For those who think I am a snob when it comes to music or film—you should see me with literature. Having been a student of African-American Studies for four years and read nearly every book in the African-American canon, I am a complete literature snob. Therefore, when I picked up John Amaechi’s Man in the Middle I was unsure what to expect. I haven’t read a book since I graduated from Rutgers University in July and I have just as much interest in basketball as I do the female orgasm. So, when I cracked open Man in the Middle I pulled out my Rutgers highlighter that has been unused for eight months and I balled up in the corner of my couch—hoping I would make it through the first chapter. I finished the first half of the book in less than a day. I completed the book the next day. There wasn’t a moment of Amaechi’s travels that wasn’t engrossing or sincere—and you know you can trust Clay Cane.
Man in the Middle by John Amaechi with Chris Bull follows the journey of the first Brit NBA player from his days as an overweight child, NBA glamour, his hidden sexuality and so much more. Amaechi offers a reflective, well-written, at times comical memoir of a chunky boy who once wanted to be invisible to a well-developed man who transcends striking hardships to live a dream he never dreamed.
It was fascinating to read of the awkward young black boy who had body image issues that many of us think are reserved for white girls in Beverly Hills. Amaechi was a giant compared to the skinny, white English folks in his school and was viciously coined a “whale”. His struggle with weight even reached the NBA with his critics saying, “He’s too fat for basketball”—if you think Janice Dickinson and Simon Cowell are critics, try listening to one minute of those sports commentators—they go off! Nonetheless, Amaechi was resilient and through “The Plan” (penned way before Oprah broke “The Secret” to the world!) he remained powerfully focused even with loneliness and the hush of his sexuality.
Sexuality is not the main focus of Amaechi’s story, but it is not avoided. Amaechi reveals to the reader a young boy grappling with his sexuality, but not an outwardly gay child. This is an interesting point that many gay people forget in the spectrum of sexuality. Not all of us are bashed in school, but still endure the emotional repression. There is something to be said for the young boy who is not called a faggot everyday in the hallways, but is still gay, isolated and wrestling with the same issues.
Amaechi and Bull manage to smooth over his sexuality so evenly that it feels normalized in a world where it is abnormal. For the reader who may not understand homosexuality, or afraid of gay men, Man in the Middle is a flawless read because it allows them to experience this repression he endured, but every page is not filled with salacious sexual escapades—not that there is anything wrong with that. In addition, it doesn’t seem as if Amaechi is trying to not go into depth about his sexuality, it is that for a long time he wasn’t acknowledging it—an experience many gay men, especially black or Latino, can relate to—don’t you just love when Oprah cries, “How could you not know?”, but I digress…I would feel comfortable giving this book to my father who has told me countless times he doesn’t understand “it”. My own father would learn so much from Man in the Middle and the truth would not be sugarcoated.
The major storyline is Amaechi’s journey in the NBA. He ushers the reader through ups and downs, competition, despicable coaches, crazed fans, the “kick them when their down” philosophy, contractual betrayal, broken promises and so much more. After reading Man in the Middle I have a whole new respect for basketball.
Amaechi’s entrance in the NBA is also marked with poignant commentary on “hoop dreams” that he was able to see more clearly even as a teen because he was not socialized in America (basketball in England isn’t nearly as popular). Often times his commentary reminded me of an episode of Bill Maher, which is always a plus.
“If you really want to screw a bunch of poor black kids, tell them to focus on basketball when only one in a thousand will even make it to the college level, let alone secure a scholarship. It’s a great way to make sure there’ll be plenty of street cleaners and burger flippers. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of honest work, except the low income and lack of benefits. But when dead-end jobs become destiny, that’s when hope departs and despair takes root.”
That needs to be added to the pledge of allegiance to every inner-city school in the United States!
The political commentary on race, sexuality, child advocacy and even gun control are impeccable and refreshing, especially when most basketball players are as plastic and non-political as Supermodels—with the exception of the icon, Charles Barkley!
Amaechi’s journey to being the first British NBA player (to my knowledge there hasn’t been one to date—don’t quote me on that) was not paved in Americana gold. He confesses to not having the “natural talent” as his fellow players (amazingly honest to admit), depression due to his mother’s battle with cancer and the looming presence of his sexuality. Throughout most of the book I wondered to myself…does he have any self-hate? Is it religion? Amaechi answers that question by giving a moving analysis that encompasses many once-closeted or now closeted men. It had nothing to do with hating himself or religion.
“I never hated myself; my desire for other men felt as natural as my right-handedness. It was simply incompatible with how I’d defined myself at the time, with whom I’d become on campus…I repeated to myself over and over, I can’t be the basketball player and this man who likes other men in this way. I can’t be this man I am.”
This is what so many R&B/hip-hop artists, actors in Hollywood, doctors or teachers feel about their sexuality. I have never read it put in a way that was void of DL Christian issues or self-hate—it was nothing short excellent.
Amaechi’s story is a story that has not been told. Only five other sports stars have come out and a few have wrote books. Amaechi’s journey is strikingly original with him being British, black (with a white parent) and in the NBA—basketball is arguably the most popular sport in America. He is the first NBA player to come out and his commentary on why homosexuality is a threat to the NBA is a slam dunk.
“The pro locker room was the most flamboyant place I’d ever been. The guys flaunted their perfect bodies. They bragged of their sexual exploits. They checked out each other’s cocks. One painted his toenails with seasonal colours, green for Christmas, red for Valentine’s Day, orange for Halloween. It was an intense kind of camaraderie that to them felt completely natural, but was a little too close for my comfort. As I surveyed the room, I couldn’t help chuckling to myself: And I’m the gay one.” Amaechi adds, “Coming out threatens to expose the homoerotic components of what they prefer to think of as simply male bonding.”
Only about thirty out of three hundred pages discuss being a gay man, which has garnered some criticism from the gay community. However, after and while reading the book I realized this story is not about a black gay Englishman—it is about John Amaechi who is so much more than socially constructed Western labels. Amaechi’s story of being more than these labels mirror what I hear nearly every gay man argue, especially black or Latino, “I’m more than gay!” Hopefully, a few of the straights will finally get it after reading this book!
Honestly, I don’t know if I could’ve gotten through a book that was 300 pages about being a gay basketball player—or even 200 pages! That would feel more contrived. That would feel more about money (another piece of criticism he has gotten). That wouldn’t feel realistic. Many people who are criticizing Amaechi, straight and gay, haven’t even read the book.
Amaechi should be applauded for his efforts and successfully writing an autobiography that will be considered a legendary moment in the NBA. Man in the Middle gives the reader a well-rounded description of his story and the universal experience of transcending the unexpected, battling adversity and coming out on the other end…being able to recognize his “soul in the dark”.
To learn more about John Amaechi check out http://www.meech.org/!
Also, if you would like to purchase Man in the Middle click on the image in the right hand column.
For my New Yorkers—all that strapping 6’9 and 270 lbs. (Sweet Jesus!) of a man is coming to our city next week! Pasted below is the information:
John Amaechi Book Signing
Wednesday, March 14, 2007 @ 7 PM
Barnes & Noble Booksellers
4 Astor Place
New York City, New York
Posted by Clay ::
12:00 AM ::