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Thursday, May 31, 2007
Grateful Amaechi to lead gay pride parade in Salt Lake City

Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY -- John Amaechi still has fond memories of Salt Lake City despite his struggles on the basketball court.

The first former NBA player to acknowledge he is gay said his affection for the community balanced out his scant playing time and clashes with his coach. In memoirs published in February, he called Salt Lake City "the hippest, gayest place east of San Francisco."

Amaechi returns to celebrate that by serving as the grand marshal for this weekend's Utah Pride Parade. He has also accepted grand marshal honors for parades in Los Angeles and Chicago.

"I really owe Salt Lake. My time there would have been so multiply miserable had it not been for so many people -- gay, straight and otherwise -- who made my time there so special," he said.

Amaechi signed with the Jazz in 2001, feeling betrayed by his former team, the Orlando Magic, who he claims reneged on a promise of a rich contract. His mentality that basketball was his job -- not his life -- didn't fly with Utah coach Jerry Sloan, Amaechi said.

He made several good friends in Salt Lake City and often hosted parties at his downtown loft, which is where he stayed when those friends headed to Salt Lake's gay clubs. Guarded about his sexuality while in the NBA, Amaechi was careful about going out.

He is naturally reserved: Don't expect to see Amaechi dancing on a float Sunday. He'll leave that to some friends joining him in the parade.

"I'm not as dynamic and sexy," he said. "I'm much better at giving a few words."

Giving a few words is what Amaechi does these days with his company, Animus Consulting. He works as a motivational speaker, addressing organizations and corporations in his native Britain and the United States, usually on the importance of diversity and communication. He also runs the Amaechi Basketball Centres Foundation in England, which uses the sport to teach life skills to children.

I really owe Salt Lake. My time there would have been so multiply miserable had it not been for so many people -- gay, straight and otherwise -- who made my time there so special.

John Amaechi

Coming out has resulted in many book signings and invitations to speak, mostly to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered groups.

"Now it seems in America I'm just 'that gay guy,'" he said.

That fixation probably needs to change before a professional male athlete will come out while still playing, Amaechi said. He said he hasn't heard from any former teammates currently in the NBA since his admission. Former Penn State teammates and retired Jazz star Karl Malone and his wife have reached out to him.

"Essentially, they e-mailed and called to express that they fully supported me, and they knew the content of my character and it doesn't change what they think about me," Amaechi said.

He jokes that he and Malone couldn't have less in common, but somehow the two got along -- perhaps because of their differences. Amaechi expressed great respect for his conservative former teammate.

A city known for its conservatism, Salt Lake has been identified as a gay-friendly travel destination in recent years. Mayor Rocky Anderson supports gay rights, and Census numbers suggest the city has a significant number of gay households.

Utah's gay pride celebration has expanded this year to run from Friday through Sunday and includes concerts by En Vogue and Sheena Easton.

As a single-day event in the past, it drew estimated crowds of more than 30,000.

"This city has just come the distance in the last 10 years," organizer Terry Mitchell Nani said.