislikes gay people. Every basketball columnist in the Western world seems to have weighed in on the issue, with political correctness guiding most of their words; yet not a single one of these writers has convinced me that there is anything surprising about this sequence of events. Yes, he was a professional basketball player, and he’s at the vanguard of a (presumably larger) shadow population, but is this more remarkable than the exploits of Major League Baseball’s Billy Bean, or the NFL’s Esera Tuaolo? Since all of these athletes were marginal contributors at best, the only reason Amaechi is any different is the color of his skin. This feature of the ongoing discussion seems to have been downplayed by columnists hoping to tread lightly, but I believe that the only reason Amaechi’s decision carries any more weight is the disconnect between the black community and the gay community.
By my way of thinking, any professional sport will be populated by man’s men, macho men, and thus the locker room atmosphere is not conducive to a mix of homophobes and homosexuals. Even in baseball, where teammates can remain impossibly distant from one another, the faintest whiff of queerness caused the Limbaugh-worshipping Mike Piazza to hold a silly press conference just to clear the air. Suffice it to say that Amaechi’s decision to wait is certainly understandable and superficially unremarkable. But since Amaechi is black, and spent his career in an overwhelmingly black league, his struggles do have an added dimension. Being the first NBA player to come out is relatively insignificant, compared to the fact that so few openly gay men in the public eye are black. Amaechi wasn’t really in the public eye until this story broke, but now that he is, the unfortunate realities of being black and quite publicly gay in this country (since this is where he played and worked, if not where he was raised) are at the very least a more common topic of discussion today than they were beforehand.
That said, the columnists are monotonously spinning their wheels, and the attention-grabbing remarks by folks like Cuban and Hardaway are paint-by-numbers results of such actions. Amaechi isn’t revealing that there are gays in the NBA, and the opinions surrounding his decision haven’t shed any new light on the existence of homophobia in obsessively masculine men. The real shocker will come in one of two ways: either a current player will come out – the chance of which seems sadly remote in the near future – or a former star will do so, thus altering their legacy in a completely unexpected way. By no longer depending on the league’s paychecks and teammates’ respect, the former star would have a strong enough foundation that they could conceivably risk whatever possible erosion of popularity might occur. But is there any use in speculating like this, as many sports writers have spent the last week doing?
Yes, it will be best when many years pass and people aren’t forced to be ashamed of their true selves. But for now, the Amaechi Situation, save for the matter of his race, is little more than a mildly intriguing footnote to the boring perpetuation of hollow posturing amongst men who aren’t nearly as morally superior as they think they are.