What It Meant to Be Gay in the NBA

Feb. 16, 2007 — -- After spending five seasons as a professional basketball player, John Amaechi finds it "astonishing" that anyone would be surprised by the anti-gay remarks made by his former NBA colleague Tim Hardaway.

"I'm not surprised. To me, it's astonishing that anybody would be surprised to hear them," Amaechi told ABC News' John Berman.

At least one NBA player, however, has come out in defense of gay teammates.

When asked about having a gay player on his team, Miami Heat player Shaquille O'Neal said, "if he was on my team, I guess I would have to protect him ... I guess I'm not the type of person who judges someone."

Today on "Good Morning America," Amaechi said O'Neal's comments were "enlightening and heartwarming."

"It put a smile on my face," Amaechi said.

Not everyone has been so accepting. Amaechi said he's received many negative e-mails.

"Since Tim's comments, the number of vitriolic and hate-filled e-mails has increased," he said. "They don't have a complaint, they just want me to know I am hated."

Emboldening the Bigots

With the publication of his memoir, "Man in the Middle," Amaechi last week publicly revealed that he was gay.

Responding to Amaechi's revelation, Hardaway said in a radio interview Wednesday, "I let it be known I don't like gay people. I don't like to be around gay people."

The retired Miami Heat star has since issued a statement of apology to "anyone I have offended," but Amaechi believes the initial remarks have had an impact and "emboldens the bigots."

"It has made it tangibly less safe for gays and lesbians throughout the country, because he has polluted the atmosphere with hatred," Amaechi said.

Amaechi, who grew up in England, said in his book that he knew he was gay when he was 9 years old, but couldn't even admit it to himself until he was in his 20s.

And he never let his teammates know he was gay. No active NBA player has ever said they were gay. Amaechi said when he was in the league, it did not seem like a welcome announcement.

"I didn't have [an] environment where I felt I could come out," he said. "It is very difficult in the NBA simply because of the amount of public exposure … the coming out process is very individual for most people. In the NBA environment, that option isn't available."

Amaechi said now he worries mostly about the effect Hardaway's comments will have on kids.

"It's so damaging," he said. "Everybody knows that the formative years, your teenage years, when you're coming to understand yourself, it's so difficult."

He's Not Gay, He's Just British

During the controversial radio interview, Hardaway said that he would feel uncomfortable with a gay player in the locker room.

"People have been showering with gay men for years and years," Amaechi said. "They just don't know it."

Amaechi said that he believes some of his teammates did know he was gay but just refused to admit it to themselves.

"Without a doubt, I know other players knew," he said. "But this firestorm has indicated there's a difference between knowing and being told."

In his book, Amaechi wrote that he would bring his "fabulously flaming friends to the game and my teammates thought, 'oh they're British.'"

Amaechi also dismissed Hardaway's comments that, as an African-American man, he is sensitive to bigotry.

"It seems trite doesn't it?" Amaechi said. "As a black person myself, I know some of those issues."