His stride as confident as his opinions, John Amaechi pulls up a chair in a Manhattan caf�, pulls out the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology and pulls over a pot of tea. The Magic center acknowledges a fan with a smile, a bow and a gesture—hands half-raised in modest surrender—then returns to his reading. "John is the smartest player I've met in this league," says teammate Michael Doleac. "He's also the only player I know whose beverage of choice is Earl Grey."
For the NBA's lone Englishman, basketball is not his cup of tea. "I'm not really a fan of the game," says Amaechi, a 6'10", 270-pound former rugby player whose tastes extend to poetry, opera and Impressionist art. "Basketball's just a business to me, a means to an end." That end is a Ph.D. A 29-year-old doctoral candidate in child psychology at Penn State, Amaechi plans to play professionally for four more years and then finish his degree requirements. "I want to save enough to fund my own research and clinics," he says in a soft Manchester lilt. "My real love is child psychology."
For Amaechi, the NBA is the perfect setting to observe juvenile behavior. "You get the spoiled child," he says, "and the child who perceives he's neglected, and the one who acts up and asserts himself to get noticed," he says. Still, there is one difference: "In most families you don't trade relatives should they become superfluous or bothersome."
Superfluous is pretty much how Amaechi felt growing up in the English Midlands. "I was fat and nerdy, with no interest in sports," he says. "Kids called me the Whale." Reading, he loved. "I was keen on science fiction and got through all of the Hardy Boys books." Amaechi swears he never even touched a basketball until he was 17. He was walking down a street when a kid asked, "Do you fancy playing basketball?" Amaechi did, but he didn't know the rules. So his mates told him, "This is the ball, and that's the basket. Just run with us and keep your arms up." Amaechi recalls, "I was horrific."
As a 6'8", 17-year-old he moved to Toledo, to stay with friends of his coach's. A year of high school basketball earned him a scholarship to Vanderbilt. His freshman season was memorable only for an on-court rejoinder to one of his coaches. "Would you please refrain from yelling at me quite so much?" Amaechi said.
Amaechi jumped to Penn State, where he developed some nifty post-up moves, became the school's career leader in blocked shots and was twice named Academic All-America. In 1995 the Cavaliers signed him as an undrafted free agent. After a promising start he crumbled like a stale scone. "It was like, I'm here, I'm in the rare air I wanted to be in, now what?" he says. After the season he left to ponder this existential dilemma in the European leagues.
Amaechi's last few years have been like a package tour, with stops in Greece, Italy and England. Orlando coach Doc Rivers lured him back to the States last fall. "Doc promised me nothing," Amaechi says, "but he believed in me as a useful, functioning part instead of a sitting-on-the-end-of-the-bench part." As an occasional starter Amaechi was averaging 9.0 points and 3-2 rebounds at week's end, and he had outplayed such big-ticket centers as Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon in head-to-head meetings.
He achieved hoops immortality on Jan. 2 by scoring the first NBA basket of 2000 in the opening minute of a game against the Heat. His uniform was dispatched to the Basketball Hall of Fame. "I'm honored that my jersey will hang next to Dr. J's," says the future Dr. J.