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Amaechi largesse leaves centre in wake

Mark Woods

John Amaechi has never been shy of opening his mouth and speaking his mind. 

Now  he has put his money in the same place as his regular vocal pronouncements so that the deficiencies which the 31 year old has long decried in the development system of his native land can be well and truly righted.

Sighted in the grounds of Whalley Range High School in Amaechi's hometown of Manchester, the £2.75 million facility which the Utah Jazz centre has funded will officially cast open its doors next week, providing a both place to play and a haven for those who need shelter from their outside woes. 

The specifications are impressive: three international-sized courts with sprung wooden floors, an aerobics studio, fitness suite, physiotherapy services, and a smart bar with in-house conference facilities. 

With his mentor and childhood coach Joe Forber as architect in chief, it is the kind of centre which Amaechi could never find when, as a gangly, over-sized teenager, he opted to give up rugby and try his luck at a sport which seemed tailor made for someone of his considerable height. 

"In the old days, Joe's teams used to run around from crappy gym to crappy gym to get somewhere to practice," he recalls. "Now whatever they need to support playing basketball, they will have it."

Amaechi, who initially left the UK at 17 to improve his game at high school in Ohio, has been a constant critic of the standard of coaching and facilities available in his native land. Having already backed Forber's extensive youth programme, putting his money where his mouth to construct its permanent home became an obvious goal. 

"Fundamentally, it's everything that should have been built by some organising body but hasn't by this point," he outlines in a not-so-subtle dig at England Basketball and the BBL.

"It's a national centre already because we have kids coming from as far afield as Wales and Scotland, not just for camps but for training. All the monies which the basketball club has put into this have come from me. 

"But it's money well spent. It will never bring a return but the real return is in other people having the opportunities which I now have. It's a sound investment."

Prior to its official inauguration, a bunch of lucky youngsters will be invited to the Amaechi Basketball Centre to showcase their talents with England coach Laszlo Nemeth and his foremost star. Of course, the venue will not turn out a range of NBA-ready prototypes overnight. 

"I have no doubt that will be a side product, given the level of coaching and the facilities," adds its benefactor. "But I hope it will be a little more holistic than that."

In many ways. 

A trained youth counsellor who is working towards his doctorate in child psychology, Amaechi intends to positively influence impressionable minds in tandem with their dribbling skills. 

Also an ambassador for the NBA's Reading is Fundamental campaign, he has also accepted a roving role on behalf of the NSPCC, a pet cause. 

"This has to be a place where kids can come to find an ear to talk to or to get the right help," he explains. 

Holistic indeed. But to fund such endeavours, there is a day job to consider. 

NBA teams each endorse a range of humanitarian causes but they write their biggest cheques to those who win games rather than saving souls. 

Last season was not Amaechi's finest spell as a professional, a season in which he was in turn suspended (by his coach), dropped (again by his coach) and criticised (by pretty much everyone) for a contribution on court which failed to match the contract he was awarded when he left Orlando for Salt Lake City 12 months ago.

Before arriving in the UK this week, on a daily basis, he has been working out in his summer residence in Arizona, attempting to re-capture some of that lost magic. 

"I'm working on the things I've done well in the past. The same drills. And focusing on becoming the type of player I was in Orlando.

"One of the big problems is that, as a veteran in the NBA, there's only so much I can do to change. I'm not going to become this incredible rebounding machine overnight. I've never been that."

Others might follow more closely behind into the NBA, including Amaechi’s England colleague Andy Betts, currently attempting to earn a spot on the roster of the New Orleans Hornets, the franchise which drafted him in its former guise in Charlotte.

“I’ve kind of lost touch with Andy Betts’ game over the last 2-3 years but he was so close to getting a deal the year I came into Orlando,” Amaechi admits. 

“We actually played each other when he was in pre-season with Charlotte that summer. Physically, he has the gifts and the talent but much of the time, it’s just getting that lucky break.  To actually get in is being in the right place at the right time. To stay in is a totally different matter.” 

He has some advice too regarding Scottish hopeful Robert Archibald, presently in Utah himself amid his quest to earn a contract with the Memphis Grizzlies. 

“The problem with being non-guaranteed, and it’s a situation I’ve been in during past summers, is that you just have to show up every day. You’re only as good as your last performance and you have to really make sure you pull out all the stops, shake off niggling injuries and play through the tiredness which comes when you play through the summertime. You have to put your best face forward at all times.

“There are places for people who just work hard. Jarron Collins on our team is someone like that. Not perhaps the most skilled player but he works really hard. 

"But people over there should keep in mind that whatever happens to Robert, there’s no shame if he doesn’t make it to the NBA this year. It doesn’t mean he’s finished. He should be congratulated and rewarded for what he has already achieved.

Been there and done it. Betts’ and Archibald's ultimate dreams are yet unfulfilled. Amaechi's however are now constructed indelibly in stone. 

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