BOSTON - Sure, Doc Rivers heard whispers about John Amaechi’s sexuality when they were both in Orlando. But here’s what the former Magic coach knew for sure: Amaechi was a good scorer, a decent rebounder, a little bit of a defensive liability and “a fantastic kid.”
“He’s better than a good kid; he’s a fantastic kid,” Rivers said Wednesday night after learning that Amaechi acknowledged he is gay. “John Amaechi, when I was coaching him, was a great kid. He did as much charity work as anybody in our city, and he’s still doing it. That’s what I wish we focused on.
“Unfortunately, we’re talking about his sexual orientation, which I couldn’t care a flying flip about.”
Rivers was a rookie head coach when he took over the Magic in 1999-00, a team that finished .500 despite starting four undrafted players. Amaechi was one of them, and Rivers was chosen as the NBA’s coach of the year.
“He was great for me, he was great for the team,” Rivers said Wednesday night before Boston’s game against the Miami Heat. “That was one of the stronger locker rooms I ever had.”
Although teammates may have suspected Amaechi is gay, no one treated him any differently because of it, Rivers said. As for the coach: “It was none of my business.”
“It was brought up to me and you look and say, ’So what? Can he rebound? Can he shoot? Can he defend?”’ Rivers said before joking about Amaechi’s defensive shortcomings. “But with everything else, he was great.”
Amaechi is one of a handful of athletes from one of the major U.S. team sports to publicly acknowledge their homosexuality — all of them after their retirement. Rivers acknowledged that an active player would probably face harassment from teammates or fans, an assumption that probably keeps many from coming out.
“It was difficult for people to watch Jackie Robinson, and they got used to it. They started watching him and started cheering for him,” Rivers said. “It would be difficult for fans if the guy couldn’t play. That’s what’s difficult to me, nothing else should matter.”
But it’s inside the locker room that the gay athlete could face his toughest challenge. Although players are used to being jeered by fans, the prospect of being rejected by his teammates is at least as likely to be the reason that no active player in a men’s professional team sport has come out.
Rivers said that teammates tease each other for all kinds of reasons, and it’s likely sexual preference would soon become one of them.
“We’re all insensitive at times,” he said. “There’s no taboo subject in the locker room. I think if he would have come out, they would have got on him jokingly. They would have held no punches and they would have made fun of him just like they make fun of guys here.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
The way Miami center Shaquille O’Neal sees it, the locker room mentality could also work for a gay player by rallying his teammates to his defense.
“If he was on my team, I guess I would have to protect him from the outsiders,” O’Neal said in Boston on Wednesday night. “I’m not homophobic or anything. ... I’m not the type who judges people. I wish him well.”
Rivers said that if Amaechi had come to him, player to coach, ready to go public, he would have encouraged him to do so.
“I think when you’re brave enough to make that statement, or any statement, and you’re ready to come out about anything, then you should do it,” Rivers said. “You have to understand there will be a backlash. At least there’s going to be a discussion, but I would tell them to do it. I would tell him to keep scoring, keep rebounding and do it.
“I don’t know if we’ll see that anytime soon. But it wouldn’t bother me at all.”
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