Greg Walsh, a popular player in Chicago's gay sports leagues for most of the past 10 years, particularly basketball, died unexpectedly May 20. He was 41.
A Chicago-area native, Walsh was involved with running the basketball action at the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago, and though he did not play in the Games, he played annually in the wintertime Windy City Athletic Association's basketball league and the annual Cody Roundball Classic tournament.
Walsh grew up in suburban Glen Ellyn and was a junior high basketball coach for two seasons at St. Petronille Church. He graduated from Glenbard West High School in 1986, and then college in downtown Chicago.
Walsh was a marketing specialist/meeting planner who most recently worked in the marketing department for Evanston-based Mather Lifeways.
Walsh lived in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, and called Chicago home for most of his life. He was recruited, though, to a job in the San Francisco area in the 1990s to help Gap Inc., start the chain that would become Old Navy. "Before too long, Greg's love for family and for his native city brought him back to Chicago," his brother Mark Walsh said at the eulogy.
Walsh was active in sports, as a player and a referee of basketball, softball, and flag football. Greg helped organize recreational leagues on the North Side, and coaxed many friends and newcomers to the city to participate in basketball.
"Greg had an uncanny way of bringing people together, arranging the infrastructure for us to enjoy our community without thrusting himself into the limelight," said Chicago resident Michael McRaith. "He did this with basketball, reaching out to players from around the community, or new to the community, helping them find a place in our league. Only Greg knew the hours and time he spent attending to the detail that helped our basketball league move to a three-level sport with a spot for everyone, regardless of skill or talent.
"On a personal level, Greg was genuinely compassionate and present, supportive but never intrusive. I can hear his laugh now. Greg was one of the great, quiet leaders who deserve credit for helping make our north side Chicago world a tremendous place to live."
Added Chicago resident Shawn Albritton: "I was very new to basketball, and yet Greg always encouraged and coached me, even when I was playing against his team. Greg always wanted guys to learn game, get better and, more important, enjoy it."
At Glenbard West, Walsh was the sophomore class president, and he helped plan proms and other dances for several years. He played on the school's golf team.
"Greg is deserving of being remembered by more than just friends and family for his contributions to our community," said Chicago resident Mark Febonio. "Greg was as instrumental and important to the basketball league as anyone for most of the past decade. I don't know how he got on the [ WCAA ] basketball board, but once he was there, he helped keep the league running and moving in the right direction. He was the recreation division manager for most of those years.
"Greg was at his best when in a situation that required someone to take control. He wasn't afraid to step up and assert himself when needed and this trait served him well when running the basketball league. He was a fair and honest leader who kept the big picture in focus even during a game in which he was a participant. When the referees or players needed to be reminded of their role within the league structure, Greg would speak up, and people listened.
"Greg helped create the recreation division, and ran it for the first few years. He saw the need for a third division when the league had grown to the point of having enough players to allow it. He helped form the first teams in the recreational division and while running it placed many players on teams to help achieve balance within the division. And as a teammate of his, I can attest to instances when he put good or strong players on other teams in the division when he could have added them to our roster which would have made our team much stronger. He was fair and honest putting the league ahead of his own competitive nature."
Walsh also started the Monday night pick up games, "to give those of us learning the game and striving to improve an opportunity to get our hands on the ball outside the league while doing it in a comfortable and not intimidating arena," Febonio said. "He recognized the need and the desire for such an opportunity and knowing that it would also benefit the league, he made it happen."
Added Chicago resident Young Park: "The thing that I remember and miss the most about Greg is his passion for the game of basketball. It was fun to watch him going through many different stages of emotion in each and every game we played together.
Thanks to his passion for the sport and dedication to the league, the WCAA basketball league was able to grow its recreational division to where it is now, and the league will never be the same without his leadership and execution."
Walsh also is well remembered by many for his quick wit and a great sense of humor, not to mention his baking. He could take a joke or a comment that poked fun at him as well as give the same.
He enjoyed movies, going out to dinner or just hanging out with friends.
Walsh had a beloved dog, named Spike, who he insisted was named after the golf term. Walsh was an active participant in the dog community on the North Side, including the Puptown dog park in Uptown. "My brother loved cracking up our aunt just by reeling off the many puns used in Chicago's dog parks and businesses, such as Wiggly Field, Grant Bark, and Groomingdale's," Mark Walsh said.
"Greg is missed and will be for a long time to come," said Febonio, who first met Walsh in 2001. "Greg always loved being around the games. He was most comfortable when on, or at, a field or court.
"Greg was a wonderful human being who gave to the community what he could, and when he did, he gave his all."
Andrew Burke was admittedly "lonely" in the fall of 2005 as 25-year-old living in north suburban Waukegan.
"I wasn't very interested in going to gay bars—and I really didn't know how else gay men could find each other and connect on a friendship level," Burke said. "Meeting Greg changed all that for me. Greg introduced me to the WCAA basketball league in Chicago, and my life changed dramatically for the better after that.
"Greg had a very natural talent meeting new people and immediately connecting to them. He's one of very few people I know who could walk into a room not knowing a single person, and within an hour he would have made several friends. More than that, he was an exceptional organizer. He was always the guy who took the lead in planning an evening out, or organizing a party. In doing so, he brought a lot of people together. I've made more friends than I can count through some event that Greg had organized or planned. He always seemed to provide the right environment for people who've never met before, [ so they can ] feel comfortable."
Burke added: "People respected Greg, not only because of his personality, but because they all knew the time and effort he put into the [ basketball ] league. Greg was very often the first one at the gym setting up chairs and scoring tables. Greg was there throughout the whole day making sure each game had someone to man the scorebook and game clock. Quite simply, Greg did all the dirty work, and not because he expected anything in return. I think, rather, that Greg cared about the league because he cared so much about the players. There are plenty of us who feel, at times, that we don't quite 'fit in' with the other situations in our lives. The league provided a place where we could forget about that for an hour or two. I think Greg was very aware of this fact, and did everything he could to make sure that the league would continue to be a place where people felt welcome."
Walsh also played CMSA flag football.
"He wasn't the biggest or fastest guy [ in football ] , but he had good hands and could catch anything in his area," Burke said. "One of my fondest memories of Greg will always be of him playing football. Not because of anything he did on the field, but because of his dog. Greg would bring his beloved Spike to the fields and leash him on the sidelines. Anytime Greg would get the ball, Spike would go nuts on the sideline—whining and barking non-stop. He thought Greg was being attacked by the guys trying to de-flag him. Imagine a 15 pound, curly-haired, lap dog trying to run onto a football field to protect his owner—priceless.
"There are very few people I can think of who have impacted my life as much as he has. His passing is a great loss for me personally, and for our community as well. His absence will be sorely felt for a long time to come."