Former NBA player John Amaechi gives clinics at New Canaan Country School
NEW CANAAN—When your jersey hangs in the NBA Hall of Fame and you’ve been personally recognized by the Queen it can be easy to get a big head (especially when that head sits on a 6’ 10” frame), but John Amaechi remains ever humble in his ventures, and that’s why he is one of the foremost professionals in a variety of fields.
Amaechi, who spent eight years in the NBA after first picking up a basketball at age 17 is the only English player to be honored by the Hall of Fame, but it’s what he’s done after basketball that prides him the most.
Last week Amaechi spent three days at New Canaan Country School giving workshops to faculty, parents and children of the school. The lessons Amaechi brings to the children on the court are the same ones he echoes to the adults in the classroom.
“Generically sports can teach some great lessons,” Amaechi said of his teaching approach. “But people are under the mistaken idea that sports do it by themselves and that’s not true, but they can be effective in teaching in an easy way like, not cutting corners.”
Not cutting corners was the first message Amaechi gave to the children of NCCS during a simple drill of dribbling a basketball around the court. If a student didn’t dribble around every corner the drill was stopped so that they could reflect on the lesson. When Amaechi huddled everyone up at the conclusion of the event an hour and a half later he asked what they had learned. The answer was a resounding “don’t cut corners,” from the children.
“It’s a really easy way to make people understand that these tiny little shavings of cheating don’t prosper in the end,” Amaechi said of the lesson. “So with a group like this you can have fun but if they keep that one little bit in their head then that’s transferrable and teachers can get excited about that too because they can hear that and use it again. It’s not super profound, sometimes when you work with children people think there’s some super profound nugget that they have to leave with them forever but it’s the simplest things that will stay with them.”
The NCCS visit isn’t an anomaly for Amaechi as he has made it his life’s work to provide any philanthropic services he can to people across the globe.
After retiring from basketball Amaechi earned his PHD in psychology and has gone on to work as a psychologist and advisor to some of the biggest firms in both America and England. His book ’Man in the Middle’ was even featured on the New York Times best seller list.
“I don’t think I’m that benevolent, it’s just that if all I am is the guy who’s really good at putting a ball in a hole it seems so empty,” Amaechi said of his post NBA work. “There’s no legacy to that from my perspective, the way you live on is by having people tell the story about the times they’ve met you. If I want to have any kind of enduring impact in this world it will be by having contact with young people, with teachers and in the corporate world.”
Accomplishments like that will garner plenty of attention, and that’s what Director of Community Development Lynn Sullivan saw when she was researching potential candidates to speak at the school.
“It’s been unbelievable,” Sullivan said of the school’s interaction with Amaechi. “I think the number one message John has brought to us is the practice of being mindful and giving the space and time and attention in every interaction with someone.”
Every student at NCCS is required to participate in an extracurricular sport. For the students that chose basketball the thrill of learning from someone who has been at the pinnacle of the sport is invaluable.
“Watching the kids come in here, the ones who are really passionate about basketball, was really fun,” Athletic Director Keri Kern said. “Watching them with their bright eyes, it was a great opportunity, how many people ever get a chance to meet an NBA player and to have a personal clinic?”
For sixth grade student Ryan Higgins the experience from a pure basketball standpoint was what he enjoyed most, and commented on how well Amaechi tailored his lessons towards the students.
“He was really great, he really understood the kids and he knew what drills to do,” the young sharp-shooter said. “They weren’t too hard or too easy, he really knew the right level for everyone.”
The drills and lessons were non gender specific and fifth grader Paige Davis enjoyed herself as well.
“I thought it was really fun,” Davis said. “I wish I could do it again.”
Reactions like that are what keeps Amaechi going in his busy schedule. His ultimate goal is to sit on England’s House of Lords (similar to America’s Senate) but he isn’t dismissive of any endeavor he takes along the way, oft stepping back to enjoy the moment.
“The truth is, every day I wake up and I’m doing exactly what I want to do,” Amaechi said. “I work in a corporate sphere that is pretty cut-throat as well as this kind of education sphere as well as intelligence services both here and in the UK and there isn’t any day that I don’t go into any of these places and look around and think, ’how cool is this?’”
While Amaechi might be most known for his basketball career he knew at the age of seven he would one day be a psychologist. Amaechi watched as his mother, who was a doctor, was able to calm her patients in just two or three minutes of talking, and that visible relaxed feeling he saw convinced him that she had supernatural powers, and that one day he would too.
“I thought, ’how cool it is by talking to someone you can change their physical demeanor,’” Amaechi said. “You can see their shoulders relax and their breaths ease. I was convinced my mother was a Jedi and I realized I wanted to be a Jedi when I grew up; so now I think there is a little bit of Obi-Wan with me.”