Former NBA player John Amaechi comes out

Retired centre John Amaechi publicly came out Wednesday, becoming the first NBA player to admit he is gay.

The small, exclusive club of openly gay professional male athletes has a new member.

Former NBA centre John Amaechi, who spent five seasons with four teams, on Wednesday became the first NBA player to publicly come out.

His admission came three years after his playing career ended, making him the sixth professional male athlete from one of the four major U.S. sports — basketball, baseball, football, hockey — to openly discuss his homosexuality.

Amaechi details his life in his autobiography Man in the Middle, which will be released Feb. 14.

"He is coming out of the closet as a gay man," Amaechi's publicist Howard Bragman said.

Martina Navratilova, perhaps the most famous openly gay athlete in the world, praised Amaechi's decision and said it's imperative for athletes to come out because of what she called an epidemic of suicides among young lesbians and gays.

"It's hugely important for the kids so they don't feel alone in the world. We're role models," she said. "He will definitely help a lot of kids growing up to feel better about themselves."

Orlando's Grant Hill, who said he didn't know Amaechi when he was with the Magic, also applauded the decision to go public.

"The fact that John has done this, maybe it will give others the comfort or confidence to come out as well, whether they are playing or retiring," Hill said.

NBA commissioner David Stern said a player's sexuality wasn't important.

"We have a very diverse league. The question at the NBA is always 'Have you got game?' That's it, end of inquiry," he said.

Matter of trust

LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, however, said he didn't think an openly gay person could survive in the league.

"With teammates, you have to be trustworthy and, if you're gay and you're not admitting that you are, then you are not trustworthy," James said. "So that's like the No. 1 thing as teammates — we all trust each other.

"You've heard of the in-room, locker-room code. What happens in the locker room stays in there.

"It's a trust factor, honestly. A big trust factor."

Injured Philadelphia 76ers forward Shavlik Randolph acknowledged it's a new situation.

"As long as you don't bring your gayness on me, I'm fine," Randolph said. "As far as business-wise, I'm sure I could play with him, but I think it would create a little awkwardness in the locker room."

Toronto Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell agreed, but said the majority of players would be okay with it.

"It's really a difficult thing to do, knowing the nature of sports and being in that locker room, it could be tough," he said. "I think it wouldn't be a lot of guys, but there would always be one or two on a team [who wouldn't approve]."

News that Amaechi had come out surprised some players.

"For real? He's gay, for real?" said Sixers centre Steven Hunter. "Nowadays, it's proven that people can live double lives.

"I watch a lot of TV, so I see a lot of sick perverted stuff about married men running around with gay guys and all types of foolishness."

Even so, Hunter said he would be fine with an openly gay teammate.

"As long as he don't make any advances toward me, I'm fine with it," he said. "As long as he came to play basketball, like a man, and conducted himself like a good person, I'd be fine with it."

Reactions vary

Orlando's Pat Garrity acknowledged reaction was bound to vary throughout the league.

"They would have teammates that would accept them for being a good person and a good teammate and there would be people who would give him a hard time about it," he said. "I think that's true if you're playing basketball or in an office job.

"That's just how the world is right now."

In his book, Amaechi describes the challenge of being gay in a league where it's assumed all players are heterosexual.

He describes the blatant anti-gay language and attitudes he experienced in NBA locker rooms.

"We're all insensitive at times, there's no taboo subject in the locker room," said Celtics head coach Doc Rivers, who coached Amaechi in Orlando.

"I think if he would have come out, they would have got on him jokingly. And I actually think that when guys do come out, when that day happens, it will make it easier."

Amaechi also writes that, while playing in Utah, Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan used anti-gay innuendo to describe him.

Sloan said Wednesday that although his relationship with Amaechi was "shaky" because of the player's attitude, he didn't know Amaechi was gay.

Sloan had no comment about Amaechi's contention that Sloan used anti-gay innuendo when referring to him.

Amaechi said he found out about it in e-mails from friends in the Jazz front office.

Asked if knowing Amaechi was gay would have mattered, Sloan said: "Oh yeah, it would have probably mattered. I don't know exactly, but I always have peoples' feelings at heart.

"People do what they want to do. I don't have a problem with that."

Former NFL running back David Kopay came out in 1977 and offensive lineman Roy Simmons and defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo came out more recently.

Glenn Burke, a major-leagueoutfielder in the 1970s, and Billy Bean, a utility player in the 1980s and 1990s, also have come out.

Each did so after retiring.

Burke died of complications due to AIDS in 1995.

Began basketball at 17

Amaechi, 36, who was raised in England, writes in the book that he never touched a basketball before the age of 17.

A quick study, despite being a "terrible athlete," he found his confidence in the game and made it his goal to play in the NBA.

Amaechi competed for Penn State, then played in 301 games over five NBA seasons.

The six-foot-10 centre averaged 6.2 points and 2.6 rebounds.

Amaechi began his pro career with Cleveland in 1995-96, then spent a few years playing in Europe.

He rejoined the NBA to play for Orlando from 1999-01, then played two seasons for Utah.

The Jazz traded him to the Houston Rockets, who traded him to New York.

He retired when the Knicks waived him in January 2004.

Amaechi came out of retirement to help England's men's basketball team win the silver medal in the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia.