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Jazz signs a ‘character guy’

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The Jazz are known as an organization that prefers "character guys."

On Friday, they signed one.

John Amaechi is a character, all right — one the likes of which has never before bothered to unpack his hightops in Utah.

From the Earl Grey tea he favors before games to his pursuit of a doctoral degree in child psychology, the big Brit does things in a manner not normally associated with NBA players.

Perhaps that is why setting up shop in Salt Lake City for a few seasons — something known to strike fear in many a player throughout the league — does not seem to faze him.

"I've chosen to believe that all the bad stories I've heard are myth, until I've seen it proven otherwise," said Amaechi, was born in Boston, raised in Manchester, England, and played his final season of high school basketball in Toledo, Ohio. "And, plus, I'm not really that demanding socially.

"People have expectations of the NBA, and the NBA lifestyle — of going out every night, and doing all these other things," he added. "But I'm 30, and British. I don't do that stuff."

What Amaechi does do is make a nifty first impression, which is why the Jazz went after the 6-foot-10 Orlando Magic free-agent center-forward in the first place. His arrival coincides with the organization's decision to back away from the thought of re-signing starting center Olden Polynice, who now is looking for work elsewhere.

"The reason John's here," Jazz owner Larry H. Miller said, "is when Orlando (came) here the year before last, he kicked our ass."

Utah pursued Amaechi last off-season, when he instead wound up re-signing for the relatively paltry sum (by NBA standards, at least) of nearly $600,000.

In doing so, Amaechi spurned not only the Jazz but also the NBA-champion Los Angeles Lakers, who were offering a six-year deal (not four or five years, as widely reported) worth nearly $17 million. He did so out of loyalty to the Magic, who revived his NBA career (which started with a stint in Cleveland during the 1995-96 season) following a three-year stay with various teams in Europe.

"I turned that down in good faith because Orlando gave me an opportunity that other teams had not given me — to show that I could play," he said. "Without them, I would not be here. So it was not a terrible decision. It was an honorable one, and I'm happy with that."

What he seems less than thrilled about, however, is how he was treated by the Magic this off-season.

Rather than reward his loyalty with a long-term deal, Orlando set its sights first on veteran free agents Patrick Ewing and Horace Grant, signing both.

Amaechi, who admittedly struggled with his confidence last season, was a mere afterthought. The Magic did say they intended to re-sign him, but his agent, Bill Sweek, said their offer was "ambiguous."

The Magic themselves reportedly admitted they never got around to making a concrete proposal when the NBA signing period opened Wednesday.

"I realize had I played better, more consistently, I'd have had more options," Amaechi, who also had interest but no offer from Chicago, told Florida Today. "I'm not saying I'm angry. It's a business. I'm hurt, but I'll move on."

Move on he did, to Utah, which signed him to a three-year deal with a fourth season at Amaechi's option. The total package is believed to be worth more than $9 million.

"This organization was very forthright with me from the beginning," he said of the Jazz. "From the moment they could speak with me, and the moment I could be signed, they made it clear I was the priority — someone they felt could come in and help.

"I think it was important to me that this team wanted me to come in and be a factor. They know me well enough to know that my ego is not tied on to whether I start or whether I am a star or any of those things that are kind of ethereal. I'm more interested in whether I can be a valuable asset to a team, whatever my role will be."

The money he left on the Lakers' table, Amaechi suggested, is but a blur in his history.

"That's more important for my detractors back in Britain, who are probably laughing like hyenas because they have no idea of the real circumstances over here," he said. "You know, for me, it's pointless to look back on that."

Still, he knows the financial security of his Jazz deal does tote some clout.

"In some kind of childish way, I suppose it's the benchmark by which, in society, we judge how good people are," said Amaechi, a Penn State grad. "If nothing else, it's proof when I go home to England that I actually do play over here (in the States).

"I'm kind of like the Loch Ness monster: Do I really exist? Do I really play over here?"

Really, he does. And now he has a long-term deal to prove it, plus the opportunity to play alongside the likes of John Stockton and Karl Malone.

"I know they are quality players," he said, "and I just want to augment that.

"I know that John's the sharpest passer that's ever played in the league, and I know that Karl has the sharpest elbows," Amaechi added. "If nothing else, I want to start because it's much better to play with them in practice than against them in practice — because there are no referees there."

But there are some characters. And, now, there will be one more of them.

E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com