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Former Jazz Player Returns to Lead Gay Pride Parade

Former Jazz Player Returns to Lead Gay Pride Parade

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- John Amaechi still has fond memories of Salt Lake City despite his struggles over two seasons playing sparingly with the Utah Jazz and often clashing with his coach.

The community balanced it all, said Amaechi who earlier this year became the first former NBA player to acknowledge he is gay.

In memoirs published in February, he calls Salt Lake City "the hippest, gayest place east of San Francisco."

Amaechi returns to celebrate that this weekend when he serves as the grand marshal for the Utah Pride parade in Salt Lake City. It's the first of several Pride events for Amaechi. 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.

Before coming to Utah, Amaechi famously gave up a $17 million offer from the Los Angeles Lakers to stay with the Orlando Magic out of loyalty -- and a hope they'd make good on promises of a larger contract when they could. Instead, he was traded to the Jazz where the sting of that betrayal was exacerbated by clashes with Jazz coach Jerry Sloan and a lack of playing time.

Amaechi saw basketball as his job -- not his life -- and it was a mentality that didn't fly with Sloan, he 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 same friends would head out to Salt Lake's gay clubs.

He was guarded about his sexuality while in the NBA and careful about going out.

Amaechi is naturally reserved. Don't expect to see him dancing on a float during Sunday's parade. He said he'll leave that to some Salt Lake City friends joining him in the parade.

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

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

He said coming out as a gay man has taken over a "full season" between 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.

It's a fixation that he said likely will need to change before a professional male athlete will come out while still playing. Such acceptance could be a way off.

Since coming out, Amaechi said he hasn't heard from any of his former teammates that are still playing in the league. He has heard from former teammates from his college days at Penn State and from former Jazz forward Karl Malone, now retired from basketball, and his wife Kaye.

"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 often, including in his book, that he and Malone couldn't have less in common, but somehow the two got along almost because of their differences. Amaechi said he has the utmost respect for his conservative former teammate.

Malone fit into Utah's conservative climate -- just as many who will celebrate this weekend will say Amaechi fit into Salt Lake City's more diverse one.

In recent years, Salt Lake has been identified as a gay-friendly travel destination. 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 and will run from Friday through Sunday with concerts by En Vogue, Sheena Easton, a two-day community celebration on the grounds of Salt Lake's City and County Building and Sunday's parade.

In years past, crowd estimates for the single-day event have topped 30,000 and this year's organizer says he's hoping for many more.

"This city has just come the distance in the last 10 years," said organizer Terry Mitchell Nani. "Having been a successful one-day festival in years past it needed to be enhanced. The goal is outreach and really bridging some of the gaps in the community."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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