When Rick Welts bought his first home in California he eagerly invited his boss at the time, then-NBA Commissioner David Stern, over to show it off.
So Stern visited. Predictably, he told Welts everything that was wrong with the place.
Welts, now the president of the Golden State Warriors, made all of Stern’s recommended changes — and the house is pretty much perfect. That house was where Welts was Wednesday when the text message came to say that Stern — his mentor, a second father in many respects — had died.
Stern’s death hit the entire NBA hard, even though the league had been bracing for it in the days since the former commissioner was struck by a brain hemorrhage last month. But for Welts, one of the people fortunate enough to have had an intimately close working relationship with Stern, the loss goes even beyond the level of profound.
“He really lived his life and inspired people around him to constantly reevaluate the way they see the world,” Welts said Friday in a phone interview. “He wanted people to not be afraid to try something different than what we were comfortable with.”
In Welts’ case, that credo rang most true in 2011 when he decided to come out as gay in an article published by The New York Times. Welts, who is from Seattle and started his Hall of Fame career as a ball boy for the Sonics, told Stern before the article was printed, and the two men hugged for what Welts believes was the first time.
But the process of knowing Stern would have his back at that ultimate moment started 17 years earlier.
Welts’ partner at that time had died of an AIDS-related issue. Welts, then living in New York, was super-secretive about his personal life and lifestyle. None of his co-workers at the NBA, least of all his boss — Stern — knew that he was gay, or so he thought. So when his partner died, Welts couldn’t tell anyone at work. He took out a death notice advertisement in The Seattle Times, announcing his partner’s death and how memorials could come in the form of donations to a newly created scholarship fund at their alma mater, the University of Washington.
Welts flew to Seattle for the service. He went to the post office and picked up the envelopes from people who sent checks in his partner’s memory. He opened them on the plane ride back to New York. One of them was from Scarsdale, New York, and contained a $10,000 check from David and Dianne Stern.
“Honestly, even to this day, even though we discussed it later, I have no idea how he did that,” Welts said. “I really don’t. I don’t have any idea. We didn’t have the internet. There was no way that one little ad in Seattle, Washington, could’ve caught his attention, and he made a gesture that was pretty profound to me because it said a lot without saying anything.”
Welts remembers Stern as a champion for societal change. When he actually told Stern he was gay, Stern’s reaction was akin to saying “so what?” Stern knew it was a big deal, but simply wished it wouldn’t be one. He said he longed for a time where what largely remains earth-shattering news — someone being gay, or a player coming out as gay, or a woman being hired as a coach in a men’s league and a male-dominated field — would be commonplace.
Besides, Welts already knew Stern’s stance on equality matters. Stern wanted to grow the women’s game, so the WNBA was born. When Kobe Bryant directed a gay slur toward a referee in 2011, Stern almost immediately fined him $100,000. The NBA put out PSAs using star players who urged viewers to not use hateful terms. If there was an ail in society that Stern thought the NBA’s platform could reach and repair, he wanted to make it happen.
“It was just second nature,” Welts said. “It was in his DNA. It wasn’t like, he had a revelation about something. It’s just who he was.”
The tributes have poured in since Stern died and will continue for the foreseeable future. The NBA announced Friday that players and uniforms will wear a commemorative black band in Stern’s memory for the remainder of the season. A memorial is being planned, and it’ll likely attract every big name in the sport.
The last time Welts and Stern saw each other was a few weeks ago. They had lunch at the same restaurant where Stern was when the hemorrhage occurred.
“It’s just hard to imagine a world without him because he’s such a big presence,” Welts said. “I had been very lucky to have had that lunch with him. He’d never been more in his game. He was never more engaged, more excited about everything he was working on, more critical of everything that I was doing. He was 100% himself. It’s kind of a great memory to hold onto because I want to remember him that way.”