John Amaechi banged his shoulder against the door on the way into the Henderson Building’s room 117.
It was less graceful than one would typically expect from a former professional athlete, but seemed just about right for a man who towered at a staggering height of 6-foot-9 and a door that most definitely did not.
Either way, it didn’t matter. The crowd that had gathered inside the small classroom Friday afternoon wasn’t expecting astounding feats of physical supremacy but was instead anticipating the verbal dexterity that Amaechi, a best-selling author, former NBA player and organizational consultant and high-performance executive coach is known for.
Amaechi’s talk touched on everything from his childhood in England to his time as a basketball player at Penn State and with professional organizations like the Orlando Magic.
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“He was a different athlete. He had a social fire in him that was just remarkable,” Scott Kretchmar, a professor of exercise and science at Penn State, said.
Kretchmar was the chairman of a conference promoting the well-being of athletes that Amaechi was originally scheduled to speak at on Saturday before it was canceled. For years he had heard the stories of the former Penn State basketball star’s undergraduate work with programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters and thought that Amaechi’s name and story had audience value beyond its NBA credentials.
“There were some younger kids there that heard it, which I was pleased about,” Kretchmar said.
Amaechi spoke extensively about the value of having quality interactions with people. He recounted that, as a child, people were often intimidated by his size and girth, causing the young boy to begin to envision himself as a monster better off in the seclusion of his home and books.
It wasn’t until the age of 17, when a stranger told him he would be good at basketball, that Amaechi launched his first shot toward a hoop — and missed by almost 6 feet. The other kids on the court weren’t even fazed.
Amaechi was amazed that his failure could be seen as just another step on the path toward becoming a good athlete and told his audience at Henderson that that first thought came to his mind on that court.
“I’m never leaving this place,” Amaechi said.
His newfound quest to join the NBA eventually brought him to Penn State, where instead of being intimidated by his size, people actively sought him out in the hallways and on campus.
“This was the place where I realized how powerful interactions can be if you make the effort,” Amaechi said.
After he finished his talk, Amaechi opened the floor to questions, the last of which came from student Zack Parik, a member of the Penn State volleyball team who wanted to know what he could do to make the most of his upcoming senior year.
Ameachi encouraged Parik to make the most of his spare time and get involved with other students, an extension of his earlier assertion that an athlete’s sport is not what they are, it’s what they do.
It was advice the volleyball player appreciated.
“It was amazing to hear from someone who was kind of in the same position as I was as a student-athlete,” Parik said.