John Amaechi might exude calm when you meet him, but publication of his new memoir, “Man in the Middle,” has caused a firestorm in the NBA, in which he spent fiveseasons as an active player and as a closeted gay man. Amaechi said he knew his book would garner some attention since he would be the first NBA player – active or retired – to come out publicly. But reaction from players – both positive and negative – continues to make headlines, particularly those of former NBA star Tim Hardaway, who said, “I hate gay people,” among other homophobic remarks. “I said I would,” he said. “I have many, many flaws, but one of them is not that I don’t do what I say. I do what I say I will. If there is a consistent theme throughout this book, it’s about, essentially, some odd, quirky, isolated fat kid from a foreign country getting to the NBA and doing that in the space of sixyears. “It’s about the underdog, it’s about improbable people achieving the most unlikely of things. That’s how I work. I’m not interested in average, it bores me. Average is default. You have to work to be worse than average. It’s supposed to be a fight, it’s supposed to be hard.” Amaechi, who retired from pro basketball in 2003, first achieved stardom at Penn State. He then became one of the first Brits to play in the NBA when he signed with Cleveland. Of his five full seasons in the NBA, he said his first season with Orlando remains his best memory. “It’s when I felt I was kicking people’s (butts), and I felt like I belonged there,” he said. But after leaving Orlando, he clashed with Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, for whom he played for two seasons. Amaechi believed Sloan to be homophobic, something the coach denied, and that was the major factor in the deterioration of their relationship. But looking back, Amaechi had only a few regrets about his pro career. The biggest one is not playing for the Lakers when he had the chance. “I didn’t take a contract to go to L.A. that I really wanted to take. I desperately wanted to play here. I turned down an awful lot of money but it was a decision based on my principles,” he said. “I felt only this: Orlando was the only team that would take me on the year before. Now everybody wanted me, but Orlando had been the only one to take me on.” Still, he doesn’t plan to take in any Lakers games when he’s in Los Angeles to promote the book. But it’s nothing personal. Amaechi doesn’t follow the NBA or any other pro sports. He works as a psychologist, works extensively with young people, has a sports foundation and a consultant business. He also does extensive corporate speaking in the U.K. and the States. Amaechi has taken on a new role as spokesman for the Coming Out Project for the Human Rights Campaign during his book tour, which has him promoting the importance of being out and living openly and honestly. “I felt a great obligation to do this,” he said. “I felt it was important. My thing with coming out is it’s an individual, personal journey and that if you push people, force people, make them come out in a way that they’re not comfortable with, you neither help them in their own personal life and development, nor do you create good, proactive people. They come out, and then they disappear. Believe me, after the last few weeks especially, I understand the weight of it.” In contrast to Hardaway, some players and coaches have been supportive. That includes Miami Heat center Shaquille O’Neal, who told reporters: “My view is, I was always taught not to judge people. … If people said stuff about (Amaechi), I would have to stick up for him and I wouldn’t judge him. (Homophobia is) not what this league is about.” Said Amaechi: “To hear Shaquille O’Neal, a younger-generation active player say that, it’s important. It’s important because it inoculates against other hateful words.” Amaechi doesn’t really know Hardaway, other than from the times he played against him, and said there never was any personal acrimony between the two. Amaechi said he felt “saddened” that Hardaway, who was banned by the NBA from participating during its All-Star weekend and has lost at least one endorsement deal, has tarnished his legacy. But he quickly added: “He is not suffering as much as some other people. “There is the psychological and emotional damage that hearing that somebody hates you when you’re 16 years old and unsure of yourself … far outweighs losing a car wash (endorsement),” he said. Although Doc Rivers, who was Amaechi’s coach in Orlando, was the only NBA teammate or coach to personally contact him since the book’s publication, Amaechi insisted he is not disappointed. “It would be really naive to imagine that people would run to my side,” he said. “Especially since running to my side at this point now, it’s not just that you’re running to my side, but you’re running against another player. It’s part of the problem: Straight allies are hard to come by because they risk being called gay, and right now there’s not much worse than being called gay … apart from being called a terrorist, apparently.” [email protected] (818) 713-3758 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! “Everyone keeps telling me that I knew it was going to be this much fuss, and I absolutely did not,” Amaechi said over lunch last week. “I thought it might be a couple of days of people saying, `Oh, that’s interesting.’ But it became a massive story and a massive talking point. … People in areas where they never talked about gay stuff, all of a sudden started to. I think that was important as a beginning.” By acknowledging that he is a gay man, Amaechi, 35, has joined just a handful of retired male pro athletes in major team sports who had done so: football’s Dave Kopay, Roy Simmons and Esera Tuaolo; as well as baseball’s Billy Bean and the late Glenn Burke. “Someone from a gay magazine spoke to me the other day and suggested that I was a bit cowardly, and that courage isn’t a word he would use to describe what I’m doing. I would agree,” Amaechi said. “It’s about fortitude. Otherwise there would be more than five. “Add up all the teams now – football, hockey, baseball, basketball – that’s maybe 2,000 (players). Then multiply that by all the people who have ever played in the league over the last 20-30 years. Fivepeople have come out in over three generations. This tells you it’s not an easy thing to do. There’s work to be done.” Jim Buzinski, co-founder of Outsports.com, calls Amaechi’s coming out: “The biggest one to date. I think in part because of people like Billy Bean and Esera. Whenever it happens, it’s almost bigger each time. In the age of blogs and a robust Internet, there are a lot more outlets to write about this. It’s been bigger than I thought it would be because John hasn’t been in the league for a few years. But certainly the story is not as big as if an active player were to come out.” While Amaechi’s 290-page book covers his life as a gay man, it also is the story of an unlikely pro athlete from Manchester, England, who, just six years before he made his NBA debut with the Cleveland Cavaliers, had never even played basketball. So how did he do it?