Rick Welts hopes to serve as example

PHOENIX -- Rick Welts was 40,000 feet in the air on a flight two hours from New York when, as he put it, "my life was changing below me."

The Phoenix Suns president and chief executive officer knew the story revealing he was gay had been posted on the Internet by The New York Times. When he landed, his Blackberry "exploded with e-mails from all over the place," all supporting him.

There was a voicemail from Charles Barkley, a text from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and "really a nice message" from Arizona Cardinals President Michael Bidwill. In all, he said, he had "a couple hundred" emails, some from people he didn't know.

"It was incredibly gratifying and pretty emotional," he said. "People who had read the story when it went up online wanted to just reach out and give me a hug."

In an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, Welts explained why he chose such a public forum to announce his sexual orientation.

"One was to engender conversation about the topic, which is not discussed in our industry," he said. "The other was if there was a chance to do some good for people, young people, who are struggling with their own issues and wondering whether or not they could pursue their passions and have a chance to have a successful career, whether that was team sports or something else."

It's one thing for a 58-year-old sports executive to announce to the world he's gay. For an NBA player to do so would be quite another challenge, Welts said.

"The fact that it hasn't happened before I guess speaks to the difficult circumstances that someone will have to personally decide to take on to go forward with that," he said. "I think players have a much shorter career and have contracts at stake. They don't have anybody who's gone before them to know how that will actually play out. So more than anything it's the fear of the unknown, of not knowing."

Welts said he believes that "at least in male team sports," the attitude toward gays is "definitely not in step today with where society's thinking is on the whole topic. You know, it's going to take some time."

Welts, once the No. 3 man in the NBA's front office, came to the Suns as president and chief operating officer in 2002. He was named president and CEO in 2009, overseeing all the business aspects of the franchise.

Suns owner Robert Sarver told the AP that Welts' announcement was "pretty much a non-event" for the franchise.

"I've known Rick was gay for a long time and it never made any difference in how I viewed him as an executive," Sarver said. "We take all comers and judge them on how they do their job, regardless of color, religion or sexual orientation."

While many of his co-workers may have known he was gay, Welts said the subject was never broached.

"It has become increasingly difficult and I just reached a point where the quality of the relationships I had with people were more important than whatever my fears had been up to that point," he said. "But as hard as this may be to believe, never once in the 40 years I've been involved in sports had anyone ever asked me if I was gay, and honestly I've never asked anyone else. So there's something like a conspiracy of silence about it where it's just not discussed."

Welts said he brought up the idea of revealing he was gay at a dinner in New York in January with a friend of three decades, public relations executive Dan Klores, first about speaking forthrightly to a small circle of friends, then on the concept of telling his story to the public. Klores introduced Welts to the Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Dan Barry, who spent 18 hours in interviews with him about three weeks ago in Phoenix.

Barry also spoke to NBA Commissioner David Stern, Welts' longtime friend Hall of Famer Bill Russell and Suns star Steve Nash.

Nash, like so many in the Suns organization, thought everyone knew Welts was gay.

"I think through this there's a lot of people who have been pretty sure or very aware of my situation," Welts acknowledged, "and they're just very happy for me that there's going to be a different way I can relate and have more meaningful and in-depth relationships with a lot of people that I care about so much that I've worked with with the Suns or all the way back to my days in Seattle."

Welts was a ballboy for the Seattle SuperSonics in 1969 and spent 10 years with that franchise in various capacities. He went to work for Stern in the NBA office in 1982 and eventually became president of NBA Properties.

Because he knew of the Suns' progressive attitude on social issues, Welts said he was not at all concerned what the reaction would be, although he said his one regret was that he wasn't able to tell Sarver and Lon Babby, team president for basketball operations, that his story was about to be revealed.

However, Welts is well aware that Arizona is a conservative state in many ways.

"I'm not Pollyannish enough to think there will be no negativity headed in my direction," Welts said. "I'm sure there will be. I haven't experienced any to this point. But it didn't cause me additional concern or pause because we're talking about Arizona."