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Golden State Warriors President and COO Rick Welts holds up the NBA championship trophy during the annual Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco, California on June 28, 2015. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Golden State Warriors President and COO Rick Welts holds up the NBA championship trophy during the annual Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco, California on June 28, 2015. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

For Golden State Warriors president Rick Welts, making a difference is an issue close to heart Add to ...

Rick Welts, president of the Golden State Warriors, had spoken at NBA owners meetings many times during his long career in the league. But last July in Las Vegas, it was different.

The league was considering whether to move the 2017 all-star weekend away from Charlotte. Earlier this year, the city introduced protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The state government, however, then passed a widely criticized law that prevented municipalities in North Carolina from enacting such specific protections.

Welts, at 63, is one of the NBA’s respected elders. And in 2011 he took a rare step in the world of sports, when he came out publicly as gay. In July in Las Vegas, commissioner Adam Silver gave Welts the last word in the Charlotte discussion. Welts delivered a passionate, personal address.

“It was a completely unique experience for me,” Welts said in an interview on Thursday. “I’m used to talking, most of my professional life, at owners meetings, but never on a topic like this.”

Welts’s words influenced the NBA’s decision, soon after, to move the 2017 all-star weekend. It will now be in New Orleans. “I’m proud,” Welts tweeted, “to be part of a league that stands behind its core values in difficult circumstances.”

Welts is not well known outside of basketball but he is one of the sport’s strongest voices, as well as being at the business helm of one of its best teams.

Former commissioner David Stern has said Welts has a “complete understanding of the soul of the NBA.”

Welts’s current role, and public voice, is the latest and biggest stage for a basketball lifer, whose first job in the game was at 16 in his hometown of Seattle, as a ball boy for the then-fledgling SuperSonics.

A decade later, he was the PR man for the Sonics as they won their only NBA title. A few years later, Welts joined the NBA head office and helped revitalize basketball – including inventing the all-star weekend. He rose to become the league’s No. 3 executive. In the 2000s, he was back with a team, the Phoenix Suns, as president. In 2011, he took the job with the forever-woeful Warriors, hired to work the turnaround job started by the new owners, a group led by Silicon Valley investor Joe Lacob.

Welts is in Vancouver on Friday to speak about building a winning culture at a Greater Vancouver Board of Trade event, alongside Masai Ujiri, president of the Toronto Raptors, and Hall of Famer James Worthy. On Saturday afternoon at Rogers Arena, the Warriors and Raptors start the NBA’s preseason – and the exhibition game marks the debut of the Warriors superteam featuring Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

Ujiri recalled the resonance of Welts’s speech at the owners meeting in July.

“It was remarkable. It gave me goosebumps,” Ujiri said. Welts spoke about his personal experiences – and, Ujiri said, “He also spoke for everybody. He addressed it in a way where discrimination, of whatever sort, is unacceptable.”

The Warriors, on the court, vie to be one of the great teams in NBA history. Off the court, the ambitions are similar. When Welts was hired, Lacob said it was a “quantum leap” in the effort to overhaul an organization that had made the playoffs once in the preceding 17 seasons.

The organization embraces ideas from the tech industry and beyond. One major project Welts helps lead is a new arena in San Francisco, which the team aims to open in 2019.

Peter Guber, a Warriors co-owner and co-executive chairman, made his money and reputation in movies. At the new arena, Guber wants to take a cue from Broadway, where a person at the back of a theatre can hear the actors onstage just as well as someone at the front. The Warriors want to figure that out for a basketball arena.

The team is also looking at new technology for its television broadcasts, taking some inspiration from video games. One idea is a viewer could soon position themselves with the perspective of actually being on the court as a game unfolds. The Warriors, Welts noted, were the first to use virtual reality for a game broadcast. It was technology Guber had invested in.

When Welts came out in 2011, one of his goals was mentorship, “to be that person I didn’t have.” Sports remains a world where being gay, and out, is rare – and isn’t necessarily welcome, or comfortable. Welts carries his influence inside and outside of the game. He was celebrity grand marshal of the 2015 San Francisco Pride Parade. He offers personal counsel, too. He recently heard from a Navy Seal.

“I don’t have a road map,” Welts said. “The best I can do is to listen to somebody’s story and ask questions. It’s a very, very personal decision, about whether to come out, and when to come out.”

It’s hard to predict the pace of change in sports, Welts said. Looking back at 2011, the arrival of marriage equality in 2015 seemed to arrive with lightning speed. But sports is its own bastion.

“We’re still behind where the rest of society is,” Welts said, “in feeling like it’s a non-issue, or not worrying about acceptance.”

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