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Originally published May 16, 2011 at 10:02 PM | Page modified May 16, 2011 at 11:18 PM

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Steve Kelley

NBA executive Rick Welts stunned at support he has received since acknowledging he is gay

Phoenix Suns president Rick Welts says he has received hundreds of positive emails and voice mails since revealing his homosexuality Monday in a New York Times story.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Rick Welts boarded a plane in Phoenix on Sunday, knowing that by the time the wheels touched down in New York, his life would be changed forever.

While Welts, president of the NBA's Phoenix Suns, was in the air, The New York Times posted a story online where Welts acknowledged that he was gay.

Welts, who grew up in Seattle, started his life in the NBA as a Sonics ball boy and rose through the league's hierarchy to run the Suns' franchise, had no idea what the reaction to his story would be.

He didn't know how the other NBA executives would feel. He didn't know how NBA players, Suns fans, friends or strangers would react.

For several anxious hours at 36,000 feet, Welts waited for the turbulence below.

"It was a little bit surreal to be in a place where I couldn't even talk to anybody," Welts said by telephone from New York on Monday.

In the first 24 hours after the story appeared on line, he was overwhelmed by the tone of the responses. He said he had gotten hundreds of emails. He said he saved the supportive voice mail ("It was priceless") from former Phoenix Sun Charles Barkley.

"I have to admit," Welts said, "it's pretty moving to read some of the emails I've gotten from people I don't even know who, for whatever reason, felt they wanted to reach out and say, 'Thank you for doing what you've done and here's my story and here's what I'm thinking about now.' That's pretty powerful.

"And they haven't slowed down. They keep coming, which is kind of the most surprising thing to me. The responses I've been getting and the stories I've been reading in my emails show that the power of words is really there in changing people's lives."

Welts's journey began about a year ago, when he talked about going public to his 85-year-old mother in Palm Desert, Calif. He told her he never would do anything that made her uncomfortable.

Phyllis Welts, who died in November, told her son she thought that such honesty would improve his life. Rick Welts also talked with many of his friends.

"They were 100 percent split down the middle," he said. "Many of my friends thought this would be wonderful and change my life and be great. And many asked, 'Why would you do that, in the position you're in? You have a great life and a great job.' "

I've known Welts for more than 35 years, since he was an assistant public-relations director with the Sonics and I was a cub reporter in Olympia. I knew what a great guy he was. I knew how hard he worked. I didn't know about his courage.

As progressive as the NBA has been toward civil-rights issues, male professional team sports still are behind the curve when it comes to issues of homosexuality. Welts risked his professional life telling this story.

"I've never felt any hostility in the work environment," Welts said. "But there is this kind of silence about (homosexuality) where we just agree not to talk about it. I think the NBA is further along in all (civil rights) issues. It's a far more diverse culture. I think the NBA is ahead of the pro sports curve, but that still is way behind where society is right now."

This announcement doesn't change who Rick Welts is and it shouldn't change anybody's perception of him. He has been one of the league's most innovative thinkers and one of its most popular executives.

Still, in ways he may not yet know, his life will change.

"It is never going to be quite the same," Welts said.

"For better or for worse, it's redefining how people will remember me and that's odd to me," he said. "But what I don't know is how it will change my work life going forward. I've really focused so much time and attention to getting to today that I think that I've just decided that I would let the experiences that happen as a result of this just guide me."

This was something he knew he had to do.

"I think I've imposed barriers around my personal life from people I really respect and care about," he said. "And I've never been able to be part of what an authentic relationship really should be. I just think the price I had to pay for that got to be more than I was prepared to pay."

He was asked what he'd say if an NBA player came to him and said he wanted to announce he was gay.

"I wouldn't be encouraging or discouraging," said Welts, 58. "I would just help him talk through what he was thinking. I'd probably ask him a lot of questions about how he came to his conclusion and if he was confident in it. And then I would cheer it.

"But I would be the last one to say that what I'm trying to do here is to be out there encouraging people to do that just because I was ready to do it. It is such a personal thing. I would just tell someone to follow their heart and do what they think is right."

I can't believe this is an issue we still have to talk about. But it is.

"You look how far we've come in the last 20 years, as a society and I think, in some ways, the progress is miraculous," Welts said. "Society is way ahead of male team sports on this one, but it seems to me that the direction and the momentum today will lead inevitably to a more inclusive society where this is no big deal."

Someday this won't be a story. Because Rick Welts was willing to take this step, someday the president of a pro franchise or a player, or a coach won't have to announce that he is gay. It won't be front-page news.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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