Largely overlooked amid the pomp and circumstance of the Golden State Warriors’ historic 73-win regular season, captured Wednesday night in front of a ferocious Oakland crowd, was team president Rick Welts, an NBA lifer who helped craft one of the league’s all-time great squads around MVP point guard Stephen Curry.The fact that the sexual orientation of Welts, the first openly gay president of a major professional sports team, is a non-issue is itself historic. Although his journey to this point – helming a reigning champion NBA franchise, as well as a commercial juggernaut – was anything but smooth.
Welts, who knew he was gay in his early teens, has been with the league since 1969. He started as a ballboy for the now defunct Seattle Supersonics, and then rose to the top echelons of the league’s front office, as a master of public relations. Welts was the architect behind the expansion of the All-Star Game into a full weekend, adding the three-point shooting competition. He helped Magic Johnson make the transition from HIV victim to advocate, and he was the brains behind the wildly successful marketing of the original Dream Team in 1992. He would later go on to successfully run the Phoenix Suns, but he had a secret – he was gay – and in the world of sports at that time, he felt he couldn’t divulge his truth.
“I just didn’t see how in men’s professional sports this would fit in and I wouldn’t be looked at differently than I wanted to be looked at,” Welts told Soledad O’Brien during a February appearance on HBO’s “Real Sports.”
It wasn’t until his partner succumbed to AIDS that Welts came forward and identified himself as a member of the LGBT community to then-NBA Commissioner David Stern. The warm embrace he received helped push him to be more public about his personal life (while he was still serving as president of the Suns), and in a small, symbolic way his gay pride has helped change attitudes and perspectives.
“People who once thought that gay people couldn’t be in sports, and couldn’t be out in sports are seeing someone succeed wildly. It’s really special,” OutSports managing editor Cyd Zeigler told MSNBC..
Still, the league has a long way to go before it can be considered a champion of inclusivity. Despite that fact that just three years ago, Jason Collins became the first openly gay active male athlete in one of America’s premier sports, the NBA has not yet heeded calls to relocate next year’s All-Star game in North Carolina in protest of the state’s controversial legislation that overturned local anti-LGBT discrimination ordinances, which was signed into law on March 24.
“If the NBA was so far ahead of the other leagues they would have gotten in front of the camera the next day [to decry the N.C. law],” said Zeigler.
In just the last few years, marquee players like Joakim Noah and Kobe Bryant have been fined for hurling gay slurs on the court. This past season, Sacramento Kings point guard Rajon Rondo was suspended for a game after hurling an anti-gay remark at a referee who was later to revealed to be a gay man. Meanwhile, players including Chris Bosh and Tim Duncan have been subjected to rumors and innuendo about their sexuality via memes and salacious gossip.
While the WNBA boasts many openly gay players and coaches, the NBA has still not been seen the same kind of representation on or off the court. Still, Zeigler believes the fact that Welts was able to successfully transition between two major NBA franchises without his sexuality being an issue is “powerful.”
According to Zeigler, Welts proved that what matters is who is “the best person for the job, whether they’re gay or straight.”
“It’s important to acknowledge him being gay,” Zeigler added, “but really nobody cares.”
“I hope in some ways just the way I am leading my life and what I represent to other people can be that person that I didn’t have,” Welts told HBO Sports. “That person that they can really relate to and say, ‘Wow that worked out pretty well for him.’”