Can you have a career in professional sports without being a pro athlete? Rick Welts, president and COO of the Golden State Warriors did just that. His career began when, as a teenager, he landed the job of ball boy for the Seattle Supersonics. His drive, commitment, and love for the game got him noticed and led to his being offered a job with the National Basketball Association when it was just getting off the ground. His career grew as the NBA grew as a league. In fact, he was instrumental in making this happen.
It wasn't all fun and games though. He faced challenges, both professionally and personally. On this episode, he candidly shares his experiences, insights and life lessons that extend well beyond sports.
Meet the Guest
Rick Welts, President & Chief Operating Officer of the Golden State Warriors, is one of the most respected executives in the NBA and a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2018. Rick has 45 years of experience in the league and has spent the last eight seasons as president and chief operating officer of the Golden State Warriors. In this role, he oversees all business-related operations for the Warriors, including Chase Center and Thrive City, a privately financed sports and entertainment district in San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood. The spectacular arena, which opened in September of 2019, is considered one of Welts’ finest accomplishments during a storied career and, in fact, led to his opportunity to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange during Chase Center’s opening month.
He owns the rare distinction of being part of championship teams in the NBA (4), WNBA (2) and NBA G League (1).
The 66-year-old Welts owns an impressive and all-encompassing résumé that includes a myriad of different capacities spanning virtually every level of an NBA operation. Prior to joining the Warriors in October 2011, he spent nine years as president of the Phoenix Suns. Welts’ responsibilities in Phoenix included the supervision of all business operations for the Suns, while also overseeing the team’s interest in the management of the US Airways Center and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.
Prior to joining the Suns, Welts enjoyed a successful 17-year stint at the NBA league office where he ascended to eventually become the league’s third-in-command as the executive vice president, chief marketing officer and president of NBA Properties. His notable accomplishments at the NBA include the creation of NBA All-Star Weekend and the marketing program for USA Basketball for the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team.” Welts was co-named “Marketer of the Year” by Brandweek in 1998 for his role in launching the WNBA.
A native of Seattle, Washington, Welts began his NBA career in 1969, at the age of 16, as a ball boy with the Seattle SuperSonics. He spent 10 years with his hometown team serving a number of roles, including as the team’s director of public relations during back-to-back appearances in the NBA Finals (1978 and 1979) and the SuperSonics’ lone NBA Championship in 1979. In 2006, he was the recipient of the annual Splaver/McHugh “Tribute to Excellence Award,” which is given annually by the NBA Public Relations Directors’ Association to a current or former member of the NBA PR family who has demonstrated an outstanding level of performance and service during their NBA career.
In May of 2011, in a front page story in the New York Times, Welts became the highest ranking executive in men’s professional team sports to publicly acknowledge he is gay.
Check out Rick’s front page New York Times article, A Sports Executive Leaves the Safety of His Shadow Life.
Beth Davies, host: Many people dream about having a career in sports. Few though actually make it as a professional athlete, but what about the business of sports? How do you build a career in that? Our guest today has traveled this path.
Welcome to Career Curves where we talk to people who have interesting careers and explore how they got where they are. I'm your host Beth Davies.
Today we're joined by Rick Welts, president and chief operating officer for the Golden State Warriors, a professional basketball team in the United States National Basketball Association. After he stepped into this role in 2011, the Warriors made it to the NBA playoffs for just the second time in 19 years. Since then, the team has had a series of stellar seasons including being in the playoffs seven times, going all the way to the finals five times, and winning the national championship three times.
In 2018 Rick was inducted into the Naismith basketball hall of fame.
So how did he get started in professional sports and ultimately come to be part of this team? I'm excited to have Rick here to tell you the story. It's filled with insights and life lessons that extend well beyond sports.
So, Rick, thanks for joining us.
Rick Welts, guest: Thanks Beth.
Beth: I'd like to get started by understanding what you do in your role as president and chief operating officer for a professional sports team like the Golden State Warriors.
Rick: Let's see, what day is it? There are never two days that are alike and it depends on what projects are front and center.
So my job is to create the business organization that supports the basketball team. Bob Myers, our president of basketball operations, is in charge of assembling the players that are on the team and running the coaches and the program that puts the best basketball team we can out on the court. My job is to figure out how to pay for that and how to present the Warriors to the public. So everything from broadcasting, to ticket sales, to sponsorships, our social media, all of that.
And then, of course, for the Warriors the last seven years, it's been about creating a brand new arena to showcase that, that we own and operate.
So, depending upon exactly what's happening that day, I'm the one who's supposed to keep us pointed in the right direction and give the direction for the staff that accomplishes the economic goals and the consumer facing goals of what our image is in the community and how we present ourselves everyday as the Golden State Warriors.
Beth: And you have a team that helps you with this. About how big is the team – not the team that's on the court, but the team that makes this whole organization run?
Rick: It takes about 500 full time. Now that's double what it was a year ago because of the opening of Chase Center this past fall. And out of those 500 people, those are all the non-basketball employees that we have that are focused on all those things that I just described.
Beth: Making the business run.
Rick: And, it's a very different world from sport to sport, interestingly. Football organizations don't look like baseball organizations that don't look like NBA organizations, because it kind of depends on how we've divided up what the opportunities are locally for teams. So that's a little inside the weeds, but it really means that every day we have 500 people who come to work trying to make the Warriors great.
Beth: I'd like to go back in time and find out how you got here. So let's go all the way to when you were a boy. Can you tell me about your family and where you grew up?
Rick: So I was born in Seattle, Washington and kind of had the Ozzie and Harriet family. Mom and dad. Dad who went to work every day; mom who stayed home and took care of the kids and the household. I have one younger sister, Nancy, who's three years younger than I am. And we grew up in a beautiful, little community in Seattle, Washington.
I really fell in love with sports at a very young age. I eventually went to the University of Washington, but I think from the time I could walk, my dad was taking me to Husky football games at University of Washington stadium. That really became our currency, my father and myself. We lived in sports. That's kind of how we talked to each other, and it became the most important part of our relationship.
And that love of sports came from his being a great athlete as a golfer and a tennis player and basketball player. I never had quite the same skills but my whole family did. And we loved sports, we consumed sports. Live sports was a really big part of my life growing up.
Beth: So you just mentioned that you weren't a strong athlete the way your father was. How did you get the idea that sports could be in your life on this business side?
Rick: So, the Seattle Supersonics were the very first professional franchise in Seattle, born in 1967. And the Sonics played at Seattle Senator Coliseum, and my dad and I would go see games the Sonics would play. Names like Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell would come to town playing their games.
I fell in love with the game. I really saw a beautiful sport. What I more fell in love with was what I saw happening in that arena and that really was a sense of pride that Seattle had that it had never had before. When you opened up the New York Times in the morning, you saw Seattle listed in the standings along with New York, LA and Chicago. We'd never had that before and it was a huge sense of pride in the community and I think that's what I saw.
I saw sports' ability to kind of bring people who have absolutely nothing else in common together because they cared about one team and it's a powerful, powerful factor in the culture of a city to have a vibrant sports community. And I think I discovered it then, and not thinking that I somehow was going to be a coach of a basketball team, it was more like if I could be part of what that meant to a community, that would be a really cool way to spend your life.
Beth: Interesting. You did get involved with the Supersonics while you were still in high school, is that right?
Rick: Yes. My big career break.
Beth: How did this happen?
Rick: Earl Woodson and Queen Anne High School in Seattle. Earl was the coolest kid at Queen Anne because he was a ball boy for the Seattle Supersonics. Earl came into our English lit class one day where we would hide in the back and talk about the Sonics when the teacher was talking about whatever English literature we were supposed to be thinking about. And Earl came in with a very long face one day and just said, "I got terrible news. The family is going to move out of Seattle.
And I tried to pretend to be very upset for Earl but also seize the moment and said, "Earl, you know me. You know I love the Sonics. Could you take me down, introduce me to whoever it is that hired you to do that job?"
And fast forward, Earl did. I got a job as a ball boy for the Sonics and got to walk into an NBA locker room at the age of 16. And who knew that it would lead to where did today.
Beth: What were your parents saying at this time? Were they encouraging you to go down this angle of sports as a profession or were they saying things like, "This is a good hobby but you're gonna have to get serious at some point?"
Rick: Well, I was only 16 years old, so they loved it because in those days they also got free tickets to go to the Sonics game, so my dad was a big fan. But no, I was a real self-starter as a kid. I was the kid in the neighborhood who, when you saw him coming up to your door, you'd try to turn out the lights and pull down the blinds because I was either selling you a Cub Scout Clam-A-Rama ticket, or I'd gone up to my grandmother's house that weekend and bottled blackberries to sell you, or I wanted to wash your car, or mow your lawn.
That was just who I was. That's how I was wired. I was that kid. So, they never worried about my direction. They always felt like I'd probably take care of myself.
And my career skyrocketed. Three months into my ball boy job, I got a promotion to assistant trainer. Now to put that in perspective, today at the Warriors to have a title like assistant trainer, I think you'd have to have three graduate degrees. For me, it meant I knew how to use both the washer and dryer, and have the uniforms hanging in the right lockers before the next game. So that was the primary skillset required to be assistant trainer.
Beth: Do you know what enabled you to get that promotion? What did they see in you?
Rick: That's a funny question. Probably was the first kid there every day. Probably was asking for extra work to do when my work was completed. Saw that I had a real passion for what I was doing and cared about doing it well.
Beth: At some point you knew high school was going to come to an end, which could possibly mean that this job was going to come to an end. How were you planning for this eventuality and what did you end up doing?
Rick: I'm sitting here smiling and laughing because I have an indelible memory. I was the first one in when there would be a Sonics game. The last one out of the building after a game had been completed. And I remember this very dramatic – it will look great in the movie – this very dramatic scene of walking by myself all the way across a darkened arena, across the basketball court, knowing that was the last time I would ever have anything to do with my beloved Seattle Supersonics.
Beth: This is a great movie. I have a tear coming already.
Rick: Yeah! So that was the end of my high school career. And, lucky for me, one of my first mentors, heroes, marketing, public relations person for the Sonics, ended up calling me up saying, "Hey, would you like a part time job working in our media relations department while you're going to school?" So that lightning bolt and the career wasn't quite over
Beth: At that point, had you chosen a school in the Seattle area?
Rick: Well, if you grew up in the Welts family, there was... I didn't know you had a choice. It's like every relative went to the University of Washington and I couldn't imagine ever going anywhere else. So, I moved four miles from home to Delta Chi fraternity at the University of Washington. It wasn't really my intent to end up there. That's where I ended up, but that's where I lived for the next four years going to school at Washington.
Beth: And what did you decide to major in?
Rick: So I went to college during Watergate and I was incredibly inspired by journalism. It's hard in 2020 to look back and remember that journalists were actually heroes. It was at an incredibly tumultuous time in our country, but it was through storytelling that I thought I could make my big impact. I never wanted to be really in front of the camera. I really felt like I wanted to use journalism just to tell stories that were important.
When I was in high school, using my little eight millimeter camera, I made a documentary film on saving the Pike Place Market in Seattle because there was an urban renewal project proposed that would have eliminated most of what we know today as this amazing space, the Pike Place Market, for other development. And I was so passionate about it, I made my own documentary film.
I used to make my dad take me down to television stations, local television stations, and watch television production so I could learn about that. So, I really felt like I was headed for some kind of career, maybe documentary film, something like that.
Beth: So, that's really interesting because even though you were working with the Supersonics and in the back end of a professional sports, it doesn't sound like you were choosing a major to keep you on this business of sports management.
Rick: No, no one really looked at sports as a business at that point. Although it was fun and really engaging, it never really felt like that was a career that you could pursue.
Beth: And then at college graduation, you did actually become a full time employee of the Supersonics.
Beth: How did that happen?
Rick: I guess I had done okay. It was time to be done with college and they offered me a full time job at the team working in the media relations area, so I could kind of justify it. Right? I had a journalism background. I was going to be working with writers and broadcasters, and telling the story of the Sonics. Maybe not quite as weighty subjects as I had anticipated, but it was certainly in my wheelhouse of understanding the media and knowing the role that it played.
Beth: So you say you can sort of justify it, but do you think they really would have considered you for the role if you hadn't studied that?
Rick: Yes. In those days, yes.
Rick: "Hey, he's a good kid. We can pay him $11,000 a year to come to work here."
Beth: So almost your work ethic was speaking louder than anything else that you may have been studying or may have known.
Rick: Yeah, I think so. Our business is, like most businesses, where relationships are the most important thing that guide your career. Right? And you know, I think I was good to have around. I think people felt I was a positive influence and I worked my butt off and cared a lot about the product that we put out there and doing my job well.
Beth: So how did your career at the Supersonics then continue to grow after you became a full time employee?
Rick: So we ended up hiring the most successful player in the history of the NBA, Bill Russell, to come to Seattle to coach our team. And this was a really big deal for Seattle because Bill Russell – 11 time NBA champion – no one will ever touch his record in terms of championships. And somehow he decided to cast his lot as coach and general manager of the Sonics.
So, at one point, a few years later, we discovered the Bill Russell, the most amazing basketball player in the world was not a very good coach. And Bill Russell was relieved of his coaching duties at the Sonics.
We had a lot of changes at that time. We were bringing in a new coach. I got the job as the head of media relations for the Sonics, my dream job at age 26. It's what I always aspired to be – thought I'd have it forever – and here we go, when the opportunity to be the head person representing the Sonics out in the community.
Now, you win a prize today if you can name the coach that replaced Bill Russell as a head of the Sonics. His primary qualification for the job was that he was Bill Russell's cousin. His name was Bob Hopkins.
So, here we go. My very first season, full of excitement, and the first 22 games of the year we had the worst record in the NBA. We had won five games and lost 17. So Bill Russell's cousin Bob Hopkins got fired. And we hired a fan favorite in terms of his playing days, Lenny Wilkens, to be coach of the Sonics. And that year that we started 5 and 17, ended up going to the NBA finals and losing in seven games to the Washington Bullets.
So, that was an amazing first season, right? You go from the worst team in the NBA, 22 games into the NBA finals.
And then the next year we came back. We're in the NBA finals again, playing the same Washington Bullets, and won the NBA championship in 1979.
Beth: At some point, you left the Supersonics. So, like you said, born and raised in Seattle. Your heart had to be deeply into this team. You grew up with it since you were a teenager. What led to this decision to leave?
Rick: Your chronology is perfect because two weeks after winning that championship, I decided to leave the Sonics. And it was what we described earlier, it was not a real career; it was not a real business. I couldn't see like a future there that...
Beth: Even though you were the head of media, your dream job?
Rick: Yeah, I could've done that. I could still be doing that today. At the time, it didn't seem to me to be like the be-all-end-all of what I wanted it to be.
So I went into business – small company in Seattle – with somebody who'd been at the Sonics before. We had a little sports marketing agency there. We were doing a lot of things with the teams. We were doing a lot of things in media in Seattle. I was loving it. I was still going to games. My schedule was a little saner. I thought I could be doing that the rest of my life. It was really fun.
Beth: But you didn't end up doing that the rest of your life. What happened?
Rick: So, in the fall of, let's see, 1981, so year and a half after I left the Sonics, I came back...
Do you remember when you used to come back? Maybe you're not old enough. You'd have little pink phone message on your desk after lunch. Where is was...
Beth: Absolutely. "While You Were Out."
Rick: "While You Were Out." Right. There you go.
I had a "while you were out" on my desk, I didn't recognize the name, but it was a 212 New York area code. And I recognized the prefix as like, "I think that's from the NBA."
So I called person back. He introduced himself to me and just said, "Hey, I'm a young lawyer here at the NBA. I've been put in charge of building a business around the NBA," which didn't exist at the time, "and I'd like to meet you. Why don't you come back to New York?"
So very excited. I got to fly to New York City. I think I'd been there once or twice before in my life. I got to stay in the Waldorf Astoria hotel for a night. Very exciting.
Beth: Very nice.
Rick: Walk over to the Olympic Tower on 5th Avenue and 51st Street and sat down for my half hour appointment, and two hours later got up and left having just felt totally energized by this young lawyer that was considering new, young people for the NBA and building a business organization.
So that young lawyer ended up being David Stern, who is one of the most famous people in NBA history today. And I ended up going to work for him in New York about six months later as the first person. I think my title was director of national promotions. We didn't know what that meant, but I was supposed to go out and talk to corporations about becoming sponsors or investing marketing dollars in the NBA, which had never been done before.
So there I was. I moved from Seattle to New York City and had a brave new world to face.
Beth: So this is really when the NBA was, across the board, professionalizing. As you said before, the Supersonics had 15 people. I would imagine everything now was starting to explode.
Rick: Well, not yet. The NBA circa 1982, was pretty much a disaster. It certainly wasn't on any marketer's radar. Sports Illustrated run a story really questioning the future of the league. Made some assumptions: widespread drug use amongst its players; in-fighting; franchises looking to go out of business, not expanding. And actually asking very matter of fact, "Could America ever accept a league where 3/4 of its athletes were African American?" Like, calling the question.
So it was a mess, and I had no idea it was a mess, because where I'd been in Seattle, we owned the city and it was an amazing experience. But when I got to New York, I realized I had my work cut out for me. I couldn't get an appointment.
At that time I would say baseball was the gold standard of sports, followed by the NFL, probably then by college athletics, probably then by the NHL. And somewhere down that list was the NBA, considered a mis-managed league, very questionable prospects for its longterm vibrancy. Right? So I got sold a bill of goods by Stern, basically, to come and try to do that.
Beth: Were you questioning your decision to join?
Rick: Totally. if I'd had a round trip ticket, I think I probably would have used it. But there I was.
Beth: What do you think kept you there?
Rick: I got lucky. I was sitting at home one night trying to figure out how am I going to get anybody to buy anything from me? And I was watching on TV this baseball Old Timers' Game from Washington D.C., and a bunch of these old guys up there. And one of them hit a home run over the left field fence over a big Cracker Jack sign. And the name of the broadcast was the Cracker Jack Old-Timers' Game. And it was like, okay.
David Stern in this interim period had been elected commissioner to succeed Larry O'Brien, who'd been the NBA commissioner. That was going to happen at All-Star Weekend February of 1984. And this was in the fall or in the winter actually of 1983 when I saw this. And David had already been elected and he'd said, "One of my missions is to get back in touch with the history of the game of basketball. We've totally turned our backs to the great players that have made this possible. We don't keep a record of our history. We're going to do that from this point on. It's important that we capture this and save it and honor it."
So that was in my mind and we were going to Denver, Colorado for the All-Star Game that year. Denver, if you're a sports fan you know, had a very proud heritage in the American Basketball Association before becoming a National Basketball Association team. And when it was in the ABA – 1976 – it stage one of the most famous events in NBA history, which was the ABA Slam Dunk Contest. And a young player by the name of Julius Erving wowed the audience in attendance at McNichols Arena that day by taking off from one end of the court, running, and leaping from the free throw line to dunk a basketball to claim the ABA Slam Dunk Championship.
It's legend. You go to Denver now and there were at least 3 million people in that 17,000 seat arena who witnessed it, right? Everybody was there.
Beth: I was there.
Rick: Everyone was there. So Carl Scheer, who was the president of Denver Nuggets, came to New York to talk about what we're going to do for All-Star. And he said, "Hey, I got a great idea. Why don't we recreate the ABA Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star? We do it at halftime."
And I'm like, "Oh, Carl. It's not going to work. We've got CBS. They've got stuff to do at half time. I don't think that'll work." But I took that and the idea I hatched was, what if we created a second day of events? And what if we did an Old Timers' Game, which would bring back all these athletes that Stern wanted to be back in touch with in the history of our game, and we combined it with a Slam Dunk Contest, and sold a $5 ticket to McNichols Arena to go see NBA All-Star Saturday.
So I'm all excited. Went into the office the next day, went into David Stern's office. "David, here's the idea."
He liked it. So let's go talk to the commissioner, Larry O'Brien. We went to the commissioner's office. Now remember, this is his last weekend in office when I'm proposing this would take place. Stern takes over the Monday after All-Star Weekend.
So anyway, we're sitting there, here's my idea. It was like, "Yeah, no. We're not going to do that. That's not gonna happen."
So, you know, defeated. I went back to my office, but maybe three days later, Stern walked into my office and said, "Okay, here's the deal. Commissioner says you can do it. Two conditions. Number one, it doesn't cost the NBA a penny. And two, you don't embarrass him on his last weekend in office.
Okay, with that pat on the back, I went out and figured out how to do it. And we did it. We pulled it off. It's better to be lucky than good. It was a magical day. All these players who had never been a part of All-Star weekend before – John Havlicek, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West. So, all of a sudden, we had filled the lobby of the hotel and the writers and reporters are going crazy with all these stories they could write.
What we did discover is a basketball All-Star Game is not quite as artistically beautiful as a baseball All-Star Game because somehow when basketball players become 60 years old, they just don't look quite the same running up and down the court. That said, the introductions were awesome.
And then Julius Erving, at the very end of his career, agreed to come back and participate in the Slam Dunk Contest and, kind of in a passing of the torch in many ways symbolically, he lost in the final dunk doing the same dump that he'd done in the ABA contest to a young rookie guy by the name of Larry Nance who won the Slam Dunk Contest.
Stern becomes commissioner the next day. The media goes nuts. Sports Illustrated gives us seven pages of coverage. They've never covered the All-Star game before and Stern is launched on his new career. So, you know, that's why I stayed because of that kind of series of events that kind of led to the creation of All-Star Weekend.
Beth: It's a great story. So it launched Stern's career. Where did it take yours?
Rick: (Laughter) Well he, at that point, had hired probably 10 people who all fit the same categories. I checked the three boxes that were important: love the NBA, worked my ass off, and I was cheap. Those were the three things you had to be, had to be cheap. (We still argued to his dying day, what my beginning salary was.).
But, he had then that group that he took on a ride through the balance of the '80s through the 1990s where the league completely transformed. Right? We had the Magic Johnson, Larry Bird era, followed by the Michael Jordan era, and we were on a rocket ship of increased popularity, mainly because of Stern's leadership.
Beth: Were you at any point in this thinking strategically about your career moves or were you more, "Look, we're a team. We're in this and I'm going where the need is?"
Rick: Well, we had the most charismatic leader that I've ever been around, who became my mentor, eventually became my friend. And we had a young group of people who were on a mission. So every year, great stuff kept happening and we were building on it year after year after year, both in success, but also financially. The industry was changing dramatically.
So, I never gave a second thought about what other things I could do because we were so small. I was the 35th employee of the NBA. When I left, we had 1100 all over the world. So my job kept changing. I got to grow within the construct of our existing company. So, I went from the kid selling sponsorships to president of NBA Properties, which was our kind of off the court businesses, to head of our communications and special events, to head of our international group, to eventually the NBA's chief marketing officer and executive vice president. So I could have 10 different jobs over the course of the time that I was there, learn something new all the time and feel like I was contributing to something that was really exciting and really growing and becoming increasingly successful.
Beth: I believe also during this time, you were part of the team that started the WNBA.
Rick: Yeah. The three things probably, I look back at the most proud of that time. One, certainly was the WNBA launch. League's over 20 years old now and the longest standing women's professional sports league in the U.S. That was a labor of love to be able to launch that.
The Dream Team in 1992 when the NBA players from the United States first got to enter the Olympics and we fielded what will always be, I think, the greatest collection of individual athletes ever on one team in the Olympics. That amazing experience.
The third I would list, which I think Stern would list too, would be being part of the announcement of Magic Johnson's HIV diagnosis. Because that, when it's all said and done historically, will probably be the most important thing that happened during that time.
It’s hard to put our minds back to the early 80s or right at the beginning of the 90s when this disease, the New York Times wouldn't write about it. No one knew what caused it or how it was transmitted, and it was the worst thing in a closeted gay man's life to imagine living in New York City and not having any idea how to protect yourself or know what caused this. At that moment in time, nobody knew anybody who was affected by this in the general population. In one moment, everybody knew somebody they loved who was affected by HIV. And the fact that he was the player that this happened to is a gift forever, because his broad shoulders and the grace and strength with which he handled it.
We knew for about a week before the announcement and it was the most extraordinary week of my life. It was trying to organize medical experts, and trying to organize his people, and trying to just figure out what was right – could he play, could he not play. And what we did know about treatment. Was this a death sentence, the way it seemed like to everybody? Nobody knew. Nobody knew. And to navigate the way through that to a press conference that I remember like it was yesterday when he made his personal announcement and retired from the game of basketball. It was just an extraordinary effort by so many people to try to just do the right thing. And nobody knew at the outset of that what the right thing was.
So I think those are the three things that probably will kind of always stand out to me during my time at the NBA.
Beth: Well, thank you for sharing all of that. At some point you made the decision to leave the NBA. So here's this organization you grew up with. A core team of people that you were with. Tell me about the decision to leave. Why was it time for you to step away that organization?
Rick: I don't know. I knew it was 17 years in the same organization. My relationship with Stern at the time had gotten a little bit rocky, I felt. Like I didn't quite feel like we're clicking the way that we always had.
There's a very different relationship between what you do at a team and what you do to at a league. At a league, I describe it as kind of a steady line. I mean, half the teams win every night. Half the teams lose. Somebody wins the championship. You go do it all again next year. At a team, we were just completely emotionally invested in the wins and losses of any particular team. And seasons can vary wildly from one to another based on the success of your team.
I think the league steadiness is for some people, and I loved it and it allowed me to do so many things, but I think I missed the emotion of being as invested personally in the outcome of our product as I did with a team. So I always thought I would get back at some point.
Beth: That doesn't actually surprise me given what you had said earlier about how you saw the connection of team to community and that that was probably missing, too, at the NBA level, at the league level.
Rick: It's different. And I did gravitate back toward more that team feeling that I had.
One of the great things about working in the NBA is that you get to present at all these owner meetings. They all think you know what you're talking about. They offer you jobs. And I never had one that I thought was great and then this headhunter kept calling. I'm like, "I'm not interested."
He didn't want to tell me what the job was. He finally said, "How about the Los Angeles Dodgers?"
Beth: And for our listeners who may be from outside the U.S., that's a different sport.
Rick: It's baseball, but probably with the Yankees, one of the two most famous baseball teams in the world. And it was very intriguing.
It was a little messy in that Fox owned the Dodgers, at the time, and Dodger Stadium and they were struggling with their new ownership of the Dodgers. But I decided what a great chance.
Beth: What was the type of role they were talking to you about?
Rick: I was the only employee and president of something called Fox Sports Enterprises, so it was really the ownership entity that owned the Dodgers, Dodgers Stadium, part of Staples Center, part of Madison Square Garden, the Knicks, and Rangers. It was a group of sports holdings that I was going to supervise, but mainly focused on the Los Angeles Dodgers.
And I grew up in Seattle. Getting back on the West Coast sounded kind of interesting after 17 winters in New York City. And so I decided to make the leap.
Beth: And tell me about that experience. Was it what you expected it to be?
Rick: Total disaster. Okay. So I got there in July. Baseball season starts in April. The Dodgers at that time were already so many games out of first place, they never had a chance to make the playoffs. I had some crazy ideas. I went into my bosses at Fox at one point and said, "Well, I've got the big idea. Let's move the Dodgers from Los Angeles to Brooklyn where they were born."
So they knew I was half crazy, but they also weren't committed to the business. About six months after I got there, actually the very night that LA Staple Center opened, were at a big gala on the floor of Staples Center and my two bosses, Peter Chernin, and I forget the second guy's name right now, went up and he said, "We got something to talk about. Do you know this guy Bob Daly?"
And I'm like, "Well, I think I've heard of him. Warner Brothers."
"Yes, that's the guy. Well, he's leaving Warner Brothers. He loves the Dodgers. He wants to make this big, big investment in the Dodgers, but he'll only do it if he has operating control rather than Fox."
So I laugh like, "What does that have to do with me?"
He said, "No, no, no, I think we're going to do that."
Okay, so after 27 years in the NBA, six months into my tenure...not even, four months into my tenure, "We think we're going to sell the asset that you came here to run."
Beth: So, between the lines, this means you're out of a job?
Rick: Well, nicely out of a job. I mean, they were very nice to me. Offered me some wonderful new positions in Fox. None seemed to have anything to do with my skillset. So we settled out a contract and I was unemployed January 1 of the following year and trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life.
Beth: So the story to this point has been a stream of successes. I mean, I'm sure there were some projects or some experiences along the way that didn't pan out the way that you would have wanted, but really a stream of successes and now comes this. What did you discover about yourself through this process?
Rick: That I didn't enjoy the situation that I was in. That I didn't know what to do with myself when I got up in the morning. So I was trying to figure out what was next and it wasn't really clear to me.
I had a financial cushion to spend a little time thinking about that, but that's not how my mind worked. I was like ready the next day to figure out what that was and felt pressure to do that. So I would discipline myself to have a workday routine, like I would get up in the morning and go to my computer and do the same things every day and do my email and try to discipline myself and talk to people in the industry.
But what became clear to me through almost a year process, was that my real value and the thing that I really enjoyed most was being in a team environment and my own relationships and network was strongest in the NBA than it was anywhere else. And, I was doing projects on an interim basis, consulting projects, but when I got a call in early 2002 from Jerry Colangelo, who's kind of a legendary executive and then owner of the Phoenix Suns and he said, "Okay, if you're ready to quit screwing around, time to come do something back in the NBA and if you're willing to become president of Phoenix Suns, we're not going to talk to anybody else. The job is yours."
And so, that was another lightning bolt that I never could have foreseen, but came at a perfect time where I had gotten my head around the fact that, one, I wanted a collaborative environment. I wasn't going to be a great consultant. I like going to the office and having a lot of smart people around every day and getting challenged by those people. And I loved the NBA. And so if I could redeploy my efforts to a job in the NBA, that was going to be great.
I've been attracted to the same type of situation each time.
Beth: What are those themes that you've seen?
Rick: Well the NBA, high potential, low performance. The NBA itself, I loved. I thought could be amazing, it was a mess. Need to get fixed and presented in the right way.
When I got to the Phoenix Suns, while a very well-respected franchise historically, had fallen on very hard times, both economically and competitively. So it wasn't the Phoenix Suns that we know, but I knew what the Phoenix Suns had been and potentially could be again, and felt I could contributed to that.
And the Warriors, fast forward, exactly the same situation. This is a franchise that underperformed forever. But I could see like everybody else in the industry, that if you could ever get this in the right hands, the potential for it if done right was unlimited.
So I guess that's the common theme. It's something that I really believe could be great, but at the moment I was getting there was anything but great.
Beth: I was going to ask you what took you from the Suns because they were high performing to the Warriors, which at the time were not quite high performing, but I think you just explained that.
Rick: Well, it was more complicated in that transition.
Beth: So tell me about that.
Rick: Well so, in early 2011, personally in my life, my father had passed away. My mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer and I had a break up with a long time relationship in my view in large measure because I couldn't include the most important person in my life into my work life. I lived in some ways a completely open life at work, being a gay man. I never lied. I never asked a girl to be my date at a party because I felt I needed a female companion. I never did any of that, but at the same time I certainly wasn't being 100% honest because the person that I was committed to him from my life was not somebody that I could bring into my work environment.
Beth: So it was really compartmentalized.
Rick: Very much so, yeah.
So I'd reached a point where I just felt like, I just think this is the time. I went to my mother, who again was my surviving parent and just said, 'Look, if this would cause you any embarrassment, if this would be uncomfortable for you, I can deal with it another time." And she encouraged me to do whatever I thought was the right thing to do for me at the time.
So I knew I wanted to "come out". Right? But it could have been a very private thing I did with the people I worked with or... I just didn't know how to put it in context. So I was in New York for a meeting and I asked a PR consultant, a great guy by the name of Dan Cloris who ran a big PR agency in New York that I knew, who I really trusted his judgment, to go to dinner with me. (It's another great scene in the movie because it was a snowy night on the upper East Side, table in the window.).
We had dinner and I said, "Dan, here's my story. I can handle it a lot of different ways, but I need somebody to help put it in perspective for me."
And Dan looked across the table at me. He called me Ricky. Always called me Ricky. "Number one, if you want to do this, I want to help you. And number two, I think it's page A1 New York Times," which was, without doubt, my "Oh shit moment." Right? Like holy cow.
Beth: Was he basically saying that no matter how you plan it, that's what it's going to be?
Rick: No, he was saying, "If we plan it the right way, that's what it will be. If you choose to do another way, that's great. If that makes you happy, but there's more good that could be done here if you chose to take this path."
That Dan connected me with Dan Barry, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, still writes for the New York Times. And Dan Barry came out to Phoenix just to meet me and talk about it and we hatched a plan. Nobody knew who I was. I'd done my job pretty well. I was behind the scenes. That's the way I liked it. I wasn't on the court. I wasn't a coach. I wasn't a player. But through my career, the people that I knew well and called my friends were people that everybody in the sports community knew, so maybe we could get them to tell my story as opposed to just being a first person that I told.
So that's the plan that we went out to execute. My first trip was to get on a plane and go to Seattle and go see Bill Russell, who we talked about before. Drove to his house on Mercer Island and opened the door and there's this six foot 10 giant with his Boston Celtics hat on. And we went and sat down in his little den and the only thing between us with a picture of Barack Obama inscribed, "To Bill, you're my inspiration." Nothing intimidating about the setting whatsoever.
Beth: No, nothing at all.
Rick: And just said, "Here's my story. Would you do the one thing in life that you hate doing, which is talking to a newspaper reporter on my behalf to help tell my story.?"
And he was great. He's like, "Of course, of course I would. I'm your friend." And then we just laughed about everything that happened in our lives the next two hours. And that was that.
And then that was repeated through a few additional people. The first WNBA president, Val Ackerman, the league's deputy commissioner, Russ Granik, and David Stern. Went into his office one day, one early, early morning. And he was like, "Okay, what'd you get me up so early for?"
"Well, here's my story. We've never talked about it before. And would you be prepared to do that?"
He said, "I don't see why this any big story, but of course I will," and ended that with a bear hug, my first I think from Stern.
And then two-time MVP, Steve Nash who played for us in Phoenix, who born in South Africa, Canadian, who was pretty much the same like, "I don't understand why this is even an issue in 2011, but I'd be happy to."
So fast forward as was predicted, it ended up being a front page story in May of 2011 in New York Times, and needless to say, that was that was a change in course in life.
That was a long answer to your question about the transition between Phoenix and Golden State because it was in that time period that that was happening.
Beth: What were you expecting to happen as a result of the news story hitting and what actually did happen?
Rick: Well, it was phenomenal. I expected 90/10 reaction. If I was lucky that 90% of the people who would reach out would be supportive and there'd be some non-supportive people out there. To this day, I keep volumes of emails, thousands of emails, that I got because it's so amazing to go back and start to read them from people. Few from people I knew, of course, but then literally thousands of people that I didn't know and reading emails from parents, from kids just wanting to connect with somebody who could relate to their own particular situation, because the problem I had in sports and why it took me so long is there was nobody out there who had been through any kind of experience like I had in my industry that I could look to and say, "Wow, that could turn out okay." Nobody.
Rick: And, the hope was if there was one kid out there that you could be that person for, then that would make it all worthwhile.
Beth: Turns out there's lots of kids that you can be that person for. It also meant, too, that you no longer had to compartmentalize your life. How did that change you as a professional?
Rick: Crazy. Right? So, I spent my whole life putting a fence around myself that coworkers... No one ever asked me if I was gay in my whole career because I had successfully kind of constructed a fence around myself where, "Rick doesn't ever ask what I did this weekend or who I was with, so maybe he doesn't want me to ask him who he was with or what he did this weekend."
Whether people had figured it out or not, as I know now after the fact some people in the NBA had, they just realized it was not something that I was comfortable with and respected that.
So now to be able to have a completely different relationship with your coworkers, that's been the biggest blessing. The depth of the relationships I have with my coworkers today that I chose not to have, my choice, chose not to have when I was a younger person.
Beth: So clearly this is a very personal decision, but what advice would you have for anybody who is grappling with a similar decision about revealing something about themselves that they've been keeping secret?
Rick: Well, in my industry it happens a lot that I'm having those discussions, right? We haven't made as much progress as I would have liked in our industry on this front. I still remain the only openly gay, senior executive in professional sports. Man, not woman. So there's a lot of people out there who are struggling with the same circumstances that I did and trying to figure out what's right.
My counsel is never like, "You have to do this or you have to do that." Right? If I can be a voice and help talk them through where they are and how they're feeling and what their situation is, they're going to know the time. I can't possibly predict the time that it's the right time for them or if it is the right time for them. And that's been a gratifying role that I've been able to play with a lot of young people in sports.
And it's played into our industry. We had a situation a few years ago where we had awarded the All-Star Game to Charlotte as a league and they passed a legislation in Charlotte, commonly called the Bathroom Bill, which was very discriminatory to the LGBT community. And the NBA, because it is the NBA, called the question about whether or not we could go play that game in Charlotte with the existence of this legislation in the state.
We have an owners' Board of Governors meeting and Adam Silver, who was a very new commissioner at the time, let me have the last word. And I could say very honestly to the owners of the teams in that room that, "All I'd like you to think about is that I'm in contact with people in your organization who are not comfortable in the environment they're in to be able to be their completely honest self. So when you're voting on how you'd like to do that, they're going to be watching how you're voting. And I'd just like you to vote with that in mind." And we voted to take the All-Star Game out of Charlotte.
Eventually the laws changed. We did come back so it had a happy ending, but it's enabled me to have a different kind of role than I ever could imagine within the NBA, within our industry.
Beth: I can't leave this part of the conversation without also congratulating you. I know you got married in January.
Beth: So congratulations.
Rick: It took us awhile. Nine years. But then we decided, might as well do it.
Beth: You've been very generous with your time and I know we're coming to the end of our time. I've got a few last lightning round questions to ask you.
The first one is, what would you say is the smartest career move that you made, whether intentionally or accidentally?
Rick: Well without doubt, choosing to move from Seattle, Washington to New York City, which I never imagined living anywhere other than than Seattle, but to land at the NBA from a team in Seattle turned out to be a pretty good decision.
Beth: If you could have one do-over, what would it be and why?
Rick: It's funny, I guess the logical answer to that would be that move from the NBA back to the situation in LA with the Dodgers and that falling apart as soon as I got there. But, I have a hard time feeling that way because I think the lessons that came out of that actually set me on the path that I'm on today. And so, yes, I guess from a career perspective, it was the U-turn that didn't turn out, but from a self-realization perspective, I think it probably was maybe the best thing that happened.
Beth: If you could go back and talk to the young Rick, what career advice would you give him?
Rick: One of the dreams that you would have graduating from a school, mine the University of Washington, was getting to do the commencement address, which I got to do last year. There, as well as in my Hall of Fame address, I wrote a letter to my younger self. It really was more like telling myself things were going to be okay, to quit worrying so much. Just don't be so hesitant and don't be so afraid. Just really put yourself out there more than I chose to do myself.
Whatever fears I had, whatever misgivings I had, turned out to be very misplaced. And, it took me a long, long time to figure that out. So, I would have urged myself to be a little more bold and do things a little sooner.
Beth: And then my last question, how do you define success for yourself?
Rick: It's a feeling I have. I just know it. I don't think I can describe it any other way. I know when I finished a project, when I've even finished a day at the office, how I feel when I walk away. Feeling like I've done everything I can possibly do to affect an outcome in a really positive way, and there's absolutely nothing I left undone or unsaid or anything that I can feel great about the effort that I made.
Beth: Well, I hope you feel great about this podcast because I think you just did exactly that for here. So thank you for sharing your story and your journey. This was a story that I think will inspire many people, so thank you so much, Rick.
Rick: Thank you, Beth.
Beth: A quick epilogue. We've posted a link to Rick's front page, New York Times article on our website, CareerCurves.com. While there you can find a full transcript of this episode, past episodes and resources to help you in your career.
If you enjoyed this episode, we hope you'll subscribe and tell your friends. Finally, be sure to like us on Apple Podcasts and frankly we'd love it if you left us a review.
That's it for this episode. As always, thanks for listening.