Keeping Score

Rick Welts, Phoenix Suns CEO, on Why He Came Out

Rick Welts, president and CEO of the Phoenix Suns, rocked the NBA and the sporting world when he announced that he is gay. Soon after, he spoke to TIME about the reasoning behind his decision

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David Wallace / The Arizona Republic / AP

Phoenix Suns CEO Rick Welts on March 19, 2010

Do you think what you’re doing now could act as a stepping stone for an active athlete to make a similar declaration?
You know, it’s such a personal experience for anybody who has gone through this. I wouldn’t want to impose that experience on anybody else. I do hope that it’s a catalyst for dialogue. Maybe the subject can be discussed more than it’s been discussed before, in a more intelligent and compassionate way than the silence that kind of permeates the industry now.

You had already made the decision to come out before Kobe Bryant uttered an anti-gay slur on national television [during an April 12 game]. What was your feeling about that?
The irony of it for me was just this incredible timing that took place that week. I had prearranged to be in New York to meet with [NBA commissioner] David Stern on Monday morning [April 11]. We had our conversation. I flew home to Phoenix that day. On Tuesday there was a public-service announcement that the NBA had arranged, that I had nothing to do with, being filmed in our arena with Grant Hill and Jared Dudley, two of the Suns’ players, talking about the use of the word gay as inappropriate and not meaning what kids thought it meant and being hurtful to people who are in that situation.

(Watch TIME’s video “10 Questions for David Stern.”)

And then that night was the game that Kobe went off. The next day, he was fined by the guy I sat with on Monday having a discussion on the same topic. For me, it was just a crazy coincidence of things. But you know, I think Kobe has apologized. I know he regrets it. I think in the long term, as events unfold, it will be one more subject that can be talked about.

You mentioned the conversation with Stern, for whom you worked in the NBA office for many years. You told him you were gay and that you planned to come out. What was that conversation like?
It was great. I got a big hug at the end, which was certainly a first in our 30-year friendship. He had a lot of encouragement that he would be incredibly supportive if I chose to go this route.

Did he apologize for suspending those guys in 2007? [During the second round of the 2007 playoffs, the NBA suspended Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw of Phoenix for one game for leaving the bench during an altercation. Many fans thought the suspension cost the Suns the series, which they lost to the San Antonio Spurs in six games.]

You bring up a very open wound. As close as we are, there was one three-month period, post-Suns-Spurs series that year, that we didn’t speak, which was a very painful time for my professional career but a lot worse for the Suns, because we would have won the championship.

(See the top 10 surprising Final Four teams.)

You were a ball boy for the Seattle SuperSonics at age 16. Talk about how you worked through your feelings, being in sports at such a young age.
I guess I was one of those kids who always felt like it wasn’t really who I was. I would give myself deadlines. “O.K., it’s all right if I feel this way when I’m 13 years old, but, you know, by the time I’m 15, it’ll change. I just know it will.” Maybe when I was 15, then it was 17, that became 19, and, you know, I could agree with myself that I wouldn’t worry about it, because that wasn’t who I was and those feelings that I didn’t want to have would go away. Obviously, that never happened. [Laughs.]

Bill Russell, the NBA legend who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February, is an adviser and friend. What was his reaction when you told him about this?
He was the first person that I decided that I was really going to reach out to. I had never been to his house before, and I’d known him for 30 years. But he invited me because he knew there was something kind of important. And walking up to that door was a big moment for me — there he was, in his black athletic suit, with his green hat with a shamrock on it and the number 6. We walked into his TV room and sat in these big comfortable chairs where he watches his TV. Barack Obama’s picture is sitting right next to me, with his inscription to Bill saying what an inspiration he had been to the President. I took a deep breath and said what I had to say.

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And he was, you know, he was Bill. “Was that all you got?” He said all the right things about our friendship and what it meant to him, and nothing could change, and anything he could do to be supportive. That was the first person in my work life that I had been able to have that conversation with.

What has been the hardest moment for you over the years?
In my personal life, I had lost a partner of 17 years in 1994, at a time where I didn’t think there was any knowledge of my sexuality in the NBA office. Having to navigate through, really, the loss of a spouse without being able to have that be known to the people around you was probably the most personally difficult. It wasn’t a motivator for me to come out, but it was a private anguish that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

So where do sports and sexuality go from here?
I hope that it gives the thousands of people that I’ve come in contact with over the history of my sports career at least a little moment to think about this issue, think about the people they’re working with and the environment it has created in their own situations. I think it’s going to evolve. And frankly, I think it’s going to happen in the NBA before it happens anywhere else.

What role do you think you can now play in educating people about the issues surrounding homosexuality?
I think I’m going to be guided by the whole experience. There’s no preconceived idea of where this takes me. It’s all still sinking in a little bit. Whether or not this is my 15 minutes of fame or whether it becomes something more I’m a part of going forward, I’m really going to let the experience kind of guide me. I hope in some small measure that at some point in time, someone looks back at this and [says], “You know, we took a little step forward here.”

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