On a snowy night last January, Rick Welts had dinner in New York City’s Upper East Side with longtime friend and public-relations veteran Dan Klores.
Then 57 and the president/CEO of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, Welts revealed to Klores that he had been thinking about coming out publicly as gay.
“I didn’t know how big, how [ much of an ] impact story might have, how important of a story this might be,” Welts said.
In fact, Welts admitted he didn’t even know if it was newsworthy at all.
Klores assured him that, yes, it was definitely newsworthy—and he offered to help with his coming-out. Klores connected Welts with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dan Berry of the New York Times. “That was a holy cow moment for me,” Welts told Windy City Times, “because I didn’t know [ how big of a story it would be; ] I was just too close.”
Berry eventually spent three days with Welts in Phoenix, “and I had never been interviewed by anyone quite the way Dan did,” Welts said.
Berry had an attention to meticulous detail that was nothing short of extraordinary, Welts said. He asked Welts about past meetings that he was in, and Berry wanted to know specifics about the room where the meeting was held, what was hanging on the walls, what people were wearing, and more, not just what was discussed.
“What I purposely didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about was, what would happen after [ the story came out. ] That would have made me crazy,” Welts said.
Then, last May 15, Welts was flying from San Francisco to New York—because Berry’s story was scheduled to run on the front page of the paper the next morning. However, while some 35,000 feet in the air, the story was being posted on the paper’s website.
Welts’ life was changing, literally, right below him.
“I had no idea what was going to happen [ when the story was released ] . It was very surreal,” he said.
Before meeting with Berry, Welts came out privately with several key colleagues and friends within the NBA, including Commissioner David Stern; the Suns’ top player, perennial All-Star Steve Nash; and Basketball Hall of Famer and longtime friend Bill Russell.
All stood behind Welts—personally and professionally.
Welts also, as he was set to leave San Francisco on that Sunday, emailed about 100 in his inner circle, including family, friends and business associates. He wanted each to know personally that the story was breaking.
“What I never could have anticipated [ once the story was published ] was the reaction I received from the general public,” said Welts, who has received thousands of emails and more than 100 handwritten letters, plus countless voice-mail messages.
The rich and famous—such as Charles Barkley—reached out and supported Welts. Unknown people from obscure parts of the world also supported him.
Welts is the highest-ranking executive in men’s professional sports to acknowledge publicly that he is gay.
The response to Welts’ coming-out, about eight months later, has been 100-percent positive and supportive, he said.
“I do think last year was kind of a watershed [ year ] , in terms of the discussion [ particularly about gays in sports ] ,” said Welts, whose coming-out, interestingly, coincided with that of CNN anchor Don Lemon.
Welts’ revelation also led to the coming out of ESPN Radio announcer Jared Max in New York.
Also last spring, the NBA initiated a relationship with GLSEN to broadcast public-service announcements ( PSAs ) during the NBA playoffs. In fact, when Welts returned to Phoenix from New York, two Phoenix Suns players—Grant Hill and Jared Dudley—were filming the PSA.
Despite the PSAs, Kobe Bryant was caught uttering an anti-gay comment during a broadcast last spring, and Chicago Bulls superstar Joakim Noah also spat anti-gay venom during a game in 2011.
“It was an amazing series of events” in a short period of time, Welts said, “and I do think it raised the quality of the dialogue pretty significantly over that period.”
Four months after the New York Times story, Welts resigned from the Suns, telling team officials he was determined to mesh his personal and professional lives. He moved to the Bay Area to be closer to his partner, Todd Gage, but Welts’ retirement was short-lived. He was soon hired by the Golden State Warriors as the team’s president and COO.
Welts, with about 40 years of experience in the league, is back in the game—energized and excited to bring a winning team back to Northern California.
“I think the interview I had for this job was fascinating to me as a gay man because it was the first time in my life, in a professional environment, that I ever sat down with a potential employer who completely knew my story beforehand,” Welts said.
Welts was two hours into the interview with the two primary owners of the Warriors before one casually—almost matter-of-factly—asked about that New York Times story and its affect, particularly with the team owners in Phoenix.
Welts’ coming-out was a non-issue with Phoenix—and his orientation is a non-issue with Golden State.
“Perhaps there’s a lessening of the real or perceived barriers of what there is between sexual orientation and sports,” said Welts, who, in mid-January, said he finally is close to catching up with the correspondences he’s received since last May when he came out.
He printed out every email, a stack that’s now about a foot high, perhaps more. He’s saving each, though isn’t exactly sure what for.
“If there was, or is, the ability to affect the life of somebody who had lived the [ kind of ] life that I had lived, [ and ] was struggling to know whether they could pursue what they really felt was their passion in life because of who they were, and this could change their opinion or give them hope that they really could be successful and happy, then whatever else would come my way would be worth it,” Welts said.
He was expecting at least 10 percent of all post-coming-out correspondences to be negative, anti-gay, perhaps even hate mail or death threats.
But not one has come, which he said is, “completely shocking.”
“I was prepared for something different, and that’s been the best part of the experience,” Welts said. “Now it’s a case of, what do I do with that.”
Welts said he left the Suns with the intentions of not working for a while, perhaps writing a book or expanding his work as a public speaker. Until the Warriors came calling. Now the book is on hold, though he definitely plans to write one, eventually.
The Suns’ owner actually called the Warriors to suggest/recommend they contact Welts.
Welts, now 58, spent nine years with the Suns, serving as the president and CEO for the last two seasons.
Before joining the Suns, Welts had a successful 17-year ( 1982-1999 ) career at the NBA league office in New York, where he ascended through the ranks to eventually become the league’s third-in-command as the executive vice president, chief marketing officer and president of NBA Properties.
Welts began his career in the NBA in 1969, at age 16, as a ballboy with the Seattle SuperSonics. He spent 10 yeas with his hometown SuperSonics serving a number of roles, including director of public relations during back-to-back appearances in the NBA Finals ( 1978 and 1979 ) and the team’s lone NBA championship in 1979.
His lifelong friendship with NBA icon Russell was rooted in their Seattle days.
Welts was photographed in 2011 for the popular NOH8 Campaign and was given the U.S. Tennis Association’s ICON Award.
Welts truly is a legend under the rainbow.
However, he admitted to Windy City Times, he’s still trying to figure out what he can do to best impact the LGBT community: “I feel I have an obligation to continue to be part of the discussion because of the platform I’ve been given [ in my job ] . However, I don’t know yet how to have the greatest voice.”
Welts said he has seen “a lot of progress” in the gay community. After all, he had an uncle, Dr. Bob Welts, who also was gay, though Welts didn’t find out that his uncle was gay until he was in his late-20s. The two were very close, Welts said. “Hearing his stories … clearly, I feel very blessed to be living when I am as opposed to any other time in this country’s history.”
Welts’ coming-out also impacted his 13-year-old niece, Lexie Schulte, of Indianapolis, who he said was his favorite call that he made last May when he came out publicly.
She claimed her “coolness factor” at school had gone up about tenfold when people found out that Welts was her uncle.
“I thought back to when I was 13, and I don’t think that news would have been dealt with the same way [ by ] my peers,” Welts said. “That was the best call of the day for me.”
By Ross Forman, Windy City Times 2012-04-04