GSW, LLC is the only NBA team and multi-use arena with openly LGBTQ top-level executives. Golden State Warriors President and Chief Operating Officer Rick Welts identifies as a gay man, while Chase Center General Manger Kim Stone identifies as a lesbian woman. Although both executives share the similarity of coming out late in their careers, their stories are far from identical.
At the age of 30, Kim Stone was living in Miami during her tenure at the Miami Heat. Growing up in a small, rural town in North Carolina, she struggled to digest who she was. "I think I am different from most stories,” she says. “I wasn’t even in touch with who I was literally until I was in my 30s. I really didn’t understand my feelings, couldn’t sort them out, sort of knew what I didn’t like, wasn’t sure why I liked these other things."
It was not until moving to Miami, and the community Stone found there, that she was able to fully embrace and understand who she was. "There are good role models in South Florida. There’s a very accepting atmosphere there, and there are organizations that support a gay lifestyle. I met some amazing people," she says.
Rising up the ranks of the NBA, with a brief detour to work in baseball, Rick Welts intentionally kept his private life separate from his work life. “As human beings, we are pretty much only afraid of what we don’t know, and what I didn’t know is whether or not it would affect my ability to be successful in the career that is the only one I’ve ever wanted it. That was a burden,” he says. But in 2011, Welts found a sense of responsibility to share his story to be more powerful than the fear of the unknown.
"That, for me, was the biggest motivator: If I could be that person for some woman or boy that was questioning whether they could pursue their love of sports," he explains. "If there was someone out there who had actually done it and had a great experience then that might be encouraging. It was just the unknown that I was afraid of."
Welts’s decision to come out was one directly in front of the public eye, and one that involved the support of many figures in the NBA — Bill Russell, David Stern, and Steve Nash to name a few — helping tell his story. It resulted in the front page article of the New York Times. “That morning myself and my now husband, Todd Gage, got on a plane from SFO. Somewhere 40,000 feet over the state of Iowa, my article is being published,” Welts recalls. “I remember the plane touching down at JFK airport in New York and turning on my Blackberry. It just about exploded because I had literally hundreds of messages that I had received from the time the story had posted to the time our flight had landed. That was an amazing experience.”
Each of Stone and Welts’s paths are linked to strong allies. Without the support of those around them — notable members of the NBA for Welts along with his friends and family, and the environment Stone found in Miami -- they found bravery to come out. The strong allyship Stone felt, especially through her work environment at the Miami Heat, continued to give her the power of complete self acceptance — enough power to eventually come out in the work place.
“The Miami Heat organization is a phenomenal organization. Extremely accepting of everything - they just want the person that can do the best job, and that’s all they ask you to do,” she explains, “so it was a non-issue when I finally came out at work.”
Stone recognizes how this is not the norm for most people in the LGBTQ community, but her experience taught her exactly what an accepting work environment look and feels like. “ [Allyship] is when you are treated like everybody else,” she explains. “There are no biases, when people talk to you they don’t question you or look down on you because of your sexual orientation. They don’t question you, belittle you, say condescending things behind your back, or undermine you in front of others.”
“I never felt discriminated against at the Miami Heat as well as the NBA quite honestly,” Stone adds. “I had lots of interactions with the NBA and it was a non-issue. And it’s great because you don’t have to worry. That means you can bring your authentic self and that’s very powerful.”
Though Stone and Welts experienced acceptance in the workplace and from those closest to them, their lives as LGBTQ individuals have certainly not gone without discrimination and the weight of the world they live in.
Welts recalled when former President Barack Obama invited him and his partner Todd to the last Pride celebration at the White House during the presidency. He expected Obama’s words to be those of encouragement and empowerment, but the speech given wasn’t exactly that. He describes the message of Obama’s speech as: “Battles like this are not won and over. Battles like this are won, and then fought again.”
One battle Stone and her wife fought was merely the legitimization of their marriage in the United States. She married in her wife’s home country, Canada, because gay marriage was legal there but not in the States. When they came back to Florida, they faced numerous battles to secure the same rights as married heterosexuals in the country -- from health rights, to property ownership, and even recently child adoption.
"We had to spend money on attorneys to ensure my wife would have power over any health directives and my estate without challenges from others," she shares.
Even adopting their son on December 23, 2010 was a triumph of its own. Florida had a ban on gay adoptions up until the month of that adoption, making their son only the 13th gay adoption in Florida.
“He’s nine. It is shocking, right?” Stone quips. “We didn’t plan it this way, it just happened that he was born two days after the law was struck down by some very brave people in Florida, a brave couple that fought for and got that overturned. Imagine that - I could not adopt my son. It is very shocking and it was only 10 years ago. It’s just - wow.”
Being able to finally remarry in the United States is a day Stone holds close - unlocking nearly 1,000 different marriage benefits they did not have. "It’s just tough when you are not treated like everybody else and it’s because I choose to love my wife, and that’s a hard thing and it feels bad. Discrimination makes you feel rough, and you’ve got an extra layer you’ve got to break through to get accepted, and it’s just because I love someone who is different than the norm. I will never forget how freeing that felt and how accepting that felt," she shares.
Facing discrimination herself plays a role into the ally Stone is, as it intersects into any instance of injustice. As conversation and action is taken toward the Black Lives Matter movement, Stone reflects what her role is as an ally, including checking her own privilege as a white individual.
"To date, I’ve fought back on inequality by speaking up, giving political donations, working phone banks, marching in protests and consoling a staff member whose daughter was killed by Miami police officers," she shares. "As a leader, I have the ability to affect change, but it must first start with my own personal journey of development. That has begun. I can also ask all GSW white employees to evaluate their 'white privilege,' and then do one thing every day that meets the needs of our black colleagues"
Welts reflects back to a hero of his own as the world speaks out against racial injustice — his fourth grade teacher, a Black male. Rick shares that he would frequently go into his classroom after school and help do chores just to hear stories about the teacher’s life and how he grew up.
One day he will never forget walking into that classroom is the day John F. Kennedy was killed.
"The way I saw it as a little white kid and the way he saw it as an African-American was completely different," Welts said. "He explained to me why John F. Kennedy was so important to him, and why John F. Kennedy was so important to his community. It really made the point to me for the first time that the way we grow up and the experiences we have color our reactions and our feelings and emotions in a way I really had not understood before."
Having this realization at a young age informed a lifelong perspective of always continuing to learn.
"The learning goes on everyday," he says. "I certainly don’t have it all figured out. I have a commitment to be the best person I can be. To not just be 'not racist' but to be an anti-racist."
A battle many of the LGBTQ community are currently fighting is the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a community where support and togetherness is vital, being isolated at home alone, or in an unsupportive household, brings countless struggles. When addressing the effects of the pandemic on the LGBTQ community, Welts recognizes the importance of talking about mental health.
“I’m very hopeful that we are at a stage right now where we have made the point that physical health and mental health are one-in-the-same,” he says. “One can be talked about as openly as the other, people deal with mental health issues just as much as we all deal with physical health issues.”
Welts encourages anyone struggling mental health issues to reach out for help. "There’s an awful lot of help out there that is available if somebody feels like they need it. The only mistake to make is to hold it inside and not reach out to those you know who will be supportive or for professional guidance in terms of how to deal with it," he says. "It is okay to ask for help, it is okay if you’re not feeling the way you should feel, but you have to summon the strength to express that and reach out for help because the help is there."
Stone and Welts harness their experiences and stories to shape the leaders they are today - both in the Warriors and Chase Center businesses but also into the community surrounding them.
"When people see myself, or Rick, in these positions, in these big meetings, making these important decisions, driving the business and being successful in it, it gives them a role model," Stone says. "I recognize and appreciate that I can be someone that is a role model for younger folks that are coming up through the business. They can say 'I can be gay, and I can be a GM of the newest and one of the most amazing arenas in the NBA.'"
Welts also recognizes the role he plays in empowering any individual to show up everyday proudly with their full self. “If there’s one kid out there that can believe they can be successful because of who they are, not in spite of who they are, that’s the success for me. Every time this time of year comes around it has a special meaning,” he shares.
Pride Month directly represents the values of the both Golden State Warriors and Chase Center. "The fact that we can celebrate diversity, inclusion, acceptance is vital," Stone shares. "It’s one thing as an organization to say that you believe and support, it’s a completely different thing when you put your resources, whether it’s your people, your time, your money, or you create committees around it…this organization walks the walk that they talk."