Monday, October 15, 2012

"Remember the little moments" - John Amaechi talks to a PSU audience

Former Nittany Lion and NBA player John Amaechi visited the Penn State campus on Monday night to discuss the role of sports in the society.

"People have a hard time believing that I'm a psychologist because of the way I look," Amaechi said, signaling at his body. As a 6-foot-10 black man, people often have a hard time believing that currently his professional life is not being an athlete.

His opening stories subtly pointed to the stereotypes people hold about black men.

Amaechi, who is originally from Great Britain, talked about his upbringing and the influence his mother had on his values and his career aspirations. He also fondly recalled the importance of Star Wars, a movie that came out when he was 7 and inspired him.

Once Amaechi gave up on his dream to become a Jedi, he quickly turned to another, perhaps a slightly more realistic one: to play for the NBA. 

The first step in this process was coming to the United States to play at a high school level.

"I didn't realize sport was quite serious in America," Amaechi recalled as he expressed his confusion over terminology such as "preseason," "wights," and "individual practices."

He soon learned from his coach how serious sport actually was. Amaechi remembered his coach saying, "I hope you are enjoying this year, because this is the last time you are playing for fun."

In fact, as a varsity athlete at Penn State, Amaechi was very much aware that his performance had a much larger implication than just his own success. He knew that his coaches' jobs were on the line -- and that people's careers depended upon his play on the basketball court.

But, he had another issue to consider when playing for Penn State and that was whether to come out to his teammates and be openly gay. He names two reasons as to why he chose to remain silent about his sexuality.

One was that he felt that being gay on the Penn State campus at the time "didn't feel like a good idea." He recalled talking to Rene Portland, a former women's basketball coach, and feeling uncomfortable about people who she considered to be "different," as Amaechi put it.

The other reason he decided not to come out was that he was worried about his future career in the NBA. Amaechi said he wasn't "that good" and that he was convinced, at the time, that as a "not that good" player, he would not be offered an opportunity in the NBA as a gay man.

"I regret that I didn't come out while I was at Penn State," Amaechi said. "I knew there was a choice."

He choose the NBA.

As a former professional basketball player, Amaechi is concerned that athletes are not prepared to deal with the responsibility put upon them to serve as role models for kids.

"Sports doesn't teach people how to be good giants," Amaechi said.

He said athletes pick and choose when they want to be treated like "giants." An example would be when athletes are around people who don't ask for their autograph and adopt this "Don't you know who I am?" attitude demanding preferential treatment. When it comes to being socially responsible and answering questions about social issues, athletes, however, opt out.

The solution, Amaechi suggests, is to re-shift our focus upon the "little moments of interaction."

"Sport when it's great, attends to details," he said.

These details can be as small as giving a hi-five to a child, or making eye-contact with a player when coaching them, or reaching out to a family.

"In those little moments, we make people feel better," Amaechi said. And that, he suggested, make sports and psychology interact.

Most importantly, it is being consistent in the decisions you are making.

"You can't be a part-time person of principle," Amaechi said.

Amaechi seems to have found his way of being as close to a childhood dream of being a Jedi as he possibly could. But, as a retired NBA player, he emphasized that the success tied to performance on the basketball court and the fame passes quickly.

"One day nobody will care about these great sweeping moments," he said. But what people will remember are the "little moments."

He told a story of playing in a gym during his basketball career and seeing two kids -- brothers -- there. He came up to them, talked to them a number of times and a few months later brought them to his camp in England. To his surprise, one of the children asked Amaechi to adopt them.

Years later, one of the children asked him: "Do you know why we picked you to adopt us?" Amaechi thought they chose him because he was a famous basketball player. The kid responded: "Nah, you weren't that good," and added, "We picked you because you remembered our names."

Amaechi cherishes these little moments and strives to bring many of these into life through his work as a psychologist and activist in different organizations. He believes that the development of young athletes to become attentive nd responsible human beings lies in early education and, particularly, the NCAA's power to prepare the athletes for success beyond their athletic careers.

Amaechi strongly believes in the power of sports to teach principles and values that make life better. He acknowledges so by recongizing the positive influence his coaches have had on him.

Yet, when asked about who taught him the values he holds so dearly now, he names a person who had nothing to do with sports and who barely saw him play.

"Most of my values come from my mom," Amaechi said. "I mean, I used to think she was a Jedi. That tells you something about her."

John Amaechi is an author of a memoir titled "Man in the Mirror," which was published in 2007.

-- Dunja Antunovic

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