On a Sunday last May, Rick Welts boarded a plane in San Francisco knowing that by the time he landed in New York, his life would be changed forever.
He wasn't sure if it would be changed for the better.
At some point while Welts was flying over Middle America, the New York Times posted a story to its website acknowledging that Welts, then the president of the Phoenix Suns, had become the highest-ranking sports executive to reveal that he was gay.
"It was a bizarre experience having no idea what was going on 40,000 feet below me," Welts said. "I'll never forget the wheels touching down, turning on my Blackberry and watching it almost explode with emails."
Now approaching a year later, Welts is the Golden State Warriors president, and he can say that his life is richer -- personally and professionally. His choice to step out of the shadows has been received in such a positive manner that it is cited as an example of how the culture of team sports, traditionally viewed as a less-than-tolerant environment, is becoming increasingly open-minded.
"What he did took incredible courage," said Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. "Hopefully the reaction signals to other people that they can feel safe about being more open with their lives."
For Welts, the ultimate validation came four months after he went public, when the Warriors hired him to run their business operations after he resigned
"For the first time in my life, I didn't have to wonder how someone would feel if they knew my whole story," he said.
Welts, 59, who rose to the No. 3 executive in the NBA home office, liked to work behind the scenes -- staging the show without ever stepping onto the stage himself.
He packaged the league in a way that made corporations want to be identified with the NBA. He created the All-Star Weekend. He marketed the league's stable of stars -- first Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and then Michael Jordan -- into global sensations. He helped launch the WNBA.
At the same time, Welts had two lives. As a young man, he decided that he needed to keep his sexual orientation hidden from view or risk sidetracking his career in sports.
"It probably wasn't as hard as you might think, because I had this amazing group of friends and family who embraced my entire life," Welts said. "It was just this one part of my life that I kept quiet, because I did fear what the consequences would be if I shared that. Maybe it was somewhat of a burden, but it's not like I had this tortured life."
A Seattle native, Welts grew up in the NBA. He started as a ball boy for the SuperSonics, then went to work for the team after graduating from the University of Washington. He was the team's media director when the Sonics won the 1979 NBA title. He counted basketball legend Bill Russell among his mentors.
Welts was lured to the NBA home office in 1982 by a young league attorney named David Stern. At the time, the NBA was plagued by lack of exposure, unstable franchises and an image of drug problems.
Stern soon became commissioner, and Welts was a top lieutenant as the league, with $200 million in annual revenues, boomed into today's $5 billion-a-year business.
"Rick," Stern said, "simply is the consummate sports executive. He understands every single aspect of our business."
Yet as close as they were, they never talked about Welts' personal life, even when Welts' longtime partner died of AIDS-related complications in 1994. Stern knew all about Welts' loss and sent a $10,000 donation toward a scholarship to honor his significant other. But he couldn't fully console his friend.
"That still pains me," Stern said. "I always felt personally chagrined that Rick felt like he couldn't discuss or acknowledge his sexual orientation. I think it was a weakness for both of us, and it's terrible that we've had to dance around this in our society."
In 1999, Welts left the NBA because of what he jokingly calls "a defective gene." The competitor in him missed the roller-coaster ride that comes from winning and losing with a team. He briefly ran Fox Sports Entertainment, which oversaw the Los Angeles Dodgers, before becoming the Suns' president in 2002.
And by early last year, he was struggling with a question: Should I come out?
A 14-year relationship had ended badly in part because Welts felt the need to keep it secret from his work life. But he also was feeling a tug of responsibility to help push forward the national dialogue about sexual orientation in sports.
"The barrier for people in my situation is that there hadn't ever been anyone who had taken this step," he said. "I thought something good might come out of it. There might be a kid out there who would think, 'You know, I probably could do whatever I wanted because of who I am, not in spite of whom I am.' "
Welts' mother, who has since died, encouraged him to do what felt right. He began meeting with people such as Suns star Steve Nash, Russell and Stern about his complete life. All three agreed to be part of the article that would appear on the New York Times' front page and lead to an outpouring of support.
"The big headline for me is that Rick finally felt a sense of relief," Stern said.
Welts left the Suns in September because he wanted to be closer to his partner, Todd Gage, a Northern California-based flight attendant with Southwest Airlines. He intended to take time off to figure out the next chapter of his life. Instead, new Warriors owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber called about their vacant president's position.
Deep into a long interview at his Atherton home, Lacob asked Welts about his announcement.
"I felt like not mentioning it would almost be as bad as making too big a deal out of it," Lacob said. "I wanted to acknowledge it, talk about the reaction and then move on. I respect him for what he did, but it's just not a relevant issue with doing the job. And you cannot find a negative reference on Rick Welts."
A significant portion of Welts' job entails helping find another Bay Area home for the Warriors, who hope to leave Oracle Arena for a new building by the 2017-18 season. But while Welts stresses that his focus is on helping the Warriors become a consistent winner, he is well-aware of his heightened profile.
Lapchick believes "what Rick has done will make it less difficult for an athlete to come forward." Indeed, that's a question often posed to Welts: When will an active, team-sport athlete make that step?
"It's going to be much more heroic than what I did," he said. "It's just a different set of circumstances that an athlete would be facing. But I think we're on a course where that's just going to be inevitable."
Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.