Ex-Sonics ballboy Rick Welts returns to Seattle NBA roots

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              Rick Welts, right, president and chief of operations for the Golden State Warriors, is greeted by former Seattle SuperSonics coach Lenny Wilkins before an NBA basketball preseason game between the Warriors and the Sacramento Kings, Friday, Oct. 5, 2018, in Seattle. Welts is also former ballboy for the SuperSonics. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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SEATTLE (AP) — Slick Watts would wring out one of his sweaty headbands, whichever of the three or four in his rotation he’d worn that night, and hand it off to locker room attendant Rick Welts for a proper washing.

Not just anybody got to touch Watts’ signature, treasured bands, either.

In Welts the Seattle SuperSonics trusted. To take care of their shoes. Stinky socks. To launder jerseys and keep track of the gear. The keys to the Seattle Center Coliseum, even, back when Welts started his Hall of Fame NBA career as a teenage ballboy.

So imagine the nostalgia as the Golden State Warriors COO returned to his Pacific Northwest roots for his new team’s exhibition game against Sacramento in the NBA’s hurrah at KeyArena and the last scheduled event in the venue. He flew in Thursday on a picture-perfect Seattle day right over his old Queen Anne High School, then fittingly the rain came Friday — when former SuperSonics star Kevin Durant’s homecoming was the biggest headline as Welts enjoyed his special reunion comfortably behind the scenes.

“This has been incredible,” Welts said before Lenny Wilkens came by for a handshake and hug. “It’s just been a whirlwind since we got here. Sonics everything. I was up on the Space Needle today. … Then all you see around here they’re giving out these ‘We Got Next’ shirts with the Sonics logo.”

And so many former Sonics greats in the building who kept Welts beaming all night from his courtside seat: Gary Payton, Detlef Schrempf, James Donaldson, Bill Russell, Spencer Haywood, Watts.

Welts, 65 and the first openly gay NBA executive, is now entrusted by the Warriors owners to oversee the building of new Chase Center in San Francisco where the two-time defending champion Warriors will move next year.

What a journey from his Seattle beginnings. Wilkens looks back on Welts’ influence with fondness.

“His whole career was based on the NBA and as you see today he is (COO) of the Warriors and they’re a very good team,” Wilkens said. “Rick has done a lot to help that team. He certainly was deserving of being at the Hall of Fame. I felt very honored to be one of the guys to walk him out on the stage. We go back a lot of years because I was still playing and then made the mistake of being a player-coach.”

Watts would give Welts his old sneakers to take home when they were past their playing prime.

“I used to give Rick my shoes, he got my tennis shoes,” Watts said. “I was the man back in them days. I used to see Rick with that nice smile. He had such a personality, so he managed to always get my shoes and my headbands. I tease him now, ‘Now I want your shoes,’ because he’s in the Hall of Fame. He was always smiling. I can see why he’s reached the goal he’s reached now. I can see why he’s president of this team. Rick was so warm and so gentle and he was always respectful. As a professional, I was like the Russell Wilson back in those days, I was hot. But he always was one of my favorite people to be around.”

Warriors coach Steve Kerr and general manager Bob Myers know what this night meant to both Durant and Welts, each wishing they could go back in time to watch Welts running around doing every job necessary to help make the Sonics go.

Welts touched on those early days during his Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame speech last month.

“His speech was so great in Springfield recalling those days when he was just a kid and Bill Russell was calling him ‘white boy down the hall,'” Kerr said. “He said that was his name for about a year. I love the thought of Rick as a young kid just in love with basketball and being able to grow up next to the game. Very similar to my childhood growing up with UCLA basketball as a ballboy. It’s so amazing to be able to experience that as a kid when you love a sport so much to be a part of a team. He was a big part of the Sonics.”

Myers, the former sports agent who had clients in Seattle, understood the magnitude of this night.

For a city. For Durant. For Welts.

“I know how special the Sonics were. Yeah, Rick, it’s kind of like closing the loop in his life,” Myers said. “I’m sure he would love to see an NBA team back up here. A young Rick Welts sweeping the floors is pretty cool to think about. I’m sure he must have so many emotions going through his mind right now, especially just coming off the Hall of Fame. It’s a great story.”