The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will enshrine an incredibly impressive list of individuals when the class of 2018 officially joins basketball royalty in Springfield on Friday evening. This year’s inductees include giants of the game, from world champions in both the men’s and women’s leagues, to Olympic gold medalists and coaches who have revolutionized the sport. However, there’s one person who stands out to me both on paper and, more importantly, as a human being.
Many of you reading this are probably wondering who I am and how the heck I’m relevant enough to be writing a letter about a soon-to-be Hall of Famer. Honestly, I’m asking myself that same question. You see, I’m not a former NBA player or high-ranking executive. I’m a normal person who was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time when Rick Welts decided it was time to start the final chapter of his career by taking a job with the underdog Golden State Warriors in 2011.
That’s when my life changed.
I had been with the Warriors for two-plus seasons at that time. Many fans only know the Warriors as the dynamic franchise they are today with outstanding leadership, championship pedigree and a global presence. However, when the Warriors offered me my first real job out of college in 2009, the organization was vastly different than it is today. After my first two seasons, Joe Lacob and Peter Guber purchased the team for a then-record price and that’s when everything changed for me.
Like any good leaders, Joe and Peter waited a full season before making the prominent managerial changes that most of us thought were inevitable. At that point, I suddenly became a “free-agent” without a VP, department or boss. I was asked to fill in as the temporary EA (executive assistant) to the owner and interim president that summer while they figured out a long-term plan. A few months later, I remember sitting at my desk and overhearing our interim president chatting with our VP of marketing about someone named Rick Welts.
He said we needed to make sure Rick had an assistant on day one when he arrived for his introductory press conference. They went back and forth about who could fill this role with the team’s new president. Do we hire someone from the outside? Do we see if he wants to bring an assistant with him from a previous stop? This was a big hire and we needed to get it right. A seemingly easy decision about who’s going to assist the new president was not as easy as it seemed given the current state of the organization.
I remember sitting at my desk as they went back and forth, tossing various names out at random. At that point, I stood up and said, “I’ll do it!” I honestly had no idea what I was doing or asking for, really, but I did know one thing: I needed a job. As a fill-in until they found a full-time person, I couldn’t afford not to try and, literally, I just stuck my neck out. With a complete lack of options to explore, they agreed to let me do it. Immediately, I sat back down at my desk and began researching “Rick Welts” as if he was the topic of my senior thesis. I was 25 years old and stepping into a role for which I had zero experience.
I quickly realized after the first Google search that I couldn’t mess this up. His resume blew me away. Rick Welts was extremely accomplished, I remember saying to myself. All of the incredible things that will lead him to the Hall of Fame this weekend were listed on every single search I did: his creation of NBA All-Star weekend, his marketing prowess behind the “Dream Team,” his involvement in the launch of the WNBA and, most recently, his front page story in The New York Times (becoming the highest ranking executive in sports to come out). I was intimidated and excited all at the same time. How lucky am I to have the opportunity to work with this man? Even if he decides to replace me with a more permanent hire down the road, I’m going to make sure I do everything in my power to earn his trust and confidence.
His first day in the office -- September 27, 2011 -- was the beginning of something special and, unquestionably, the launching pad to the best years of my life. Rick Welts walked into the Warriors practice facility that day for his introductory news conference and my life has never been the same. I learned very quickly that Google searches can only tell you so much about a person. They provide you the facts -- the accomplishments listed on a resume -- and that’s about it. They don’t tell you what a person is made of or about their character and class.
After nearly seven years working with him, I think I’m more than qualified to share many of the things that Google didn’t about Rick Welts, my Hall of Fame boss.
Rick gave a 25-year old girl a chance. He inherited this inexperienced kid as his Executive Assistant and believed in me, even when, quite possibly, I didn’t believe in myself. And, he enabled my role to grow into so much more. During those first few days in my new surroundings with Rick, I answered countless calls from people throughout the sports community -- from other teams, the NBA office, former players and employees, all saying the exact same thing: Rick Welts is the absolute best. You’ve hit the jackpot. We love him.
And now I know why.
Rick Welts is not just a Hall of Fame businessman, he’s a Hall of Fame person. Former UCLA coach John Wooden once said, “the true test of a man’s character is what he does when nobody’s looking.” If I didn’t know any better, I would think he was talking about Rick.
Rick is one of the most respected executives in all of sports, and yet the most humble and caring person I have ever had the pleasure to know, let alone work for each day. Rick is the first person to jump in the back seat of the car when riding to a meeting with others. He doesn’t care that he’s the most senior-ranking person in the car. Titles and rank don’t matter to him. Decency does. He never asks things of people that he can’t do for himself. To this day, I don’t think I can tell you what his favorite lunch meal consists of because he NEVER asks me to get him anything unless there’s a scheduling emergency. In that case, he’ll simply say, “pick up whatever is easiest for you.”
He still writes hand-written thank you notes -- and a lot of them! It’s a lost art in today’s world of texts and emails, but Rick, conservatively, writes 8-10 notes per week and takes the time to acknowledge the birthday reminders on his calendar with a phone call. He is often the quietest person in a meeting, but is always listening. He never cancels a meeting because he’s too tired, too busy or simply just doesn’t want to do it. With our recent stretch of good fortune with the Warriors and long playoff runs, there have been countless 2 a.m. arrivals after a series on the road and Rick will still be the first person in the office, not one to be late for his 8:30 meeting. In fact, late isn’t an option for Rick. He cares about people’s schedules and always makes time for them. I’ve never seen him usher someone out of his office when they knock on his door, busy as he may be. He just doesn’t do it.
He’s reached the mountaintop of his profession, but still stops every night on his way into Oracle Arena to give Nanette, the security guard, a hug and always checks in with Nenea at the check-in podium to see how she’s doing. He’s the first one to compliment someone for an award, usually in front of that person’s peers, making them feel extra special. He genuinely cares for people. Sure, that sounds simple, but the fact of the matter is, it’s rare, especially in high-pressure business, particularly in sports. Rick is unique and so richly deserves this moment on Friday night.
Our world needs more leaders with big hearts and small egos. I’m lucky to say that since that infamous day in 2011 when I blindly yelled “I’ll do it,” I’ve worked for someone who might have the biggest heart of them all.
Thank you, Rick. Thank you for making me feel special and setting the bar so high for everyone who has had the pleasure of working with you. Congratulations on your induction into the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2018. You are so much more than what Google told me and now, fittingly, you are poised to be positioned among the elite of the elite, right where you belong.
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Shari Knight has worked for the Golden State Warriors since 2009, most recently as Executive Assistant to Team President & Chief Operating Officer Rick Welts.