“I have no interest in actually teaching kids how to put a ball in a hole, I’m interested in what we can do with and through sport”
Former NBA star John Amaechi, has taken an alternative route since retiring from basketball in 2003.
Even while playing college hoops at Penn State, the Briton became a motivational speaker, aiming to inspire young people from tough backgrounds to achieve their potential.
It set him on the path he was to follow after a career which included stints with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz, as well as leading clubs in France, Greece and Italy.
Amaechi told me: “It was always the plan, I never intended to play basketball forever. I’d always intended to be a psychologist since the age of about nine.
“I have no interest in basketball or sport at all, I’m interested in what we can do for society but that’s still sociology and the psychology around sport.”
Amaechi, who was born in Boston but grew up in Stockport until the age of 17, could have taken the more tried-and-tested route into coaching, punditry or maybe a managerial or executive role in basketball.
“I’m more interested in what we can do in terms of developing community and teaching lessons through sport,” said the 46-year-old who was received an OBE in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours list, for services to sport and the voluntary sector.
“I have no interest in actually teaching kids how to put a ball in a hole, I’m interested in what we can do with and through sport.”
To that end, he set up Amaechi Performance Systems (APS) in 2008 and now leads a team that combines psychological, corporate and educational training for businesses, education and sports professionals, teams and individuals.
‘The job I love’
Amaechi, who entered the NBA’s Hall of Fame after scoring the first points of the new millennium, said: “I’m working with varied organisations such as schools all the way through to big corporates and the intelligent services.
“My work as a psychologist is now organisational, coaching individuals, small groups, organisations to help them deal with transformation, change, retention, recruitment, engagement, motivation you name it.
“I don’t think I could have imagined the job as it stands now, but it’s certainly the job I love; I’ve never loved anything more than this.”
The 6ft 10in former power forward/centre says he first realised the power that sport has to influence people and change their lives during his NBA days.
He recalled: “I was playing for Cleveland in my first year in the NBA, I wasn’t great as a player, and my team was not great. The city was very under-enthused about basketball.
“I met a mother who wanted me to sign an autograph for her child, of course I did and then I shook his hand, as I walked away, I saw the way he looked at his hand, he was frozen, staring at the hand I just shook.
“I realised then the power that even a terrible basketball player, from a terrible basketball team could have.
“It was very informative for the way I would conduct myself from then on, realising I was not just literally but metaphorically a giant and in my society I could improve things and change things.”
Part of his mission to ‘improve and change things’ happened on a personal level when, in February 2007, he became the first former NBA player to come out publicly as gay.
He recently appeared before the Commons Culture, Media And Sport Committee to urge that more progress be made in tackling homophobia in sport and society in general.
In truth, however, his interests and concerns are far wider than campaigning on a single issue, and he continues to use his influence to make a difference to people’s lives in all sorts of ways.
A perfect example of this is another of Amaechi’s successful projects – the Amaechi Basketball Centre which opened in July 2002.
Helped by a £250,000 donation from Amaechi, Greater Manchester Community Basketball was able to move to a £2.1m purpose-built centre.
It features three basketball courts, 10 outdoor five-aside football pitches, a health and fitness suite, dance studio, conference room, café-bar area and appropriate changing facilities.
A not-for-profit organisation with charitable status, it is “dedicated to providing basketball opportunities for all sections of the community, to achieve their own potential, regardless of ability, ethnic background, socio-economic background, gender or age”.
The centre perfectly aligns with Amaechi’s goals and his mission to explore the potential in people that can be unlocked through sport.
It has certainly fulfilled his aim of ‘improve and change things’ in the community where he grew up.
Greater Manchester Community Basketball now has the highest number of participants involved in programmes nationally, and also achieved the Five-Star Standard Award from England Basketball.
Not only does the club have a successful men’s team in Manchester Magic, who compete in the UK’s National Basketball League (not the British Basketball League) they also have a variety of youth teams and a women’s club, Manchester Mystics.
Amaechi says he is “interested in what sport can do in terms of developing community,” and the Amaechi Basketball Centre does exactly that.
It’s refreshing to see what high-profile athletes can do with the power and influence they have, especially when retirement presents them with fresh challenges and opportunities.
You can find out more about Amaechi Performance Systems here.