Magic Meech holding his own in NBA court
Different ? Quirky ? No problem, says Stockport's finest
When the great and the good of the NBA gathered last week in Oakland, California for the annual All-Star festivities, Orlando Magic centre John Amaechi was some place else, at his alma mater in fact. Chances are he didn't even watch the game on television. Simply put, he has better things to do. Like composing poetry, updating his personal website - www.meech.org - or catching up with one of the many youths he has taken under his wing.
Because for the exiled son of Stockport, being a basketball player is a job not a definition. Lucrative and well-paid it may be but Amaechi has higher goals in mind. Becoming a child psychologist is his true career goal, his place in the doctoral programme at Penn State University already secured. Time spent between games is for drinking tea and studying academic literature, not hanging out with his homeboys.
It is an approach to his craft which has endeared the Briton to his basketball audience. He provides a refreshing contrast to the trash-talking headline makers to which they have lately become accustomed. And while Amaechi himself acknowledges that his newly-acquired Stateside fame is largely derived from his unique personality, he underlines that the performances he has delivered on the parquet stand up to scrutiny.
"I know a lot of people at home are thinking this is all happening because I'm quirky and odd," he concedes. "You can be quirky and odd but if you can't play, nobody is going to talk about you. What makes this situation better is that I'm competing and beating people with much higher reputations. And that's what's created the interest in the first place.
"I enjoy being the slightly odd, slightly eccentric member of this league. It's really shocking how many people who know me where ever I go. At away games, people know that I'm coming in and that I'm someone that they want to boo and respond to because I can, on occasion, play."
While the Magic have defied the critics who reckoned that a team of unknowns without an established leader would sink right to the NBA basement, the previously unheralded 6'9" giant has moved into the starting line up and improved with every game. So much so that recently, Golden State Warriors were the victims of a 25 point blasting, Amaechi's highest tally to date.
__ A Day in the Life of..
"This morning I went to a school and spoke to the assembly. Then I went downtown to near the Arena and had some tea and toast. I'm probably the only person who does that here. Then I went to shoot around.
"This afternoon, I'll go and sit in my apartment and sit in the hot tub and the cold pool. Then I will work on my website for two hours before lieing down for a rest before going to the game."
"It's been considerable vindication for both (coach Doc Rivers) and I with me in the starting line up now," he declares. "People don't know who I am. They just think, 'Oh, it's Amaechi. We've never heard of him. He sucks.'
"People showed us no respect at the beginning of the year and all I heard from the UK side was that I managed to stick on a team which was rubbish. But I'm on a team which is competing.
"I believe we can still make the play-offs. That's still one of our goals. We're past the stage where just being good is enough. Because we know we are now and so does everyone else. It's fun to be an underdog which isn't an underdog."
Rivers has also become a fan since signing the 29 year old England international on a one-year, minimum salary contract last summer. And he has grown accustomed to the different style his number 13 brings to the party.
"The thing I like about him is that aside from the game of basketball he has so many other interests. He's a great person for the other guys to talk to and is a settling influence within our team."
The greatest irony is that while his star is in the ascendancy across the Atlantic, Amaechi's achievements remain largely unnoticed in his homeland. Time spent at home is scarce, a product of the punishing NBA schedule. Yet with one notable exception, his heart remains firmly on this side of the pond.
"I don't miss the weather," he jokes, "It's easy to forget that part. The fact remains that I miss people. I listen to this Manchester radio station all day on the Internet. I miss hearing people talk about things which are topical to me. I go down to the record store to buy import CDs to buy music which is familiar to me."
Born in Boston as the product of a marriage between a Nigerian man and a British woman, Amaechi returned to Britain with his mother after his parents' divorce. Like his peers, his sporting childhood was focused more on the pursuits of rugby and football and it was not until the age of 17 that he elected to follow a path which would ultimately lead to the NBA.
Leaving behind his family, he first attended high school in Ohio before stepping up to the university ranks. His transformation into a basketballer of enormous quality was a progressive one and was tinged by heartache, his inspirational mother Muriel tragically succumbing to cancer before she could see her son graduate. She surely would have been proud of her offspring's achievements and Amaechi explains that one of his talents serves as a tribute to her.
"The poetry comes from my mother. She wanted me to keep in touch with her on a regular basis when she was ill. And the best way I could do that was to write her letters. Because I felt, and still feel, so strongly about my mother, it seemed to be more appropriate to write something beautiful for her and it was prose that flowed."
His off-court interests do not end there. As a founder of Big Brothers, an organisation which aims to counsel and provide leadership to troubled youths, Amaechi has elected to use his fame in a positive manner. While other sporting legends, most notably Charles Barkley, have rejected the notion that they must be role models, the Englishman in Orlando has admirably inverted that theory.
"I'm very big on the whole mentoring idea, the idea that people can take small amounts of time out," he reveals. "Those 2 hours out of the day where you're not doing anything valuable, you can do something of great value.
"I like people to realise that if they think I'm special, it's not because I play basketball. There are some kids who will be more profoundly touched by something you do, or say, or write to them It's more lasting than a 20 point game or a jersey in the Hall of Fame. And more valuable than any of that."
His biggest bugbear is the lack of chances for homespun talent to make their mark in domestic competition, a symptom he says of an over-reliance on imported personnel. So does he believe he will be the forefather of a line of talents to reach basketball's highest level?
"Not unless the league changes its philosophy and lets our kids play," is his retort. "Not until the governing bodies take a stand against the injustices which are hindering the progress of young people. There's too many people in honorary positions who are not doing any good. Saying that makes me unpopular but it's the truth. I am used to it but it's just saddening. I'd love those people to say 'nice job' but it never happens. It's disappointing."
If he continues on the same rich vein of form, one thing is certain. There will be lucrative offers from both his present and competing teams next summer, options which a free agent can hand pick among.
While most expect the low-salary Magic to pursue star duo Tim Duncan and Grant Hill as part of their re-building plans, Amaechi can afford to bide his time in selecting the next destination on his well travelled road map.
"I don't know what's going to happen next year. What I would hope for is that if people will see me as an average NBA centre, I can hope to be compensated as an average NBA centre. That's as far as I can take it.
"Teams who I have played against feel that I can fit into any NBA side and they're confident that I'm not a personality who will cause problems off the floor. Those are both pluses which work in my favour.
He adds: "I want to be consistent. In the NBA, however good you are, you're going to have your off days. But on the whole, I've been very consistent and played well, and I want to continue to improve. It's a long year for us."
That improvement continued on the Magic's return from the All Star break and not even Amaechi's late arrival back from his break could dent his confidence. 23 points helped Orlando to a big scoring defeat of the LA Clippers. The NBA's British poster boy Michael Olowokandi could muster only 10 points in reply. Hype versus substance. The quiet way of Meech is winning hands down.
A version of this article appeared in Scotland on Sunday
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