All-Star Q&A With Suns President Rick Welts
As NBA All-Star 2009 descends upon Phoenix this week, it begs the question: Who came up with the concept of an All-Star Weekend? Well, Suns.com didn’t have to go very far for its answer. Suns President and Chief Operating Officer Rick Welts sat down with Suns.com to explain his part in the origination of what many believe to be the greatest basketball celebration of all-time.
Suns.com: Could you give us some background as to what you were doing for the NBA when you first arrived at the league offices?
Rick Welts: My first job at the NBA was to try to be the first person that the league ever had to go out and talk to corporate sponsors about investing in the NBA.
I arrived at the league in 1982 after coming over from Seattle, where we had won a championship in 1979. We were the toast of the town, the first franchise in the city and the NBA was king.
At the time, I didn’t really understand where the NBA was in the early ‘80s, so I moved to New York and began working at the league office. If I would have had a round-trip ticket, I would have used it, because it was startling how poorly the NBA was thought of in the business community and really, amongst sports fans.
It was maybe the fourth most popular sports league at that time, and that’s if you’re not counting college sports. When I started going out and trying to talk to people controlling advertising and marketing budgets about aligning with the NBA, it really hit home how people felt about the league.
They were concerned about the way it was being run and about its future. None of it was good.
It was a little bit of a wake-up call to really realize what the world thought of the NBA at that point. It was very different from my experience.
But we had a very energetic guy by the name of David Stern who was the newly appointed Executive Vice President of Business and Legal Affairs at the NBA. He had been with the outside law firm that the NBA used and was brought in-house to start to build a business organization.
And as we were kind of banging our heads against the wall trying to put together a brand-new organization which really didn’t exist at the NBA at that point. I think I was the 32nd employee of the NBA… if you counted the mail room.
Suns.com: How did Stern want to turn around the NBA at that time?
Welts: Stern had kind of assembled a really young, really energetic group of believers about what the NBA could be, and we started trying to do the best we could to go out there and talk about what the NBA was going to become. We talked about the future because the present wasn’t something that a lot of people were very interested in with us.
In late 1983, probably about November, a couple of things had happened with the league. Larry O’Brien, who was the Commissioner of the NBA, had announced that he was leaving at the All-Star Weekend (February of 1984) of that year. The owners had elected David Stern, who was a complete unknown publicly at that point, to take over at that point as commissioner of the NBA.
When he started, Stern had said that one of his priorities was going to be to getting back in touch with the history of the game. Stern felt that the NBA had a great heritage and history, but we were really completely disconnected from that, hadn’t embraced it and hadn’t sold it.
The league’s history was definitely going to be one of the themes that we were going to be put forth as he took over as commissioner. So we kept that in mind as we began to plan that season’s All-Star Weekend in November of 1983.
It’s funny that the planning for the All-Star Game used to start in November, considering that planning takes place years ahead of time now. We were going to Denver in three months to play an All-Star Game and at that point, All-Star Weekend consisted of really just that… the game.
We had one hotel, we brought people in, we had a nice little banquet on Saturday night, we played the game on CBS in the afternoon and then everyone went home. That was pretty much it.
Suns.com: What was your inspiration for coming up with a second day of events before the All-Star Game?
Welts: When I first started at the NBA office, I was staying in a little hotel room a couple of blocks from the office in Manhattan. While I was watching television one night, I saw that baseball put together an old timers’ game.
I was watching the news coverage of it unfold, and I can’t remember what his name was, but some 60 year-old guy got up to the plate and actually hit a home run out of the park. It got tons of coverage from the media, and they were all talking about what a great event it was.
But what really caught my eye was the fact that all throughout the outfield there was all of this Cracker Jack signage because it was sponsored by Cracker Jack. Keep in mind that my job kind of depended upon the ability to bring in companies who would associate with the NBA.
So that was kind of rolling around in my head as something that might be interesting and that might fit in with what David Stern was thinking about, when he talked about getting in touch with the history of our game.
Suns.com: What appealed to the NBA about trying the idea out in Denver?
Welts: Denver was an organization that had tremendous heritage in the ABA prior to joining the NBA. So a couple of us got together with Carl Scheer, who was the general manager of the Denver Nuggets, which was the team that hosted All-Star Weekend in 1984.
Back in 1976, if you talked to anybody in Denver, they were in the old McNichols Sports Arena for the ABA’s All-Star Game. That weekend, the ABA staged their slam dunk contest, which would become an instant part of basketball legend.
Dr. J created the buzz around the first slam dunk contest. (Walter Iooss Jr./NBAE/Getty Images)
At that point, a pretty well-known player by the name of Julius Erving had done something no one had ever seen before. He picked up the basketball, walked to the other end of the court, ran down the center of the court, took off from the free throw line, dunked the basketball and won the ABA slam dunk contest over some really spectacular dunkers from the ABA.
That memory not only became instant basketball lore in the world of hoops, but legend in the city of Denver, as well. So Carl came in, and we were talking about starting to plan the All-Star Game in November.
His idea was that instead of doing whatever CBS will do at halftime, we should stage the slam dunk contest again. That was kind of interesting, but the problem was that CBS had other programming and they didn’t really want to be doing that at halftime.
So I kind of blended the slam dunk contest idea and the idea of this old timers’ game together, and I went in and saw Stern and said that we should consider a second day of events. We could bring back a bunch of old players and stage an old timers’ game and start to get back in touch with the history of the game.
In addition, we could kind of celebrate Denver’s ABA heritage with a new generation of players in our own NBA slam dunk contest. He liked the idea.
So Stern and I trotted down to the other end of the office and went and saw Larry O’Brien – who interestingly enough – didn’t have a lot of commentary over our presentation. In fact, I really left thinking that there’s no way that this was ever going to happen.
It was his last weekend in office. I figured that he just wanted to go out with a nice weekend and this stuff could probably wait until the next commissioner took over. But to my surprise, probably a week later, word came back that Commissioner O’Brien had said that if it didn’t cost the NBA a nickel and we don’t embarrass him, we were free to try to put this thing together.
Suns.com: So how did you piece it together from that point?
Welts: For me, that was great because I had two things I thought sponsors might be interested in and we were off to the races at that point. We were able to get American Airlines and Schick to agree to sponsor the old timers’ game and we were able to make our first deal with Gatorade, which at that time, was a little Indiana-based company, to sponsor the slam dunk contest. So we got together with the really great staff at Denver and charged $5 a ticket to see if we could sell tickets to a second day of events. We decided to call it All-Star Saturday. And that’s when the luck happened.
From that point on, what actually transpired was pretty magical and kind of launched the NBA into a little bit of a different direction. It all took place right when David Stern was becoming commissioner, and right after that weekend.
Suns.com: Was it hard to find players who wanted to participate in the slam dunk contest?
Welts: Actually, it wasn’t hard. The one we really wanted was, of course, was Julius Erving, also known as “Dr. J.”
Julius was near the end of his career at that point, but was still one of the top players in the NBA. But we didn’t have any idea of whether or not he’d be willing to do it.
However, when he agreed to do it, it was really special. He made a tremendous difference in the kind of the buzz surrounding it, and we sold out the building.
We even convinced an upstart television network called ESPN, which really wasn’t doing very much live programming at that point, to tape it, create a program and to show it later.
That ended up being very lucky for us, too, because the show that they created ended up winning every award that there was to win in sports broadcasting at that time. They received a ton of accolades for their coverage of what transpired that day and proceeded to air that tape 100 times.
Suns.com: What were some of the criticisms towards the league at that point in time?
Welts: At that point in time, you have to understand, the NBA was not considered be a really well-run league. It was the first league, fairly or not, tainted with accusations of drug use by its players.
There was a very strong prevailing theory that the league was too black for America to ever completely embrace. Those were all reasons people gave for why franchises were struggling, and there was more talk about which teams might be going out of business than there was about adding teams sometime in the near future.
There was a very negative feeling about the players. There was an equally negative feeling about the owners.
Suns.com: So what happened to turn things around?
Welts: Probably the biggest turning point for the league was the collective bargaining agreement, where for the first time, the players agreed to a system that tied their compensation to revenues. The argument was that if players, the owners and the league could work together to grow the revenues of the league, the owners would be committed to paying out a percentage of those revenues of the players.
This was the first formulation of the league’s salary cap. With the salary cap came the players’ absolute commitment that they would stand together and not have any room for drug use in sports. If any player was found using drugs, he would be jeopardizing his opportunity to play in the NBA. That was the first time a players union had embraced a drug policy.
I think what happened is that it caught the attention of fans and it caught the attention of the business community. These were two huge steps that no league had ever taken before.
The first step was towards creating some sort of economic system that was very different from the one that existed in the past. The second step was seeing the players be the ones to step up, rather than management, to say that:
1) The accusations regarding drug use are really overblown and not accurate and...
2) We’re prepared as players to say that any player that engages in using illegal drugs would not have a career in the NBA.
Those two things were a seed-change in what the public’s perception of what the league could be. We set out at that point to do some things as a league that would end up working out.
Suns.com: What was the underlying philosophy of how the league should be marketed?
Welts: In our view, the players and the way the game was covered on television made the players the heroes in our game. Rather than having the team first and players be secondary in terms of how we marketed the league, we decided to utilize these amazing personalities that were playing the game.
Because of the way our sport is televised, our fans see their faces and facial expressions during a game. They’re running around in their underwear, they’re not covered up from head to toe.
That’s an advantage, not a disadvantage and we should embrace that and do everything we could do to make the players the heroes. Historically, that strategy was very different what other leagues had done.
A lot of NBA owners looked at the ABA and saw the slam dunk contest and the red, white and blue ball as gimmicky. Even for O’Brien to embrace the idea that the slam dunk was an integral part of the game, instead of something that really wasn’t worthy of the NBA, was a pretty big decision at the time.
I think there was a reason to try the All-Star Saturday concept in Denver because of the city’s history and it was a way to honor its ABA heritage. I think there was more of a reason to try it there than in other places.
Suns.com: How did the first All-Star Weekend go and when did you know that the concept of an All-Star Weekend was going to be a success?
Welts: I knew when I was walking into the Brown Palace Hotel as people were arriving on that Friday before the game. The buzz in the lobby of having John Havlicek, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and all of these players that the league really turned their back on – hanging out in the lobby – was a “wow” moment for the current players.
For the players that were invited back, it was really the first time the league had tried to do something to acknowledge the contribution that they had made. For the media, it was a treasure drove of stories that had never really been a part of All-Star before because the media was catching up with players that had pretty much dropped out of sight.
The player introductions for the old timer’s game were amazing. A lot of the top 50 players in the history of the game were there.
The introductions and the memories shown on the screen of those players in their prime were a lot better than actually trying to watch them play at their advanced ages. We only ended up doing the old timers’ game for a few years, and unfortunately, we even had a couple of serious injuries.
After the players retired, they weren’t in any kind of playing shape, let alone NBA-playing shape. It turned out that it was not as much fun as watching old timers play baseball.
The tradition of including former players in the celebration of basketball lives on to this day at All-Star, we’re just not putting any of the players or the spectators through the torture of an old timers’ game anymore.
Suns.com: How did the idea expand from there? When did you add the three-point shootout?
Welts: From that first All-Star Weekend on, we went on a roll. During 1986’s All-Star Weekend in Dallas, we incorporated the three-point shootout.
We didn’t have a shooting event to put into the weekend and several of us came up with the concept of a shooting contest from the three-point line. We took the idea Stern, who thought it had some merit, and told us to go test it.
The Suns' Larry Nance won the first-ever slam dunk contest in 1984.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)
We decided to take it to a few CBA games and try it out. So here was this game that we’d invented that consisted of a player shooting against the clock from behind the three-point line off of these racks of balls. Really, it was the identical contest that we have today.
When we came back with the videotape, we thought that it was really awful. We tried it a couple of different ways at it just wasn’t really good.
In fact, we were probably more nervous about that contest than anything else we had done. The problem was that we weren’t smart enough to take into consideration was the difference in skill level of the CBA players and the skill level of NBA players.
However, when Larry Bird stepped onto the court for the first time and made the vast majority of his three-point shots, the place went crazy and we knew we had a good one. There was a lot of luck involved in that one, too, because when we tested it, it wasn’t nearly as exciting as when NBA players got onto the court and did it.
Suns.com: Did you think that this All-Star concept was going to work? Why did it?
Welts: When I look back to how All-Star Weekend began, there was no possible way that I saw this becoming what it is today. I was trying to save my job.
I needed to find some sponsors who were willing to take some money to associate with the NBA. It really took on a life of its own after that first year.
I think there’s another thing that gets left out of the equation of the NBA’s turnaround and some of factors that contributed to it: the hierarchy of a newsroom. Very few understood that the media at that point was still primarily dominated by print journalists. Print journalists were the beat writers and columnists that followed our sport or any sport at the time.
The hierarchy of the newsroom was that the lower person on the totem pole was the one that was assigned the NBA beat. If you were a more seasoned or experienced writer, you were covering baseball, football, or in some cases, major college sports.
So the person that got the NBA beat was usually the newest, youngest writer in the newsroom. Much more often than not, the NBA writer was much more likely to be a female or a person of color than you would find covering the other sports.
So as the NBA’s momentum began to build, within the newsroom itself, the prestige of those writers grew with it. As a result of that, we had a lot of journalists really rooting for the NBA’s success.
It’s a story that, unless you were in that world of journalism at that time, would be hard to understand. We had a lot of very young and talented writers that, for the first time, began to get recognition because they happened to be covering the NBA at that time. There was a lot of excitement and a lot of people committed to it becoming successful.
Suns.com: Did you come up with some ideas didn’t work or that you haven’t implemented yet?
Welts: There were some ideas that have come and gone. We used to have a competition called 2-Ball, which was kind of a new version of what we played as kids called Pepsi Hot-Shot. That lasted a couple of years and didn’t work out too well. The only one from its inception that has been in every All-Star Saturday since it started would be the three-point shootout.
We’ve talked in the past about ways to highlight the international players a little more. We talked about playing international players vs. American players as the All-Star Game. I think having an international venue for the All-Star Game is something that has been kicked around.
We have a whole new generation of arenas being built in Europe. In London and Berlin there are some NBA-quality buildings that are either completed or under construction. It might be possible to have it in place like that, but it’s a challenge schedule-wise to move continents and come back.
Suns.com: Why is having All-Star in Phoenix good for the city?
Welts: The reason for the Suns to do it was really to showcase the city of Phoenix in a way that the people from outside of Phoenix have not seen before. People have not seen it before because so much of what will be an integral part of this weekend didn’t exist before this year.
We couldn’t have done this event if it wasn’t for the brand-new Sheraton hotel, a 1000-room hotel that was constructed with public financing. We could not have done it without the $600 million expansion of the Phoenix Convention Center. The hotel opened in November and the convention center opened in January.
The icing on the cake is people’s ability to get downtown by using the light rail. It just opened at the end of December. Without those things in place, we really couldn’t have done it.
When the city of Phoenix agreed to take on a lot of responsibility in cost and in hosting the weekend, the idea was to keep the events really focused on downtown. That is one part of the commitment that the NBA has been really great in living up to.
It’s going to feel really different that n the Super Bowl, which was great. We hope we have a lot more Super Bowls in this area. But if you were in downtown Phoenix for the Super Bowl, you really didn’t have a great feeling that it was taking place here.
This will be very, very different because there will be three nights of events in the US Airways Center and over 100,000 people attending Jam Session in downtown Phoenix. We’re creating an All-Star Block Party literally across the street from the arena that will be a town square for the whole All-Star experience.
It’s really going to bring downtown Phoenix alive, and the media that covers the event are going to take those images around the world – from Beijing, to Dubai, to Buenos Aires.
Two-hundred different countries will receive broadcasts from Phoenix. It’s an opportunity to show the rest of the world what we in this city already know: That Phoenix is a great place to live, to visit and to do business. That’s a really good reason to do it.
Suns.com: Is there a financial benefit to the team hosting All-Star?
Welts: There is no financial benefit to the team and in some ways, because it’s the NBA’s event and not the Suns’ event, most of our best customers and fans really will not get to be in the arena for the All-Star Game on Sunday. We did a lot of preparation and talked to a lot of those people beforehand so it’s what they expected and understood. Those fans understand the benefits that the city is going to receive by hosting it.
Suns.com: What is your most memorable All-Star moment?
Welts: I think that I’m still taken a back to that first one and how there wasn’t any orchestration to how the events were going to take place. I remember Julius Erving taking his two kids and spending most of the time sitting on the floor with them between dunks as they coached him on what he should be doing.
And for his last dunk, as only Julius could do with no prompting, he picked up the ball and did what he had exactly done in his last dunk at the ABA dunk contest. The place went absolutely berserk. It was reliving a moment that was already basketball legend and it was really the last moment of that first All-Star Saturday. For the league, it clearly ended it on a note where we knew we were on to something and that there were better things to come in the future.
Suns.com: But didn’t Dr. J lose to former Sun Larry Nance?
Welts: (chuckling) And there was some poetic justice in him passing the baton there to Larry Nance.
Suns.com: What is the host team’s job for All-Star?
Welts: Our job is really to connect the scores of people that are working for the league to the resources that they need here in Phoenix to make the game happen. One thing that I’m very proud of for our city is, in talking to the NBA people, the level of coordination between our mayor’s office, our city manager’s office, and our police and fire departments.
You really don’t find that in a lot of other cities. Because of that, we’re very optimistic that this is going to be a successful event. But the fact that our city government works as well as it does shouldn’t be something - which we as residents here - shouldn’t take for granted. It pays real dividends because it functions in that way.
Suns.com: How is this All-Star going to be different from the past couple of years?
Welts: I think that there’s going to be a sense of comfort in having it here. The last two years have been unusual All-Stars.
Las Vegas two years ago was the first time we had done it in a non-NBA city, and let’s just say that it wasn’t exactly what everybody had hoped. Last year, I think there was a lot of anxiety about going to New Orleans so close to Katrina and whether or not the city was ready to host it.
I think it turned out to be a terrific success but there was definitely a subplot of Katrina through the whole weekend. I think it was a very proud week for the NBA and it was also very out of the ordinary. I think this is a time right now, with the economic conditions and with everything that is going on in our country, where people are looking for a comfortable place that feels like home. I think for people around the NBA, coming to Phoenix is going to be nice.
It’s going to be reassuring. It’s going to be what they expect of the NBA. There’s not going to be a lot of unknowns. I think we are kind of gathering together as a family in a really difficult time, and I think Phoenix is the perfect place to be doing it.
Suns.com: What do you think the theme of this year’s All-Star will be?
Welts: I think the real theme of the weekend is downtown. I think that’s what people will see that they’ve never seen before. And frankly, downtown will be unlike it’s ever been in Phoenix before. There will be 200,000 people downtown from Thursday through Monday.
That is a number of people that will be on the street, the number of people that will be in restaurants and the number of people that will just around and having fun. It will really be the realization, for those who care about this city, of what we believe we can be on an ongoing basis.