It can be argued that 2013 Homecoming Grand Marshal John Amaechi is the most successful Penn State basketball player of all time. His accomplishments on the court, both in college (a multiple time Academic All-American who averaged 16.4 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game) and the NBA (a nice career mostly as a backup center for four teams) were certainly impressive. However, Amaechi’s most notable achievements have come off the court. He was the first NBA player to come out as gay, and has had a successful post-NBA career as an organizational psychologist.
Recently, Onward State caught up with Amaechi to talk hoops, Penn State, and Homecoming.
Onward State: What does it mean to you to be named Homecoming Grand Marshal?
John Amaechi: It’s obviously a great honor. I mean, anybody who goes to Penn State knows that football is king and to be a part of the Homecoming game in any way is important, but in this way I think it’s, on many levels, a proud moment for me. I come back to Penn State as often as I can, and to come back as Grand Marshal ostensibly, A) reaffirming my connection to Penn State because I’m 5,000 miles away most of the time, but also hopefully reminding people that not just what Penn State taught me in terms of classroom time but what it taught me in terms of how to carry myself as an individual.
OS: You have received criticism in some Penn State circles lately for an interview you did on Dan LeBatard is Highly Questionable when you said you were ashamed and embarrassed and humiliated, and you called Joe Paterno a “part time man of principle” immediately after the Sandusky scandal hit the university. Can you elaborate on what you meant two years later?
JA: Yeah, I was truly ashamed to hear that anything like what happened with the Sandusky affair had happened, was happening, was ongoing. If you listen to that interview, understand that it was in the context of my shame and the fact that I was part of that Second Mile program. The second day I was at Penn State, the second day, I was introduced to Sandusky and told that part of my responsibility was to give back. So all of a sudden, I was engaged in the Second Mile and I really felt a great benefit from that understanding my part to play. But at the same time, you find out about the revelations from the scandal. Even if you’re just talking about Sandusky’s part alone, you suddenly realize that you are unwittingly complicity, because I was part of the many that brought kids to the program. So, I think anybody from that perspective can understand the shame that I felt.
Also, I have to say this: a lot of the shame was the fact that, whatever the situation, whoever was involved, and I honestly don’t think we’ll ever really know, the response immediately after Joe Paterno’s firing, the response after the sanctions started to be placed on us, was inappropriate. Rioting in the streets? It was inappropriate, and I felt ashamed because that’s not the lessons that Penn State taught me.
OS: How have your opinions changed on that matter, or for the most part are they still the same?
JA: I’m an organizational psychologist nowadays. I work with large organizations with complex structures. I realize that in lots of situations, the places that I work, the person at the top doesn’t necessarily know every piece of information that’s happening in their organization. But what I do know is that the person at the top is ultimately responsible. When BP was spilling oil into the Gulf, it’s very unlikely that anybody could really say that the CEO of BP, who was a British guy at the time, was directly responsible for opening up the pipe and pouring oil into the Gulf. But nonetheless, it was his responsibility, and when everything hit the fan he was the one to go. This is the nature of organizations, and to pretend that it’s any different because it’s a football team within a major university is foolish.
OS: Let’s move to the hardwood. How closely have you followed Penn State basketball since you graduated?
JA: Quite closely, actually. I just narrowly missed them in London the other day, actually, when the team was just flying through. They were here for such a little time that I didn’t get to catch up with them. But I do speak to Coach Chambers every once in a while about what he’s doing, about what’s going on and of course I’m constantly I’m trying to steer any young people I see in Europe the way of Penn State given the track record that they have of making sure that student-athletes are both sides of that.
OS: Penn State obviously hasn’t been a basketball powerhouse in its recent history. What do you think it’s going to take for them to evolve into a big time program?
JA: It’s a difficult thing…when the singular focus for a lot of outsiders is that Penn State is a football school. It’s a difficult thing when people don’t really understand it’s an amazing experience. People who come from very urban environments don’t realize what an amazing experience you can have in State College. The draw of living in Philadelphia and going to Temple, for example, versus coming to State College in the basketball world is still tough.
But I believe that Coach Chambers is moving the program in the right direction and sometimes it just takes the right person showing up at the right time. I look back on my arrival at Penn State, and it was led directly by the coach. It was led by the fact that Bruce Parkhill was the only basketball coach I listened to during my transfer window who didn’t lie to me. He told me, he didn’t make all the promises that all these other coaches made about my amazing future they saw, whereas Bruce Parkhill sat me in the bleachers in Rec Hall and just said, “If you work hard, we will certainly try to make you as good as you can be, but I’m not gonna make any promises.” I was like, “That’s a man I can work with,” and I know that there are talented athletes out there that would respond to a similar line.
OS: While you were at Penn State, the basketball team played its games at Rec Hall. How do you feel about the team playing Princeton there later this year?
JA: I think it will be amazing. I think, when the move was made to Bryce Jordan, a lot of people thought that it would be the catalyst for this major change. I think that people immediately forgot, or tried to forget, the power of a venue like Rec Hall. I’ve still got video, actually that Penn State made for me quite some time ago, of games that we played in Rec Hall. Big wins against Purdue and people like that. A packed Rec Hall is one of the most, if not the most, intimidating places I’ve ever played in.
OS: Do you plan on coming back to Penn State for that game?
JA: Right now, I’ve got it in the diary, I’m just not sure if I’m gonna be able to make it at this point because it’s not just the fact that I’m coming over from the Atlantic, it’s the idea that I’ve got to negotiate time out of my schedule to get to more difficult places. I will try to for sure.
OS: How hard was it for you to make the transition from basketball player to your current career as an organizational psychologist?
JA: Easy. It was easy, in large part because it was exactly what I was preparing for at Penn State. I wasn’t preparing just to play in the NBA and have a career there. I was preparing for a life, and I’m constantly thankful of the fact that I found a school that really takes both sides of [student-athlete] seriously. I haven’t seen it much, certainly as professional basketball player, there’s great skepticism about having any interest outside of sport.
But at Penn State, one of the first things that the administration said to me when I got to Penn State was, “we expect you to be an Academic All-American.” How many schools say that to a student-athlete coming in? That’s what makes Penn State special.
OS: You have become a champion for gay rights, especially among athletes. How does it feel to have that title, and when you came out, was that something you expected to happen?
JA: I knew when I came out that people would automatically think that I was some kind of huge advocate for gay rights, but really, I don’t find it a completely accurate title. I’m an advocate for human rights. I’m an advocate for human dignity, and there are a number of things that fall under that umbrella. The reality is that I’m an Amnesty International ambassador, and that is not a one-dimensional title. It means that I am willing to stand up and talk about and support just what people all over the place who are marginalized and are trying to find a way to express themselves and have some semblance of dignity and hope. Sometimes that’s, the real truth is that the media does not normally notice this when I’m talking about gay stuff. They tend not to notice if I’m really saying nuanced things about China or Russia or anywhere else that I’m talking about. To me, human rights is not a one-dimensional thing.
OS: If you were a dinosaur, what kind would you be and why?
JA: Immediately into my head comes brontosaurus, but actually what I mean is any of the huge herbivores is probably what I’d be.
OS: Alright, excellent. John, thank you very much.
JA: If I can say one last thing: a lot of people have been on Twitter criticizing whatever, and there’s been a lot of support too, which I’m thankful for. I just want to remind people that, at least to my mind, what the Grand Marshal is about. It’s not about the last 12 months or 18 months. It’s about me highlighting the positives that a holistic Penn State education can bring, and I have never been shy about saying what I believe Penn State has given me. That’s why I’ve been back so many times, and why I’ll continue to do that.