2017-06-25 23:35:02
Essay: At the Pride Parade, the N.B.A. Embraces Hard-Won Victories

23:35, June 25 268 0

Rick Welts, the president of the Golden State Warriors, arrived at New York’s Pride March on Sunday with his partner, Todd Gage, wearing a T-shirt that read, “Proud Champions.” While the shirt commemorated the Warriors’ recent romp through the N.B.A. playoffs, its graphics were not confined to the team’s blue and gold but were instead shaded in the colors of the rainbow.

Jason Collins, who in 2013 became the first active N.B.A. player to come out as gay, told Welts that he would love to get his hands on one of the shirts as they prepared to board the league’s float in the parade, an event the N.B.A. was participating in for the second year.

“We had to scramble to get them in time,” said Welts, who assured Collins that his own shirt would be forthcoming.

Before its launch down Fifth Avenue, the float slowly began to fill with executives and officials from the N.B.A. and the W.N.B.A. Bill Kennedy, one of the N.B.A.’s most respected referees, posed for photographs with three young women who were also taking part in the parade. They practically squealed when they spotted him. Kennedy said that more strangers had been recognizing him since he came out as gay about 18 months ago.

“But they usually don’t get as happy as that,” Kennedy said.

The N.B.A. stood out at the parade; it was the only major professional sports league to have a float in the parade. And yet, no active player since Collins has come out as gay — a thorny issue, one that even Welts struggles to explain.

“I think the hardest thing is always active players, and I get it,” he said. “I don’t know. It’s hard. We’re dealing with very young people.”

And those young people, he said, are susceptible to pressure — pressure to adhere to traditional concepts of team chemistry and to avoid creating so-called distractions. But there is movement and growing acceptance. On Sunday, the Warriors’ Kevin Durant tweeted his support: “Proud that our president @RickWelts is representing the @Warriors and joining with the @nba and @wnba family in this year’s #NYCPride March!”

When the N.B.A. made its debut at the parade last year, the league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, showed up to offer his support. In his mind, that meant marching beside the float. But then Collins pulled him aboard. Silver was enthralled by the experience.

“I just loved being on a float,” Silver said. “If I had only known what it was like to be in a parade! I’ve been telling teams: ‘You’ve got to a win a championship, because being in a parade is unbelievable.’”

On Sunday, Silver considered himself to be of particular value because of his throwing arm. He could target distant spectators with the keepsake towels that the league distributed along the route — 5,000 towels in all. The key, Silver said, was to ball them up before launching them into crowd; otherwise they were liable to get caught in the wind. He was the float’s de facto T-shirt gun, except for towels.

“I’m a human cannon,” he said.

In truth, he spent most of his time at the front of the float with his wife, Maggie Grise, as he waved to the crowd. Like the rest of his colleagues, he carried a rainbow flag.

Kennedy, the referee, took up residence at the back of the float, next to the D.J. Tiff McFierce, who blasted an endless stream of upbeat tracks — from Michael Jackson to the Spice Girls to the Commodores. When McFierce worked on the float last year, she said, she was so caught up in the emotion of the event that she nearly cried.

“Oh,” McFierce said, “we turn up.”

Kennedy, 50, announced that he was gay in December 2015, not long after guard Rajon Rondo, then of the Sacramento Kings, directed a gay slur at him during a game. Six months later, Kennedy was representing the N.B.A. on its inaugural float at the parade.

“It was an exhilarating thing to be able to know that the people that I work for and the company that I work for are as open and inclusive as they are,” Kennedy said. “For me personally, it was a long time coming. So to be able to share and be out and be open and not worry about where you go or who you’re talking to — just drop the baggage, let it go and be you. That’s what this is about: Just be you.”

On Sunday, Kennedy seemed to know the lyrics to every song. He rolled up his sleeves and danced. Up at the front of the float, Welts surveyed the crowd below.

“Look at how young it is,” he said.

Welts, 64, recalled a different time in his life, when he was younger and living in New York and working at N.B.A. headquarters. He kept his sexual orientation private. He did not march in any Pride parades. And he never could have imagined that the league would someday have its own float.

“Unthinkable,” he said. “I went to 17 N.B.A. holiday parties while I was there, and I never asked a woman to be my date or anything like that. I went by myself. I’m sure people figured it out.”

But still, Welts said, no one at the league office asked about his personal life, most likely out of respect for him. His boundaries were clear, he said. It was not until 2011, when he was president of the Phoenix Suns, that he came out as gay in an interview with The New York Times. He received thousands of supportive emails, he said. He printed all of them out and put them in binders.

“What’s most gratifying to me now is that I hear from people who are with other N.B.A. teams,” he said, “and for whatever reason, they don’t feel like they’re in a position today to take that step of publicly being out. It’s a responsibility but a real honor for me to be that person who can say: ‘You know what? This is going to work out all right for you.’ That’s a big step. I never had that person.”

On Sunday, as he looked out upon the sea of people that had filled the streets of Manhattan, Welts found that he was surrounded by them.