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Amaechi's Grand Gig
by Ross Forman

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He visited the bars in Boystown and dined at Lakeview area sidewalk cafes.

For a couple days before the 38th annual Chicago Gay Pride Parade on June 24—and on the evening of Pride Sunday as well—John Amaechi, was simply a gay man enjoying the gayest part of Chicago, and doing so with, well, pride.

'This was a different side of Chicago than what I was used to seeing while I played here,' said Amaechi, the only National Basketball Association ( NBA ) player, current or retired, to reveal he is gay.

Amaechi was the parade's grand marshal, a role he also held for Pride parades this summer in Salt Lake City ( where he played part of his NBA career ) and in Los Angeles.

'Salt Lake was a much smaller, but vibrant Pride. Los Angeles was … Los Angeles; it was Hollywood, truly. But Chicago is the big deal,' said Amaechi, whose autobiography, Man in the Middle, was released this past February and was a New York Times best-seller. 'Chicago was … slightly crazy; it's a pretty well-developed gay neighborhood. It's been a blast.'

Amaechi said he was not nervous before the parade, which attracted about 450,000 worldwide attendees. 'I'm just hoping I don't disappoint; that's the key,' he said.

Amaechi spoke with reporters from Chicago-area television stations before the parade. He also willingly posed for numerous photos and signed plenty of autographs.

And he also endured the barking of anti-gay protesters.

'People need to look with great suspicion upon those people who would use the name of God for hatred,' Amaechi said. 'I don't make myself bold enough to speak for Jesus [ Christ ] or for God, but I have a feeling that, if we think about what would Jesus do, which side of the fence would He be standing on, I don't think it's with [ the anti-gay group ] .'

Chicago has welcomed three former professional athletes to town in recent years to serve as the grand marshal: Billy Bean ( baseball ) , Esera Tuaolo ( football ) and Amaechi.

'It's great to have John as the grand marshal. He's a great role model,' said Richard Pfeiffer, Chicago's parade coordinator.

Amaechi said the Pride parade represents several things, including, 'a celebration,' and 'a great way for communities to support each other.'

The 6-foot-10, 270-pound Amaechi, 36, who played at Penn State University, made his NBA debut during the 1995-96 season with Cleveland. He also played for Orlando and Utah during a five-year career that spanned 294 regular-season games.

'I feel very honored to be chosen [ as the grand marshal ] . This is my chance to say 'thank you' to all of the people who have been so warm and supportive over the last few months,' he said. 'It's a way for me to give back a little bit and hopefully show people that gay people come in all shapes and sizes ... and I'm just one of them.

'The response to me and the book [ over the past few months ] has been overwhelmingly positive. I've been really pleased with [ the response ] .'

Amaechi said that, like many in the LGBT community, he lived two very different lives while playing in the NBA—his lives on and off the court. 'That's not great for personal performance and it's not great for a team or a unit; in many ways it's less than ideal,' he said. 'When people have the opportunity to come out and be themselves in the workplace, it creates a positive environment for everybody; it creates an enhanced feeling and I think you get more out of people, so I'm hoping that will happen more and more.'

Amaechi added that he is still single—primarily because of an impossibly hectic schedule. His travel plans for June include stops in 19 cities, 'so it's almost impossible [ to date. ] '

Pfeiffer, who has been involved with the Chicago Pride Parade since the second one and the coordinator since the fourth, said the 2007 version was 'bigger' than 2006, if only because there was no rain.

The 40th annual Pride Parade in 2009 'probably will have a special theme,' Pfeiffer confirmed. The 2008 parade will have an international theme, he said.

Chicago, Los Angeles and New York host the three-oldest domestic parades. The largest U.S. Pride parades, in order, are San Francisco, New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles, Pfeiffer said.

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