Not surprisingly, Welts champions Seattle’s efforts to get an NBA team. He should know. His experience with the Sonics shaped his life. Now, he's entering the Basketball Hall of Fame.
This journey to the Basketball Hall of Fame starts in an English literature class at Seattle’s Queen Anne High School in the 1960s.
Rick Welts would sit in the back of class with his friend Earl Woodson, a cool kid in school because he was one of the Seattle SuperSonics’ ball boys.
“We weren’t talking a lot about poetry but about the Sonics games,” Welts said. “My lucky break was that Earl’s family moved out of town, and he was nice enough to take me down and introduce me to Jack Curran, the Sonics trainer, and he hired me to fill Earl’s spot as ball boy (in 1969).”
Thus began a nearly 50-year career in the NBA for Welts, 65, who will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday evening in Springfield, Mass., with a class headlined by former Sonic Ray Allen, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and Grant Hill.
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“I don’t get nervous public speaking, yet I am incredibly nervous,” said Welts, who has been the president and chief operating officer of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors for the past seven years. “It’s something so far out of anything I ever imagined. And the class I am going in with, it’s pretty heady stuff, but hopefully I can represent myself well and the people that are responsible for me having the chance to do this. But it’s a nervous time.”
Welts is entering the Hall of Fame in the contributor category. Perhaps his most significant achievements came from 1982-1999 when he worked in the NBA’s league office, rising to executive vice president and chief marketing officer, the No. 3-ranking league official.
Welts is credited with helping the NBA surge in popularity. He created All-Star weekend, marketed the 1992 Dream Team and was instrumental in launching the WNBA. In 2002, Welts became president and chief executive officer of the Phoenix Suns, leading that team to its most successful years before joining the Warriors, and helping build that team into the best in the NBA.
But it all started in Seattle, where he left his mark before leaving for New York.
“My career rocketed as six months (after becoming the Sonics’ ball boy), I got to become assistant trainer, but that only meant — today it requires graduate degrees — that I could wash the uniforms and get them into the right lockers for the next game.”
After graduating from Queen Anne in 1971 (the school was closed in 1981), he earned a degree in communications at the University of Washington while working part-time in the Sonics’ marketing and public-relations office.
Welts became the Sonics’ public-relations director after graduating from UW, working in that job when the team won its only title in 1979. Welts made a strong impression on Jack Sikma, the starting center on the title team.
“When I was drafted, Rick was one of the first to grab me — and he was very competent in his job, that was very evident from the beginning — but he grabbed me and taught what to expect from a PR standpoint in Seattle,” Sikma said. “He showed me the ropes, and that is just the type of guy he is and speaks to why he is going into the Hall of Fame.”
Welts loved his job, but then came an opportunity in New York he could not pass up as the league’s first director of national promotion.
“I had never imagined I would live my life anywhere else but Seattle,” he said. “It was a huge leap of faith to move across the country and I was petrified at what it would be like to work in New York and whether I could be successful in that environment.”
It worked out great, which was no surprise to Sikma, who has remained friends with Welts.
“He takes his time and understands situations and builds a good plan always — how to execute it — and he’s had a huge impact on the NBA,” Sikma said. “It was amazing how the game grew — and a lot of it has to do with his programs. … He had the ability to understand the opportunity in front of the league, and was patient enough to do the step-by-step process to make the most of it. He’s not a big splash guy; he’s behind the scenes working diligently toward the end goal.”
But for everything Welts has done in basketball, perhaps his most meaningful moment came in 2011 when he was the first executive of a major sports team to come out as gay. He received thousands of emails and hundreds of handwritten letters of support and thanks.
“That’s the most important thing I will ever do,” said Welts, who became a role model to many. “And I try to keep that in perspective. It was a life-changing event that has continued to have incredible rewards, but also has real responsibility going forward. I never had that person (as a role model), and I think my life might have been a little easier if I had.
“I hope there are kids out there who see it as a reason to believe that they will be successful because of who they are, and not in spite of who they are. I hope that is what my legacy is.”
One constant for Welts is his love for his home city.
“It’s the best place in the world and I loved growing up there, and I take of lot of pride of being from Seattle,” he said.
Welts doesn’t get home as often as he used to, with his parents having passed away and his sister having moved to the Midwest. But he will be back for the Warriors-Kings exhibition game at KeyArena on Oct. 5.
Not surprisingly, Welts champions Seattle’s efforts to get an NBA team, saying, “It’s a place that should have an NBA team, and it’s a place that always supported an NBA team.”
He should know. And his experience with the Sonics shaped his life.
“I learned the impact sports teams can have in their communities, and I think that more than anything, that is what I have taken with me through my career. I do think sports teams are an important part of society and create a lot of good.”
And it all started when a ball boy moved away. It proved to be much more than just a cool job.
“It’s always a joke when I get introduced as a ball boy from the Sonics, but I feel like it was an incredible advanced course in what I am doing today,” he said. “I was the fly on the wall that nobody was paying attention to in the locker room. I watched the interactions between players and coaches, coaches and owner, media and players, training staff and players, that very few people in my job get to see.
“I watched it up front and personally … and I don’t think many of those dynamics have changed from 1969 to 2018. The same chemistry has to happen in the locker room today as it did then.”