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James Baptist: Gay businessman is former Bradley basketball star
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2013-06-26

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James Baptist is an esoteric, self-employed, multifaceted, multi-dimensional, Chicago businessman, best known for his height and hoops.

Baptist, 39, is a South side native now living in Rogers Park who graduated from Whitney Young High School and then Bradley University—starring on the basketball teams at both schools.

He was 5-foot-5 in fourth-grade, reached 6-foot-6 in eighth-grade and stopped growing as a college freshman—at 7-foot-2.

"I was one of those kids who grew very quickly and always was taller than most," he said.

Born in South Shore, Baptist grew up in Chicago's Roseland and Beverly neighborhoods. He lived in a single-parent home with his mom as his parents divorced when he was 2. Baptist traveled by public transportation to Whitney Young, where he truly was both parts of the student-athlete tag. Sure, he played four years of varsity basketball, but, Baptist also was a gifted student and member of the school's prestigious academic decathlon team. He also sang in school, and still prides himself on his singing skills.

"I was more accomplished and known as a student than as a basketball player—until my junior year, when I truly developed my on-the-court skill. Then I really started playing more competitively," said Baptist, who graduated from high school in 1992 and was among Chicago's most sought-after high school players.

Bradley was not Baptist's first choice for college, and he claims, "I could have gone anywhere in the nation, because of my academics and my height." He even wrote to Georgetown's longtime coach, John Thompson, hoping to learn and improve within a style of play at Georgetown that often showcased tall players.

That, though, never materialized.

He landed at Bradley after receiving an academic and athletic scholarship. "I didn't know much about the school or the team; I just knew that the coaches were tenacious and persistent [in recruiting me]. Ultimately it wasn't the best place for me because they didn't play the type of basketball that was centered around the big man in the middle. Their game was running, geared to the guards, to the shooters," not the tall center.

Baptist was a redshirt freshman, then a three-year player at Bradley before graduating in 1996. His college career was alongside Anthony Parker, who went on to an NBA life from 1997-2012; and also Marcus Pollard, who played in the NFL from 1995-2008, mostly for the Indianapolis Colts.

"We were always coming up a little bit short, especially [against] our big rival, Illinois State University," said Baptist, who had his greatest collegiate glory as a senior, winning the Missouri Valley Conference championship.

"It was exciting to be a part of the Bradley legacy."

After leaving college, Baptist returned to the Chicago area and resumed working for Coca-Cola, a company he worked for while in high school. This time, he worked in marketing as a brand manager, promotional and marketing assistant. He traveled throughout the state with a Dodge Ram pickup truck and a large racing car trailer, which contained a gated, collapsible regulation basketball court for promotions.

"It was a fun job, a lot of fun," said Baptist, who eventually became a sales manager.

Baptist left Coca-Cola after a few years and moved to Donnelly Publishing, working in national advertising sales for about 10 years.

His business career later included a stint with Novartis, and then, in 2005, he was named the director of marketing for In The Paint Hoops which, naturally, was a basketball company. Also in 2005, Baptist started his first company (now dissolved), Hi Frequency Limited, which he called, "a diversity-first, philanthropic, events company that also did sports management, business development and marketing."

Baptist now works alongside former NBA player Craig Hodges, helping to develop Basketball Schools of America, which works to curb the violence among inner-city youth by reaching and teaching youth the fundamentals of basketball and off-the-court life skills, plus the importance of basic human values.

Coming out

Baptist said he dated girls exclusively while in college, and it wasn't until after graduating that he went to his first gay bar—Roscoe's—mostly because he heard it was a dance club, which is what he sought.

That first night at Roscoe's, Baptist met the man who, for the next six years, would be his boyfriend, though they lived in different cities.

In 1997, his mom asked him if he was gay.

"She noticed that there were individuals who were coming around the house who were flamboyant," Baptist said. "Being gay … that's only a small fragment of who I am. In fact, I don't signify [or classify] myself as anything, [including openly gay.]"

"My mom accepted me and has always shown me her support, and at times her approval, which is all that matters."

Baptist said he did not hear any anti-gay comments while at Bradley, and added that he doesn't think people will be surprised to learn he is gay, if they didn't know.

"I'm not doing this article because I'm gay; it's an article about my life—and my life is much more than just being a gay man," Baptist said.

Baptist was involved with organizers of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago. He also has marched in the Chicago Pride Parade multiple times, and played in the city's gay basketball league.

"I'm probably one of the most unique people in Chicago," Baptist said. "I am a 7-foot-2, African-American of mixed descent, gay, educated, and am a businessman who does a lot of philanthropic work.

"I'm not branded as gay; I don't brand myself as a gay person as I relate and associate on many levels with a multitude of types of people. I'm branded as James, 'Seven, 'Yo Giant' Baptist, a philanthropic business developer. I am a person who commands a presence, with knowledge about multiple topics due to my unique perception of life, making the most of life's opportunities, learning through every experience and developing networking abilities afforded from being a giant with integrity."

More James Baptist:

—Was born Feb. 16, 1974

—Was recruited to play for DePaul University while in eighth-grade, "but I didn't develop my basketball skills until I was in high school."

—Started driving at age 5 while living in the South, and drove solo by age 9.

—About his dad: "He loved me unconditionally and bragged about me a lot."

—His uncle, Levi Cobb, was a standout basketball player who played at the University of Illinois in the mid-1970s. "I idolized my uncle and my whole family, because there are so many [family members] who made me who I am today."

—He worked at the now-closed Cocktail Bar as a security guard in 1997, although he was not out at the time. Baptist later worked security at Sidetrack and Big Chicks as well as downtown bars. He also was a bar host and service manager.

—He is now single and has been for almost two years. "I'm very happy," he said.

—His latest business venture is, The Giant Painter ( www.thegiantpainter.com ), which offers commercial and residential interior painting and property maintenance throughout Chicago.


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