San Francisco Chronicle
Enduring bond for Russell and Welts
Retired Warriors president
Rick Welts is on an East Coast swing, enjoying a visit to the U.S. Open tennis tournament and other satisfying pursuits, and he has a very special assignment Saturday night in Springfield, Mass. That’s when one of sports’ most endearing friendships — Welts and NBA legend Bill Russell — comes to life.
Russell will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for the second time, this time as a coach. The way the ceremonies unfold, each inductee is allowed to have several Hall of Famers join him or her onstage. Russell chose
Julius Erving, Bill Walton, Alonzo Mourning, Charles Barkley, Spencer Haywood ... and Welts.
“Which makes me the punch line of a joke,” Welts said in a Thursday telephone conversation from New York. “Who doesn’t fit in?”
Actually, Welts fits in beautifully. He’s one of the few people in any walk of life to have a deep, long-lasting amity with Russell, who guards his privacy and is fiercely dismissive of the social whirl.
As a kid growing up in Seattle, Welts loved going to SuperSonics games with his dad, and “when Russell came in with the Celtics, that was the most looked-forward-to game,” said Welts. “When he walked into the building, you could feel the aura of the Celtics, like you were watching history.”
Russell earned two of his 11 championship rings as a playercoach of the Celtics, and that cuts to the heart of his Hall of Fame encore. He was the first
Black head coach in NBA history, and in clinching those titles in 1968 and ’69, he had to guide Boston past one of the greatest teams ever assembled (Wilt Chamberlain’s Philadelphia 76ers) and a Lakers team anchored by Chamberlain and Jerry West.
“Pretty incredible, when you think about it,” said Welts, who had his Hall of Fame induction as an executive three years ago and remains a consultant to the Warriors. “Bill didn’t have quite that success in his other NBA coaching jobs, with Seattle and Sacramento, but then again, he didn’t have himself as a player,” he said, laughing.
Russell did orchestrate Seattle’s first-ever playoff experiences, reaching the Western Conference semifinals in 1975 and ’76, and by that time, Welts had landed a job in the Sonics’ media-relations department. “Most of his time there I was still in college (University of Washington), working crazy hours,” he said. “I didn’t even have an office, just a little desk in a hallway. He never paid me any attention, because there was no reason to.
“But one day Bill needed something, and he couldn’t remember my name, so he called out, ‘Hey, white boy down the hall!’ And that’s when it started. For whatever reason, he saw something in me that he liked, and we’ve always been in touch. That amazing sense of humor, the dignity and pride. The way he’s let me into his life is really something to be cherished.
“And to this day, in a little joke between us, he still calls me the white boy down the hall.”
Welts spent years struggling with the notion of revealing that he is gay, and when he decided to come out, through a New York Times piece in 2011, he knew his plight would resonate more deeply if supported by well-known sportsmen.
“The first person on our list was Bill,” Welts said. “I flew up to Seattle, drove over to Mercer Island, knocked on his door — I remember like it was yesterday — and here’s this giant guy in a Celtics cap, giving me a hug. We went into his den, where he had two chairs and a table between them, and there’s an autographed photo of Barack Obama. He signed it something like, ‘To Bill: You’re my inspiration.’ So, you know, nothing intimidating about that.”
Welts said he told Russell, “I’m going to ask you to do the one thing you hate doing more than anything in the world: talk to the media. He said, ‘Of course,’ and that was about five minutes of an hourlong visit, just laughing, telling stories, remembering stuff from a long time ago.”
They meet again Saturday night, and for Russell, 87, it could be an arduous trip. “I don’t know how it’s going to go down, we’ll see,” Welts said. “I hope Bill’s OK.”
Nice to know, if all goes well: He will be among friends.
Hold that flag
NFL officials have been instructed to strictly enforce the league’s taunting rule, and let’s hope they don’t wreck the mood with needless penalties and ejections. What should not be tolerated: the kind of rude, insulting gestures that can start a fight. But it’s an awfully fine line; fans and players actually enjoy some spirited byplay (such as that taking place between receivers and defensive backs) as an ongoing drama. If a player stands over a fallen opponent for a quick staredown, maybe barking a few choice words or spiking the ball before walking away — sorry, that’s a way of life on today’s sports landscape. No flags. The pandemic has only elevated the level of pent-up emotion among NFL players, and they damn well deserve to be expressive . ... Everyone has a theory on the 49ers’ quarterback situation. Here’s mine: Forget alternating Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance during an offensive series, or even by quarters. That can destroy a man’s rhythm, and the focus always leans toward shortcomings instead of strengths. Give Jimmy G the job outright, see how it goes. Might be a pleasant surprise. If it becomes evident that he’s just not cutting it, go with the kid for what surely will be a spark of energy. Perhaps Lance locks up the job and never looks back. But if you open with the rookie and he’s not quite ready, is it really that satisfying to watch Garoppolo take over?
While the Giants face an ongoing shortage of starting pitchers, the Dodgers may have restored their rotation. Clayton Kershaw, out since July 7 but coming off a three-inning stint at the Triple-A level Tuesday night, will start Monday night’s game against Arizona at Dodger Stadium. Right-hander Tony Gonsolin is back from the injured list, as well . ... Lasting memory from the recent Giants-Dodgers series: Second inning, one out, runners at second and third Sunday, and here comes former MVP Cody Bellinger, batting eighth. Even with pitcher Walker Buehler
on deck, the Giants pitch to Bellinger, and Zack Littell
strikes him out with a wicked up-and-in fastball. Bellinger is 2-for-48 against the Giants this season and through Thursday didn’t have a hit against anybody this month. How long can the Dodgers put up with that?