Rick Welts is not just the president of the Suns, but also an NBA figure who matters, having left a lasting impact from his time in the league office -- for instance in creating NBA All-Star Weekend as we know it.
He's also -- after putting in long hours alongside him on the SuperSonics -- on the very short list of NBA executives for whom Bill Russell will drop everything.
Now that Welts is out of the closet, he provides an inspiring role model for homosexuals in sports, but also -- and this matters -- political heft. This might mark the beginning of the NBA and its teams becoming somewhat welcoming work environments for homosexuals, which they have not generally been. The evidence: zero of the NBA's 3,000 plus NBA players has come out of the closet while playing in the league, while it's not all that uncommon for players to be caught using anti-gay slurs.
Welts himself recently ended a 14-year relationship in no small part because his partner was tired of having to share a "shadow life."
Welts lived in New York City, working for the league, in the 1980s. In today's New York Times, Dan Barry reports Welts' story:
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.
Stern's position here is interesting. Privately, as evidenced in the story above, he could hardly be more supportive, and that's huge. And Welts tells Barry that in the process of coming out of the closet, he met with Stern one-on-one last month, on Monday April 11. Welts expected, and got, open-mindedness from Stern.
What he did not get was any kind of celebration or support for his boldness in taking this tough step. (Stern later told Barry that he thinks "there's a good chance the world will find this unremarkable.")
The night after Stern and Welts met, Kobe Bryant touched off a firestorm by evidently (he apologized for it later) using an anti-gay epithet in an unprintable verbal assault on a referee.
Three days after that, I asked Stern if he felt the NBA and its teams may be hostile work environments for homosexuals.
As part of his response, Stern said "I don't want to become a social crusader on this issue."
Meanwhile, he acknowledged that whenever that first out-of-the-closet player came along, it would be tough for that guy. I took Stern's position to be, essentially, that these things evolve at their own pace, and he was disinclined to nudge them along.
What Welts has done can be taken as an endorsement of Stern's approach -- indeed heroic pioneers do, evidently, appear to carve out some dignity for homosexuals in this most macho niche of the culture.
On the other hand, what Welts has done can also be taken as the opposite: Just two years ago Welts ended a 14-year relationship in part because his partner was tired of the shadow life Welts' career demanded?
A few years ago, when Isiah Thomas still coached the Knicks, he was asked if there would be problems if he had an openly gay player on his team. Thomas' response was beautiful. He said there would not be problems, because he "would make damn sure" there would not be problems.
Stern's approach is a good one: Being privately supportive, publicly open-minded and generally patient. But I can't shake the feeling that on this topic, Thomas' approach -- to be loudly, prominently and unequivocally intolerant of intolerance -- is better.