Rick Welts, the president of the Phoenix Suns, hopes his coming out can break the silence surrounding homosexuality in men’s team sports.
By DAN BARRY
Published: May 15, 2011
Last month, in a Midtown office adorned with sports memorabilia, two longtime friends met for a private talk. David Stern, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, sipped his morning coffee, expecting to be asked for career advice. Across from him sat Rick Welts, the president and chief executive of the Phoenix Suns, who had come to New York not to discuss careers, but to say, finally, I am gay.
Courtesy of Rick Welts
Mr. Welts, far right on the front row, was an assistant trainer with the Seattle SuperSonics in 1971.
Joshua Lott for The New York Times
Rick Welts explained that he wants to be a mentor to gay people who harbor doubts about a sports career, whether on the court or in the front office.
In many work environments, this would qualify as a so-what moment. But until now, Mr. Welts, 58, who has spent 40 years in sports, rising from ball boy to N.B.A. executive to team president, had not felt comfortable enough in his chosen field to be open about his sexuality. His eyes welling at times, he also said that he planned to go public.
By this point, Mr. Welts had already traveled to Seattle to share his news with another friend, Bill Russell, one of the greatest basketball players ever and the recent recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He had also met with Val Ackerman, the founding president of the Women’s National Basketball Association, in New York, and would soon be lunching in Phoenix with Steve Nash, the point guard and leader of the Suns and twice the N.B.A.’s most valuable player.
In these meetings and in interviews with The New York Times, Mr. Welts explained that he wants to pierce the silence that envelops the subject of homosexuality in men’s team sports. He wants to be a mentor to gay people who harbor doubts about a sports career, whether on the court or in the front office. Most of all, he wants to feel whole, authentic.
“This is one of the last industries where the subject is off limits,” said Mr. Welts, who stands now as a true rarity, a man prominently employed in professional men’s team sports, willing to declare his homosexuality. “Nobody’s comfortable in engaging in a conversation.”
Dr. Richard Lapchick, the founder and director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, and the son of the basketball legend Joe Lapchick, agreed. “The fact that there’s no other man who has done this before speaks directly to how hard it must be for Rick to do this now,” he said.
Mr. Stern did not find the discussion with Mr. Welts awkward or even surprising; he had long known that his friend was gay, but never felt that he had license to broach the subject. Whatever I can do to help, the affably gruff commissioner said. He sensed the decades of anguish that had led the very private Mr. Welts to go public.
After what needed to be said had been said, the two men headed for the door. And for the first time in their 30-year friendship, they hugged.
The very next day, the gifted Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant, one of the faces of the N.B.A., responded to a technical foul by calling the referee a “faggot.”
A Feeling of Isolation
Rick Welts always knew.
Growing up in Seattle, he was the industrious kid who landed a coveted job with the SuperSonics basketball team, first as a ball boy, then as an assistant trainer. By the time he went to the University of Washington, he had enough good-will clout to have Lenny Wilkens, then the coach of the Sonics, visit his fraternity for a chat.
But for all the fraternal respect this earned him, Mr. Welts felt isolated. What little he knew of gay culture was stereotypical, and unappealing, he recalled. “In my mind, it was effeminate: a way that I would not define as masculine.”
His growing responsibilities with the Sonics allowed him to miss class dances and other awkward obligations, but even alone, he felt out of place. Late one night, he walked two miles to slip a long confessional letter under the door of a young minister at his family’s church, but the well-intentioned minister could not help him. So he resigned himself to adapt, in private.
After college, Mr. Welts returned to the Sonics as assistant director of public relations, a position that came with a desk but not an office. His diligent omnipresence, from early morning to late evening, impressed the team’s coach at the time, the intimidating Bill Russell.
“Hey!” Mr. Russell would call. “White boy down the hall!”
And Mr. Welts would hustle up to do whatever was asked. The mutual respect that developed between the demanding basketball legend and the earnest employee gradually grew into a friendship close enough for Mr. Russell to judge him “a good teammate.”
Immersed in a business where manhood is often defined by on-court toughness and off-court conquest, Mr. Welts rose to become the public relations director for the Sonics, at a time when the team won its only championship, in 1979. He still ticks off the names of the starting five as though they were family: Dennis Johnson. John Johnson. Gus Williams. Jack Sikma. Lonnie Shelton.
An N.B.A. Career
Mr. Welts was eventually recruited by Mr. Stern, then a rising star in the N.B.A.’s front office, to become the league’s director of national promotions. That is, to ask businesses to invest marketing dollars in what was then, perhaps, the least popular professional sport.
Mr. Welts accepted. By this point, he had established a relationship with an architect he had met by chance in a Seattle restaurant in 1977. Soon Rick and Arnie became just another Manhattan couple, enjoying the live-and-let-live anonymity of the big city.
At the same time, Mr. Welts helped to raise the N.B.A.’s profile and profits. In 1984, for example, he created the N.B.A. All-Star Weekend, with a slam-dunk contest and an old-timers’ game, just as Mr. Stern became the league’s commissioner. And in 1997, he and Ms. Ackerman won accolades for their roles in establishing the W.N.B.A.
“In many ways, he had a complete understanding of the soul of the N.B.A.,” a grateful Mr. Stern said. The N.B.A., though, did not have a complete understanding of Rick Welts.
Although he had opened up to his supportive parents and to his younger, only sibling, Nancy, Mr. Welts feared that if he made his homosexuality public, it would impede his rising sports career.
“It wasn’t talked about,” he said. “It wasn’t a comfortable subject. And it wasn’t my imagination. I was there.”
But this privacy came at great cost. In March 1994, his longtime partner, Arnie, died from complications related to AIDS, and Mr. Welts compartmentalized his grief, taking only a day or two off from work. His secretary explained to others that a good friend of his had died. Although she and Arnie had talked many times over the years, she and her boss had never discussed who, exactly, Arnie was.
Around 7:30 on the morning after Arnie’s death, Mr. Welts’s home telephone rang. “It was Stern,” he recalled. “And I totally lost it on the phone. You know. Uncle Dave. Comforting.”
Even then, homosexuality was never discussed — directly.
For weeks, Mr. Welts walked around the office, numb, unable to mourn his partner fully, or to share the anxiety of the weeklong wait for the results of an H.I.V. test, which came back negative.
Sometime later, he began opening the envelopes of checks written in Arnie’s memory to the University of Washington, and here was one for $10,000, from David and Dianne Stern, of Scarsdale, N.Y. In thanking Mr. Stern, Mr. Welts said they “did the guy thing,” communicating only through asides and silent stipulations.
“This was a loss that Rick had to suffer entirely on his own,” Mr. Stern said, reiterating that he was following Mr. Welts’s lead. “It’s just an indication of how screwed up all this is.”
When Mr. Welts left the N.B.A. in 1999, he was the league’s admired No. 3 man: executive vice president, chief marketing officer and president of N.B.A. Properties. By 2002, he was the president of the Suns who still kept his sexuality private — a decision that at times seemed wise, as when, in 2007, the former N.B.A. player John Amaechi announced that he was gay, prompting the former N.B.A. star Tim Hardaway to say that, as a rule, he hated gay people.
But again Mr. Welts paid a price. Two years ago, a 14-year relationship ended badly, in part because his partner finally rejected the shadow life that Mr. Welts required.
“My high profile in this community, and my need to have him be invisible,” Mr. Welts said, with clear regret. “That ultimately became something we couldn’t overcome.”
He began to think: here he was, in his mid-50s, and maybe he had sacrificed too much; and maybe he should open up about his sexuality, in a way that might help others. He kept a journal, sought advice from his sister and close friends, listed the pros and cons. He also had long talks with his widowed mother, Phyllis, in the months before she died of lung cancer, at 85, last fall. She encouraged him to do what he thought was best.
‘Of Course. Anything.’
On an overcast spring morning in Seattle, Bill Russell, wearing a green Boston Celtics cap adorned with a shamrock and No. 6 — his old jersey number — welcomed that white boy down the hall into his home, with Mr. Welts feeling as though he were about to slip another envelope under the door. They sat down near an autographed photograph of President Obama that thanked Mr. Russell “for the inspiration.”
Mr. Welts said what he wanted to say, and asked whether Mr. Russell, whose aversion to speaking with the news media is legendary, would agree to talk to a reporter for The Times. “Of course,” Mr. Russell recalled saying. “Anything.”
As Mr. Welts shook the massive right hand offered to him, he felt a rush of nervous relief. “I was really now on this journey,” he said.
Three weeks later, he met Ms. Ackerman for a tearful Sunday brunch at a trendy restaurant in TriBeCa, during which she reassured him that the step he was taking was worth it. Then, the next morning, he met with Mr. Stern, a longtime mentor who, he thought, would likely be drawn into whatever discussion might follow his revelation.
“He was supportive but didn’t ask questions,” Mr. Welts recalled, adding, “And the litigator in him was already directing a response.”
Mr. Stern held back — a little. “What I didn’t say at the time was: I think there’s a good chance the world will find this unremarkable,” he recalled. “I don’t know if I was confusing my thoughts with my hopes.”
The next day, by coincidence, the N.B.A. began filming a public-service announcement against hurtful language. In the script, a young ballplayer calls another player’s basketball moves gay, after which two Phoenix Suns stars appear.
Grant Hill: “Using gay to mean dumb or stupid — not cool.”
Jared Dudley: “Not in my house — not anywhere.”
That night, Kobe Bryant called the referee the slur, forcing Mr. Stern once again to confront a culture in which the worst thing you can say about a man is to suggest that you think he is less than a man.
Mr. Stern quickly issued a $100,000 fine against Mr. Bryant, who has apologized. When asked weeks later about the persistent perception of the N.B.A. and other men’s team sports as homophobic, Mr. Stern removed his glasses, rubbed his eyes and said, “I think we’re going to get there.”
Meeting on the Mountain
Mr. Welts’s final stop before his public announcement was to a high-end restaurant perched on the side of Camelback Mountain, just outside Phoenix, for lunch with Steve Nash. A few weeks earlier, a mutual friend had given Mr. Nash the heads-up about what Mr. Welts wanted to discuss. Mr. Nash was surprised; he thought that everyone already knew that Mr. Welts was gay.
These two Suns employees are not friends, exactly, but they hold each other in high professional regard. “I just think it’s a shame, for all the obvious reasons, that this is a leap that he has to take,” Mr. Nash said.
With a spectacular view of Paradise Valley before them, the two basketball men talked about a topic rarely discussed in their work world. Mr. Welts asked for Mr. Nash’s support, and the ballplayer, honored by the request, said yes. Of course.
“Anyone who’s not ready for this needs to catch up,” Mr. Nash said later. “He’s doing anyone who’s not ready for this a favor.”
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