As COVID-19 started rearing its head in the U.S., it was the National Basketball Association that fired the first large-scale salvo against the virus, suspending play on March 11 after Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert tested positive.
Now, four months later, the NBA again finds itself in a leadership position as the first major U.S. professional team sport preparing to resume its season, on July 31, in a fan-less “bubble” created at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla.
All eyes will be on how effective the league’s bubble proves to be in limiting exposure to COVID-19, as well as how forcefully the league’s oversized personalities communicate messages of social justice.
One person who’ll be watching closely is Rick Welts, president and COO of the Golden State Warriors, who Welts said “picked a good year to suck” after five straight trips to the NBA Finals, three of which ended in titles.
After an ACL tear to one star player during last year’s playoffs, another leaving via free agency, and a third joining the injured after breaking his wrist early in the season, the Warriors found themselves mired at the bottom of the league standings.
Eye on Orlando
That finish means the Warriors won’t be one of the 22 teams completing the NBA season in Orlando. But Welts and the team’s brass will watch events there closely while preparing to return with a bang next season, with two stars back, probably along with a top draft pick.
Welts believes this upcoming bubble season represents an important moment for the league, with or without the presence of its most recent dynasty.
“We have an opportunity to make some systematic changes that can make the world a fairer place,” Welts said during a recent Oracle NetSuite Fast Forward discussion. “Shame on us if we don’t use the platform we have.”
Welts said the Warriors organization has pushed its chips in to the social justice movement. The team is putting staff through anti-bias training, hosting ongoing Thursday discussions on social justice featuring guest speakers and is having black members of the staff writing daily organization-wide communications in which they share their experiences with racial oppression.
Coming From a Place of Empathy
Welt’s empathy is no doubt connected to his own experiences as part of a marginalized group. As the first openly gay executive in the NBA (he came out in 2011), Welts spent many years working in the NBA while hiding his identity. Although uncomfortable with the potential consequences of sharing this part of himself, Welts, with the encouragement of his mother, decided to turn to a media consultant to determine just how big a story his coming out would be. After all, he was just some front office guy, not a recognizable player.
At the first meeting, the consultant looked across the table at Welts and told him the story would be on the front page of the New York Times A section.
“That was my ‘oh s***’ moment,” Welts recalled.
He proceeded to enlist the support of people like Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, former NBA MVP and all-star point guard Steve Nash and former NBA Commissioner David Stern for support, and all were quoted in the eventual story, which, as the consultant predicted, hit page A1 of the Times.
Welts said that while so much is changing culturally today—inside the NBA and beyond—there’s still healthy fear of the impact a player coming out would have on a team’s chemistry. But he’s hopeful that the day is coming.
“It’s going to be amazing when a star player comes out in the prime of his career,” he said. “It will be a hugely courageous act.”
He points to Magic Johnson’s positive HIV test in 1991, which he called the most significant moment in modern NBA history, as evidence that such a barrier can be overcome. Many players at the time said they’d refuse to take the court with him out of fear of being exposed, and while he did retire, Magic’s eloquent handling of the situation eventually snuffed that narrative when he returned to play in an All-Star game and with the 1992 Summer Olympics “Dream Team.”
“He singlehandedly changed the world dialogue about HIV,” said Welts.
A Time for Adaptation
The past few months have clearly been unusual ones for Welts and the Warriors as they’ve navigated roster changes, a sudden lack of on-court success and COVID-19. It’s all added up to opportunities to adapt and think differently, and Welts said he has embraced the moment.
For instance, like most businesses, the Warriors had to shift to a work-at-home model, and like many business leaders, Welts was a skeptic as to whether it would work in an industry that depends on person-to-person collaboration.
“I am so happy I’ve been proven dead wrong,” he said. “In some ways we’re more efficient than we were before.”
Of course, when some of your employees now working at home are basketball players who normally practice together, it’s a bit different. As an example, former MVP Steph Curry did not have a basketball court of his own at home, so he had to install one. Along those lines, the team found itself having to deliver basketball and workout equipment to all of its players’ homes.
On the business side, Welts has approached the suspended season as a chance to try some different things and prepare for a new future. The team has used the time for things such as transitioning its new home, San Francisco’s Chase Center, into a cashless facility, and pursuing other entrepreneurial ideas that might eventually be picked up by other teams and arenas.
Welts also is determined to make Chase Center and team facilities the cleanest in the world, and the organization is developing protocols to assure maximum safety for players, employees and fans alike.
“It’s been kind of an energizing time,” Welts said. “Hopefully there will be some lasting benefits.”
Along those lines, Welts is especially interested in some new wrinkles that will be put in place for the broadcast of NBA games from the Orlando bubble. One change that’s sure to be scrutinized: The league will use 30 cameras to televise upcoming games, or three times as many as are normally used, providing shots from angles that would be impossible with fans present.
Additionally, during each game, the league will pipe in the sounds of the home team’s arena, and public address announcers will skew their calls toward the home team. The idea is to give one team a semblance of a home court advantage, while also making the broadcast more exciting for viewers.
Welts admits it’s all a grand experiment.
“Some things will probably work really well and we’ll take forward,” he said. “Some things will probably be unmitigated disasters.”
Regardless of what works, Welts is convinced that the playing of NBA games will be a tonic of sorts for Americans, who are looking for a sense of normalcy. He recalled attending the first New York sports event, a New York Mets game, after the 9/11 attacks. As then-President Bush walked out onto the field, Welts remembers a feeling of closeness and unity throughout the stadium, and he believes sports can provide that again now.
No Clear Path to Fans
As for when that unity can be achieved in person, with a arena full of fans, well, that’s a mystery that’s yet to be solved.
“There’s no clear path to how we can get back to fans in the seats safely,” said Welts. “In theory, if you know someone doesn’t have the virus, and you put them in an environment with others who don’t have the virus, you should be safe. But how do we get to that? That’s a really complicated thing to figure out.”
Watch the full Fast Forward Event with Warriors COO Rick Welts.