'He Transformed This League': Rick Welts Is Ready to Exit the Stage

Warriors team president Welts, who created, founded, touched, influenced or promoted nearly every major NBA initiative of the last half-century opens up about stepping away from the game.
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Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

You could say everything we know and love about the modern NBA—the artistry, the drama, the pure spectacle of it all—began with Magic and Larry and Michael. No one would argue.

You could say it began with former commissioner David Stern, whose vision, ambition and marketing savvy helped make them household names. Again, you’d be correct.

But there is no story without Rick Welts, who created, founded, touched, influenced or promoted nearly every major NBA initiative of the last half-century as “the business side of David’s brain,” in the words of current commissioner Adam Silver.

All-Star weekend? That was Welts’s idea. The original Dream Team? Welts marketed it. The WNBA? Welts helped launch it. The game’s global influence? Welts had a hand there, too, before lending his leadership to the Suns (during the seven-seconds-or-less era) and for the last 10 years, the light-years-ahead Warriors.

“He'll go down as—he already is—one of the most influential sports executives of the last five decades,” Silver told Sports Illustrated. “He transformed this league.”

That journey is winding down, with the 68-year-old Welts announcing last week that he will step down as Warriors team president at the end of the season, bringing to a close his 46-year run in and around the game. No one is calling it a retirement, per se, but for the first time in a very long time, Welts will not be a full-time employee of an NBA franchise or the NBA league office.

And yet like so many of the basketball lifers he’s worked with, Welts is probably too passionate and driven to sit still for long.

“I like beaches,” Welts quipped during a chat with SI early last week, “but I don't really think I want to spend the rest of my life on one.”

The truth is, Welts never thought he’d spend his life in sports, either—much less land in the Basketball Hall of Fame (as a contributor), as he did in 2018.

Welts was in high school when he became a ballboy for his hometown Seattle SuperSonics, in 1969. A decade later, he was celebrating the Sonics’ first (and only) championship as their public-relations director. He’d earned a journalism degree in college during the Watergate era, with aspirations of becoming another Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. But basketball wouldn’t relinquish its hold.

“It was like the coolest thing I’d ever do, but didn't seem like something would be sustainable as a career,” Welts said. But, he said, “What kept drawing me back is what sports meant in a community, and ... what it really can mean in people’s lives. And I really, I really believe it. I believe it to this day.”

The other irresistible force was Stern, who changed Welts’s life with one phone call in 1982. Welts had left the Sonics to start a sports marketing agency. He’d never met Stern, who was then the league’s executive vice president for business and legal affairs, and was putting together a business team. Stern had heard of Welts’s work with the Sonics.

“I think I checked all the boxes of what he was looking for,” Welts said, then added with a chuckle, “Young, naive, passionate and cheap.”

Warriors team president Rick Welts is retiring.

Welts became NBA Employee No. 35, with a salary of $47,000 (though Stern always insisted it was $42,000). His title: director of national promotions. His job: Get major companies to invest in the NBA, as corporate partners. That sounds like an easy gig today, but the NBA of the early '80s was a very different league. This was the era, as Stern used to say, of the league being seen as “too black” and drug-infested.

“And it was a horrible job because nobody wanted to talk to the NBA,” Welts said. “On the food chain of respectable properties to invest in, we couldn't be found at that time. So it was much more of a challenge than I ever imagined.”

Consider the seminal event of Welts’s early career: creating All-Star weekend. Welts got the idea to expand from one day to two, while watching a baseball Old-Timers' Game, in 1983. His pitch to Stern: add an NBA legends game and a slam-dunk contest, and stage it all on Saturday. Stern, who was set to become commissioner in 1984, gave Welts the go-ahead, with one major caveat from outgoing commissioner Larry O’Brien.

Stern told Welts, “The commissioner says if you don't embarrass him on his last weekend in office, and it doesn't cost the NBA a nickel, then you can go ahead and do that.”

Welts needed sponsors. He set out to land McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Budweiser. He went 0 for 3.

But Welts persuaded a burgeoning beverage maker called Gatorade to sign on. And after a rejection from Gillette (“wouldn’t talk to us”), he landed Schick. Then he got American Airlines to fly all the NBA legends—including Oscar Robertson, Earl Monroe, Jerry West and Wes Unseld, plus Dr. J (for the dunk contest)—to Denver for the game.

“So it became the Schick American Airlines Old-Timers' Game—really rolls right off your tongue,” Welts said with a laugh, “and the Gatorade Slam Dunk Championship.” They also got an upstart sports network—“this thing we now call ESPN”—to broadcast it all live, though at the time the network did not show live events.

It was all a hit, and a moment of epiphany for the young sports executive and the new commissioner: “Big events sell.” So they kept creating and promoting big events: the draft, the draft lottery, Summer League, and on and on.

Sports leagues were not really viewed as “brands” in that era, says Silver, who joined the NBA in 1992. “It began with the vision that Rick and David had, that the NBA was truly a global brand,” Silver said.

All-Star weekend was, Welts said, “the gift that kept on giving, in our industry and in my career,” and the first highlight that he always lists. But the most important thing he’s ever done, Welts says, was his decision to come out in 2011, in a New York Times story. At the time, Welts was the highest-ranking openly gay executive in sports. He still is today, which says something about the industry. But that story changed Welts’s life and created a bridge to others who were struggling with the decision. Welts says he’s heard from hundreds of people seeking his counsel over the last 10 years.

“There isn't a week that goes by that someone doesn't reach out to me from a team or a sports organization or college or whatever, and just want to connect with somebody who will understand their story and could be someone who would have an understanding ear to talk to,” Welts said. “And I cherish that.”

rick-welts-warriors-sue-bird-megan-rapinoe

It makes sense, then, that when Silver is asked to explain what made Welts so successful as an executive, he instead turns to the personal.

“It's the little things,” Silver said of Welts. “It's the ability to connect directly with everyone, and to make sure that you realize that he's laser-like focused on you in that moment. And not about the grand gesture.”

Welts was the NBA’s third highest-ranking official before leaving in 1999, to work in baseball. It was brief. By 2002 he was back in basketball with the Suns, where he worked until joining the Warriors.

His coolest moment in the NBA? “Klay Thompson's 37-point quarter for the Warriors, against Sacramento (in 2015). I never ever can imagine seeing anything like that, again.”

His most gratifying moment? “Our first championship parade in Oakland. It was a fan base that has been so incredibly supportive, for so long, with so little reward. To be riding in that parade with just a sea of faces as far as you can see, with more joy than I've ever seen in one place in my life.”

His angriest moment? The league’s suspension of Suns stars Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw in a 2007 playoff series against the Spurs—a decision that perhaps cost the Suns a chance at a title. “The only time I didn't speak to Stern for three months in my life, was the suspension,” Welts says. “He was wrong, by the way. He still is wrong.”

His lowest low? Magic Johnson announcing he was HIV-positive in 1992. “Especially for a closeted gay man in New York City at the time,” Welts says. “That our most magnetic and popular face of the league could be HIV-positive was the most devastating thing.”

His highest high? That Hall of Fame induction in 2018, flanked on stage by Stern, Bill Russell, Anne Meyers Drysdale, Russ Granik and Lenny Wilkens. “That was just so humbling and so emotional for me,” he says.

There were other honors to follow, none greater than speaking at Stern’s memorial, before 4,000 people at Radio City Music Hall, last year. And now Welts, one of the league’s strongest and most enduring ties to the Stern era, is ready to exit the stage.

Silver suspects we’ll be seeing Welts again soon, in some capacity. “He's got a lot left,” Silver said. “He'll sink his teeth into something very impactful.”

But for now, Employee No. 35 says he’s ready to use some of that backlogged vacation time.

“I'm going to be patient, I'm going to kind of wait and see what comes my way and go chase a couple of things that I think would be interesting,” Welts says. “You know what it takes to be successful in terms of commitment of time and energy, and I've been doing that for 46 seasons. So I think I deserve an opportunity for a three-day weekend here and there.”

Lukewarm Take of the Week: James Harden can’t be MVP

James Harden dribbles against the Bucks

James Harden won’t be No. 1 on my MVP ballot when votes are due in May. It’s not for the reasons you might suspect.

Many voters will downgrade Harden for his ugly exit from Houston and his decidedly listless final weeks there. That rationale is fair and will factor into my deliberations as well. But really, it’s about math.

When Harden finally forced his way into Brooklyn in mid-January, the season had been underway for three weeks. He missed the Nets’ first 13 games—18% of the season. Since joining the Nets, Harden has missed another six games (and counting) due to injury. As of today, he’s played in 34 of the Nets’ 52 games, or 65%. That’s a major, possibly fatal, blow to his MVP candidacy.

There are, of course, no official-minimum-games-played requirements for postseason awards. But games played (and missed) is always a factor and should be. These awards are for the whole season. Availability matters. That’s why the two early MVP frontrunners, Joel Embiid and LeBron James, have slipped in everyone’s midseason rankings, and why neither one is likely to win. They’ve simply missed too many games.

The standard for Harden should be no different—whether he missed those first 13 Nets games due to injury or due to, you know, not actually being a Net yet. Depending on when he returns from his current hamstring injury—he’ll reportedly be reevaluated later this week—Harden might play just 50 games in a Nets uniform, about 70% of their season.

For reference, the lowest percentage of games played by an MVP was 71% (58 games), by Bill Walton in 1977–78. The equivalent in this 72-game season would be 51 games. And Walton was a major outlier. All other MVPs have played in at least 78% of their team’s games. Harden will likely be closer to 70%.

And yes, Harden’s total games played will be higher, once you count his eight games with the Rockets. But MVP is a reward for the success you bring to your current team, not the one you ditched earlier in the season.

To be clear: Harden has been the Nets’ most vital star this season, given the injuries to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. His stats are amazing, per usual. I’ve voted Harden No. 1 twice, in 2017 (when he lost to Russell Westbrook) and 2018 (when he won). He’ll probably end up on my ballot again next month. Just not at the top.

MORE MORNING SHOOTAROUND

Nadkarni: Nets are pushing the regular season to its limits

Pina: Chicago's future is brighter than it appears

Mannix: Why you should not worry about the Lakers

Shapiro: Inside the Rockets' rebuild

Herring: Nikola Jokić has been the MVP all along