His stride as confident as his opinions, John Amaechi pulls up a
chair in a Manhattan cafe, pulls out the Journal of Social and
Clinical Psychology and pulls over a pot of tea. The Magic center
acknowledges a fan with a smile, a bow and a gesture--hands
half-raised in modest surrender--then returns to his reading.
"John is the smartest player I've met in this league," says
teammate Michael Doleac. "He's also the only player I know whose
beverage of choice is Earl Grey."
For the NBA's lone Englishman, basketball is not his cup of tea.
"I'm not really a fan of the game," says Amaechi, a 6'10",
270-pound former rugby player whose tastes extend to poetry,
opera and Impressionist art. "Basketball's just a business to me,
a means to an end." That end is a Ph.D. A 29-year-old doctoral
candidate in child psychology at Penn State, Amaechi plans to
play professionally for four more years and then finish his
degree requirements. "I want to save enough to fund my own
research and clinics," he says in a soft Manchester lilt. "My
real love is child psychology."
For Amaechi, the NBA is the perfect setting to observe juvenile
behavior. "You get the spoiled child," he says, "and the child
who perceives he's neglected, and the one who acts up and asserts
himself to get noticed," he says. Still, there is one difference:
"In most families you don't trade relatives should they become
superfluous or bothersome."
Superfluous is pretty much how Amaechi felt growing up in the
English Midlands. "I was fat and nerdy, with no interest in
sports," he says. "Kids called me the Whale." Reading, he loved.
"I was keen on science fiction and got through all of the Hardy
Boys books." Amaechi swears he never even touched a basketball
until he was 17. He was walking down a street when a kid asked,
"Do you fancy playing basketball?" Amaechi did, but he didn't
know the rules. So his mates told him, "This is the ball, and
that's the basket. Just run with us and keep your arms up."
Amaechi recalls, "I was horrific."
As a 6'8", 17-year-old he moved to Toledo, to stay with friends
of his coach's. A year of high school basketball earned him a
scholarship to Vanderbilt. His freshman season was memorable only
for an on-court rejoinder to one of his coaches. "Would you
please refrain from yelling at me quite so much?" Amaechi said.
Amaechi jumped to Penn State, where he developed some nifty
post-up moves, became the school's career leader in blocked shots
and was twice named Academic All-America. In 1995 the Cavaliers
signed him as an undrafted free agent. After a promising start he
crumbled like a stale scone. "It was like, I'm here, I'm in the
rare air I wanted to be in, now what?" he says. After the season
he left to ponder this existential dilemma in the European
Amaechi's last few years have been like a package tour, with
stops in Greece, Italy and England. Orlando coach Doc Rivers
lured him back to the States last fall. "Doc promised me
nothing," Amaechi says, "but he believed in me as a useful,
functioning part instead of a sitting-on-the-end-of-the-bench
part." As an occasional starter Amaechi was averaging 9.0 points
and 3.2 rebounds at week's end, and he had outplayed such
big-ticket centers as Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon in
He achieved hoops immortality on Jan. 2 by scoring the first NBA
basket of 2000 in the opening minute of a game against the Heat.
His uniform was dispatched to the Basketball Hall of Fame. "I'm
honored that my jersey will hang next to Dr. J's," says the
future Dr. J.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO