SAN FRANCISCO – A nervous Rick Welts knocked on Bill Russell’s door in Seattle 10 years ago to ask a huge favor. The longtime NBA executive wanted the Hall of Fame center to do a rare interview on his behalf regarding the news that he was coming out as gay.
While Russell is known for disliking media interviews, the 11-time NBA champion said without hesitation that he would help his old friend.
“I remember walking up to that front door and was like, ‘I have no idea what I’m going to say,’ ” Welts told in an interview this week. “He opens the door with his Boston Celtics hat on. Bill takes me into his little den where there are two chairs and there’s a table in between us. There is a framed picture of Barack Obama on the table with an inscription that read, ‘To Bill. You are my inspiration.’ There is nothing intimidating about this at all.
“I say to him, ‘I don’t know what you know or don’t know, but I am gay. I am going to ask you to do the one thing you hate to do more than anything in your life, which is talk to a reporter. He was like, ‘Yeah, of course. Sure.’ And then the next hour all I heard was that amazing cackle laugh about something that happened way back when or talk about people or players we can make fun of. It was incredible. It was such a weight off me.”
Welts, who became the first prominent executive in American sports to be openly gay, took another weight off of himself on Thursday with his announcement to retire as president and chief operating officer of the Golden State Warriors at the end of this NBA season.
A Basketball Hall of Famer, Welts is one of the NBA’s most respected executives having worked for the Seattle SuperSonics, Phoenix Suns and Warriors over the course of nearly 50 years. Welts worked with the Sonics when they won a championship in 1979 and with the Warriors when they won three titles last decade. He also oversaw the building of the state-of-the-art Chase Center in San Francisco.
The Seattle native also worked for the NBA, playing a major role in marketing the league, including promoting “The Dream Team” and the WNBA, and developing the idea of NBA All-Star Weekend.
The Warriors expect to name a new president within a week.
“One of the things I’ve always been good at is knowing the right time to leave a position I’ve been in,” Welts, 68, said. “For me, the time is perfect. When we were having the [retirement] discussion, nobody saw a pandemic. If it would have been a year ago, I think I would have struggled with that, just because we were a total mess. We would have no idea how to find our way out of this. That would have not been a good look for me and the organization.
“Now, just this week, we have state guidance to maybe have fans in the stands hopefully before April is over and a path, hopefully, towards normalcy next year. I’m ready. The organization is ready. We’re not going to miss a beat. … I’ve done the big things that I can do. It’s time to pass that on to somebody else.”
The following are reflections from Welts on his Hall of Fame career, as told to ’s Marc J. Spears.
On his first NBA job …
The Sonics came to Seattle in 1967 and I became a ball boy in 1969. This is my only great career break. At Queen Anne High School in Seattle, the coolest kid was Earl Woodson because he was a ball boy with the Sonics. And I was obsessed with the Sonics. We’d sit in the back of our English literature class together and I’d be like, ‘Give me the scoop. Tell me about this guy. Tell me about that guy.’
He came in one day and had this look like he lost his best friend. I said, ‘Dude, what is wrong?’ He said, ‘My family is moving out of town.’ I said, ‘Earl, you got to take me downtown and introduce me to whoever hired you with the Sonics.’ I got to get my shot.
He introduced me to a trainer named Jack Kern, who went on to be a Lakers trainer after the Sonics. And I got hired.
I got to see Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell play in person.
I got a big promotion my first season to assistant trainer at 16. All that meant was I knew how to use the washers and dryers and had the right uniform in the right lockers before the game. I had to be really good at it. At the end of high school, I thought that’s it. And then a guy named David Watkins, who ran marketing and public relations for them, said, ‘Hey, you want a part-time job in the office?’ So, I did that through college. When I graduated from college, they wanted me to work full time.
There is no sports management class in the world that could teach you what I got to observe as a ball boy. I learned a lot about the NBA, but I learned a lot about people, too.
African Americans were my bosses and heroes. I had role models that were supersuccessful.
On his friend, Bill Russell …
Bill Russell is the ultimate champion. Eleven championships in 13 seasons. He’s also a fascinating evolution of a human being. Just to see how he’s been willing to change over time has been really incredible.
I wasn’t important enough to have a desk in an office at the Sonics for most of my career. So I was in the opposite end of the hallway from where his office is. He is a notoriously early riser who would get in really early. And I would be the only one in the office. We went through about three months where he’d walk out of his office and be like, ‘White boy down the hall, give me a cup of coffee.’ ‘Yes, sir, Mr. Russell. I can do that.’
He still calls me, ‘White boy down the hall.’ I don’t know why, but one day he just opened himself up and he has been a friend ever since.
On the time he heard an NBA coach say the team needed more white guys …
I never told this story before. We had a coach, Tom Nissalke with the Sonics. The teams have gotten out on the court. And we weren’t playing that well. And he’s talking to his assistant coach in the locker room and I’m in there. Nissalke says, ‘We need some more white guys on this team.’
I’ll never forget that. That was the first time I ever heard something like that. OK, we need more white guys on our team? And this is coming from a head coach. It startled me. I’ve been there for a while. All my favorite players were Black. It didn’t make sense to me. Why would that make us a better team? I didn’t understand that.
On what he learned from his mentor, the late NBA commissioner David Stern …
By far the biggest thing that I learned from David Stern, and I don’t think there will be anyone who will ever do it as well as him, was the value of intellectual curiosity. The way he approached every day was, ‘I’m going to learn something today that I didn’t know yesterday, that’s going to be valuable to me for the rest of my life.’
He approached it in a way that you were willing to challenge what you thought was probably the right way to do something or the right idea. To be able to say, ‘We’re doing it this way, but they are doing it that way. What do they know that we don’t know?’ Force yourself to think, put yourself in that person’s shoes and think all the way back. Sometimes you think you’re right. Sometimes you’ll think, ‘I can change that.’ It’s such a discipline to live each day that way. But you get better every day. You do. Other people are really smart. I’ve never learned anything when I’m talking.
I had some good mentors in my life. But he stuck with me the whole way. … Always when there was a life decision to make, that is who I would call.
On coming out that he was gay …
I got hooked up with a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer still at the [New York] Times named Dan Berry. Dan flew out to Phoenix. We tried to hatch a strategy over two or three days on the best way to tell my story about being a gay sports executive. He gave me a very honest assessment like, ‘Dude, with all due respect, nobody knows who the hell you are.’ But everybody knows the people that you’ve come in contact with over your life. If we could get them to tell the story, it would be so much more relatable to people through their eyes.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, for sure.’ So then the hard part. First one on the list is Bill Russell. …
The story was to be posted online at noon and be in the paper in a story edition the next day. I’m at SFO with Todd [Gage]. We’re flying to New York the next day because I have interviews with Time magazine, CNN, PBS, the New York newspapers and on and on timed with the day I was going to publish. But I had a BlackBerry at the time, and I had written an email with a list of about 100 people I wanted to send it to, to say, like, ‘I’m taking off at 10 in the morning, like somewhere over Kansas, you know, my life is going to change and this story is going to post.’ There is no Wi-Fi. So it’s so weird.
The story posted while I was in the air somewhere over the Midwest. I’m freaking out on the plane. We land at JFK, and I reach for the BlackBerry. I turn it on. It was almost like it exploded with messages. It was crazy.
I literally, to this day, have binders that have printed out copies of every email. I got thousands of emails. People sought me out. I will look you in the eye and swear on the Bible, there was no one that took the time to actually find out how to send me an email or write me a letter who sent one that was negative. There was not one negative email over 1,000.
On the day he heard about former New Jersey Nets center Jason Collins becoming the first NBA player to reveal that he was gay …
I get up one morning getting ready for work to go to the Warriors [San Francisco office], and my phone rings and it’s Casey Wasserman. Casey, at about 8 o’clock in the morning, says, ‘You sitting down?’ Yeah. ‘I just want to call you and tell you that Jason Collins was going to come out today.’ What? Really, an NBA player, really, it’s going to happen.
This is just freaking amazing. So I couldn’t wait to get dressed, get in my car. I called friends and family. And I’m getting on the on-ramp to get on the Bay Bridge. And right next to me is a cop, and I’m talking on my phone with it to my ear. The lights go on. And I have to go the whole drive of shame across the whole Bay Bridge with a cop whose lights are on me and is going to pull me over.
And I just said, ‘You got me.’ I said, ‘But do you want to know why?’ I told him about Jason. He goes, ‘Really? You’re not kidding. Is this really true?’ Yeah. The cop says, ‘I grew up in San Francisco. So that’s awesome. Get out of here.’ I thought it was going to cost me a lot of money. But it turned out it got me out of a ticket.
On being a mentor for other gay people in sports …
Probably a week doesn’t go by where somebody doesn’t reach out that is in a situation where they want me to connect with somebody. That is what I didn’t have. I wish I had that person.
I didn’t regret the timing or anything. It’s worked out all amazing for me. But there were a lot of years that might have been spent a little bit differently if there was somebody out there that was visible, gay, and in sports and successful.
It will be great when others in real positions of success will feel comfortable enough that they can come out and be successful at doing what they’re doing. And that’s NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball players. That’s owners. That’s coaches. That’s all the people in the ecosystem who just don’t feel like it’s their time, or it’s comfortable and what they would have to deal with.
On being the Warriors president during the pandemic and the social justice movement …
When we got together last March and sent everybody home due to the pandemic, honestly, I was not optimistic that we’d be able to culturally keep us together and work as well as we’re working. So I made a decision at the beginning of this, that every employee is going to hear from me every day. So, that was going to be a part of how we were going to stay connected. I started doing this daily email. I sent an email [Monday] talking about the Major League Baseball All-Star Game moving out of Atlanta. So, we share kind of stuff people have to know about coming to work, then hopefully, I can add some context to what’s going on.
I didn’t realize I’ve been doing that for over a year. It was focused on trying to figure out what was going on with this pandemic and George Floyd. And so, it changed everything. But by then we were doing some town halls, you know, we had Adam come on, Steph did a town hall for all the employees. Great programming. And it just morphed into something completely different to focus on social justice. And the thing I’m proudest of is how safe our employees felt about sharing their incredibly personal stories, especially about the experience of growing up Black and what they have actually gone through in their lifetimes that they had never shared with us co-workers sitting at a desk next to them. We gave them a daily platform.
When it all happened, I thought I had a pretty sophisticated grasp on the subject of being Black in America. It’s the most humbling thing I’ve ever been through in my life to find out you had no clue even though you thought you did. And to get these employees together to share their personal stories or what they dealt with in life, and what they dealt with there in San Francisco, we became closer. We created a seven-week anti-racism course that was voluntary and more than half our employees went through it.
On working with Stephen Curry …
I just could have never imagined the blessing that having Stephen Curry as the face of your franchise brings. It defines everything. It give us an opportunity to be great and better than any organization has ever been.
He never disappoints. That is the part about him that I just marvel at every day. He’s got Tara VanDerveer on FaceTime after she’s won the [NCAA] championship. How does he do that? He got Dr. [Anthony] Fauci [on social media] when nobody could get a hold of Dr. Fauci. He’s wearing black and yellow sneakers this week for anti-Asian violence. How can anybody be this good? To have that as the cornerstone franchise is unbelievable.
On the game of basketball …
The game of basketball is just joy. Everything about the game and what it comes to mean in our world just brings me joy.
On what’s next …
I want to use my passport but I can’t go nowhere. Seriously. I can’t wait to go back to Barcelona or Paris. I just can’t wait to do that. … It’s going to be amazing. I don’t know when that is going to be. Obviously, no time soon. …
This is my 46th NBA season. To be good at this, you have to work hard always. I’m ready not to do that.