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Welts prefers to be seen as Warrior, not pioneer

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / October 16, 2011

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His respite was supposed to last a bit longer. Rick Welts left his job as president of the Phoenix Suns last month to pursue a new life in the San Francisco area, finally addressing his personal life after years of toiling in the front offices of professional teams.

His departure had nothing to do with his announcement four months earlier that he was gay. Welts was the first openly gay man in a major professional sports front office and had little issue addressing that with the New York Times last May.

What’s more, the issue of his homosexuality had been overshadowed by his desire to return to an NBA front office. And the new-look Warriors, led by former Celtics minority owner Joe Lacob and film mogul Peter Guber, were seeking a leader with a fresh approach, so they hired Welts less than a month ago as president.

What was expected to be a midlife career shift simply turned into a job switch for the 58-year-old Welts, a Seattle native who worked in the front office of the 1979 champion Sonics after graduating from the University of Washington.

Suns managing general partner Robert Sarver understood Welts’s reasons for relocation and placed calls to the Maloof brothers, owners of the Sacramento Kings, as well as Lacob and Guber. Lacob returned the call shortly after the team parted ways with president Robert Rowell.

“I’m still shaking my head, to tell you the truth,’’ Welts said. “I had expected to take some time off and it didn’t quite work out that way.

“It was really a fortuitous opportunity, and for me it was the perfect intersection of what I was hoping to do. I was hoping to be back in the NBA or at least in sports. It was a very lucky chain of events for me.’’

Welts joins a team that has spent the past year changing its organizational structure. Only general manager Larry Riley remains from the previous administration. In addition to Guber and Lacob, Mark Jackson (coach) and Bob Myers (from agent to assistant general manager) have joined the Warriors in the past several months.

A franchise that has been overlooked except for splashes of significance in the late 1980s and a stunning upset of the top-seeded Mavericks in the 2007 playoffs, the Warriors are determined to become a factor in the Western Conference.

“Everyone in the NBA has always viewed this franchise as a real sleeping giant,’’ Welts said. “It has every element that could result in being one of the most successful franchises in the league.

“There’s always been great fan support here. The team has been very, very well-supported, especially when you consider that they’ve been to the playoffs once in the last 17 years.’’

The fact that he relocated to an area with an extensive gay population isn’t lost on Welts. But he does not view himself as a role model, and he has not sought to make his homosexuality an issue.

“For me, it was more about being in the Northern California area that allowed me to get my personal life and professional life aligned,’’ he said. “I know people have talked about [being a role model] but I really hadn’t thought of it that way. It was the perfect storm for me.’’

While Welts made headlines with his announcement, the attention has died down considerably. Perhaps that is a testament to the times, but the lack of focus on his personal life is welcomed.

His life since the revelation, he said, “hasn’t changed as dramatically as people like to assume.

“My family has always been amazingly supportive, and really it was only in my work life that the fact that I was gay was not in my day-to-day life. That wasn’t a tremendous burden.

“There’s been an unbelievable outpouring of support. I truly have not received one negative correspondence, either letter or e-mail, or telephone call out of thousands of interactions since this has happened.

“That to me is a little bit of a surprise. I didn’t know what was going to come, but I was prepared for something a little bit different than that.

“The goal was elevating the volume and quality of the conversation on an issue we really have a difficult time discussing in professional team sports. From that standpoint, it has to be a success because I do think there’s been more constructive dialogue on the subject than there’s been in a long, long time.’’

And when the lockout concludes, Welts can turn his complete attention to the business of basketball. Golden State was 10th in the NBA in attendance last season despite another losing record. The club has talented players in Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry, and David Lee, and Welts’s job is to market the franchise and tap its potential.

“The upside here is tremendous, and everyone feels it here,’’ he said. “This team has made the playoffs only once in 17 years. That has to change.

“My job is not to field the basketball team. My job is to build the organization around that to make going to Golden State Warriors games spectacular and to make our business successful enough to put the resources into the basketball that we need to do to become a championship-caliber team.’’


Mediator gets the next shot

Commissioner David Stern kept his promise by canceling the first two weeks of the season when a labor agreement wasn’t reached Monday in New York. What was most disconcerting about those talks is that they broke down on system issues such as maximum contract lengths, mid-level exceptions, Larry Bird rights, and the luxury tax.

As many experts have suggested, the best way for owners to add hard-cap effects to a new agreement without actually implementing one is padding the luxury tax with even more penalties for teams that exceed the limit.

For now, there is a dollar-for-dollar tax. For example, since the Celtics spent $86 million on salaries last season - $15 million above the tax threshold - they owed an additional $15 million in luxury tax, to be shared by the other teams.

The owners suggested in negotiations that teams should pay as much as five dollars on the dollar for reaching certain levels above the tax, which may dissuade even the wealthiest teams from exceeding the salary cap. Teams such as the Jazz executed some controversial and one-sided trades over the past few years to avoid any tax.

The players, as expected, rejected such a heavy penalty because it would reduce overall salaries. While the owners dropped their insistence on a hard salary cap, the Players Association is wary of anything with the same effect, making an agreement difficult.

The consensus is that players are more organized and united than in 1998, when many veterans on the NBPA executive committee were perceived as caving into Stern’s demands once he threatened to cancel the season. The stakes are much higher now, and it was an encouraging sign that the sides agreed to meet with a federal mediator tomorrow.

The biggest fear for fans after Stern canned the first two weeks of the season was the “cooling off’’ period by both sides. Players Association executive director Billy Hunter met with a group of players Friday in Los Angeles, an informational gathering for solidarity. In other words, Hunter wants to relay the proposals from the owners and communicate to the players why they weren’t accepted.

The federal mediator will be George Cohen, who also listened to both sides of the NFL labor dispute but made little impact. Cohen can’t make decisions, only suggestions, but after all of the NBA negotiations produced little besides rhetoric, he could be the answer.

“For a number of months, I have participated in separate, informal, off-the-record discussions with the principals representing the NBA and the NBPA concerning the status of their collective bargaining negotiations,’’ Cohen said in a statement.

“It is evident that the ongoing dispute will result in a serious impact, not only upon the parties directly involved, but also, of major concern, on interstate commerce - i.e., the employers and working men and women who provide services related to the basketball games, and, more generally, on the economy of every city in which those games are scheduled to be played.’’

Hunter has shied away from union decertification, and the high-powered agents who were encouraging that move have backed off because Hunter has stood strong in negotiations. Because of what happened in 1998, there were players and agents who doubted Hunter’s ability to pull off a deal that was advantageous for the players this time.

But once paychecks are missed Nov. 15, there could be a separation between the salary haves and have-nots. Players such as Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James can offset financial losses with marketing opportunities, commercials, appearances, boosted shoe contracts, etc., but younger players who have yet to cash in on their talents can’t survive the drought so easily.

The owners are waiting for such dissension, so not only are there disagreements across the board on system and economic issues, there doesn’t appear to be full respect for the players. And that is a major issue. Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire Tweeted after a meeting two weeks ago that the players were smarter than the owners believe they are.

“How many times does it pay to keep meeting and have the same things thrown back at you?’’ Stern said on NBA TV. “We are ready to sit down and make a deal. I don’t believe that the union is.

“But hopefully by Tuesday, aided by the mediator, they will be able to make a deal and certainly I will bring my owners ready to make a deal.

“Unlike Billy Hunter, you will never hear me say something is a ‘blood issue.’ That would be an unfair labor practice charge, but we didn’t pursue it because refusing to negotiate on an issue is what’s called a failure to bargain. We assume it’s just rhetoric.

“We’ve moved a lot and we aren’t giving any secrets away. If the union came in with a deal that made sense, I would certainly urge my owners to accommodate them, but we haven’t seen that yet.’’


Celtics stay on solid ground

The Celtics have had five home games wiped out by the lockout - two preseason and three regular season - prompting team president Rich Gotham to write a letter to season ticket-holders, who can receive refunds on their tickets with interest.

The league was astute enough to announce the schedule but not open ticket sales to individual games, so only season ticket-holders are financial victims of the lockout.

Gotham’s letter read in part:

“Despite negotiation efforts, the NBA has not yet reached a new collective bargaining agreement with the players union.

“Unfortunately, we have reached a point in the calendar where it is not feasible to begin the regular season on time, resulting in the cancellation of the first two weeks of the season including games through November 14, 2011.

“We cannot stress enough how much we value you, our most loyal fans, and we will continue to keep you updated and informed on any related developments over the coming weeks.’’

The Celtics are not among the teams in financial straits. What’s more, they have a lucrative television contract with Comcast SportsNet that has yet to be announced because of the lockout.

Co-owner Wyc Grousbeck, who has been representing the team in labor negotiations and is part of the league’s Board of Governors, has not been as active recently as he was a few years ago. There was a perception that Grousbeck was a hard-line owner willing to cancel the season, but he has backed off that stance.


Home for the holiday?

According to an agent, there is a reason David Stern pointed to Christmas as a point to save the season. The NBA’s unofficial kickoff is the Christmas Day television docket. It’s the first day the league becomes significant to casual fans, because the NFL regular season is winding down. There appears to be two factions of agents - those who believe the owners have no desire to negotiate a deal, and those who have more confidence in them but are still trying to look for overseas opportunities. Either way, many agents have lost faith that a deal can be struck.


The question of what happens to current contracts if the season is canceled is simple. The year is essentially wiped out, meaning Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett would be unrestricted free agents next season. Both players, despite losing a lucrative year, said they would be willing to lose the season for the sake of the players’ cause. Garnett was quite vocal during last week’s meetings, urging his brethren to stick together . . . Among the many issues the union and league are discussing are the entry rules for high school seniors. Players such as Austin Rivers, Doc Rivers’s son who is beginning his freshman season at Duke, may not be allowed to enter the draft next season if the sides agree on a proposed “two-and-out rule,’’ which would require players to be two years removed from high school to enter the draft. And the lockout continues to affect the recruiting of standout players thought to be headed to the NBA after one college season. Without knowing the rules of draft entry, it’s hard to project which current college players may enter the draft. Players such as Baylor’s Perry Jones and North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes remained in school partly because of the expected lockout.

Gary Washburn can be reached at Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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