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Feb 14, 3:01 AM EST

Golden State's Rick Welts pours longtime love of NBA, experience into new arena


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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Standing in the rain seven stories above concrete, construction workers, steel and mud, Rick Welts is beaming at an arena project that is absolutely his baby.

"It's real," Welts says, wearing a bright yellow jacket and hard hat for the work site tour. "It's happening."

After years in the making, too.

The chief operating officer of the Golden State Warriors has been entrusted by team owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber to be the unofficial foreman as Chase Center goes up in the Mission Bay district of San Francisco for a scheduled opening of late summer 2019. The goal is to build one of the top entertainment venues in the world, right up with The O2 in London and Madison Square Garden for attracting the best music shows.

Welts has been an NBA junkie since his early days growing up in Seattle, where he got his start as a SuperSonics ball boy at 16. Later, he got the keys to the Seattle Center Coliseum and, specifically, the laundry room.

Welts, who turned 65 in January and is the first openly gay NBA executive, can lean not only on that time with the Sonics but also his experience in the league office and with the Phoenix Suns to see what things work and don't work when it comes to running a franchise and building an arena.

"I know his experience in the league and the league office has helped him immensely in understanding the business and how to operate a franchise," Golden State coach Steve Kerr says. "But you can learn all that stuff, you have to have the personal skills to make everything function. I think that's where Rick really has it. It's a combination of his vast NBA experience and just his humanity and his way with people."

There have been more meetings than Welts can count, and when the number 500 is thrown out as a guess, even that seems low to him.

"That was just last week," he jokes.

"And getting it done in San Francisco? Mission impossible, right? And it's happening," Welts notes. While he's not spending his own money, his name has been signed to many a big check in this process.

The arena will be topped out in steel by August and have a roof by Halloween if all continues to go on schedule. A tad superstitious at times, Welts will knock his fist on a metal beam if necessary to keep it all on track.

Far below his initial vantage point, Welts stands in the slick mud at what eventually will become center court. He points to the side that will be a theater entrance - so well thought out that those patrons arriving for a play won't necessarily know otherwise that they're inside a basketball arena.

"There's nothing like actually seeing it," he says, "it brings it to life."

Sure, Welts takes a lot of pride in watching the arena get built, but quickly makes it clear, "We all do."

"I go down there two or three days a week, just to look," he says, grinning. "It's inspiring."

Modest, approachable and down to earth, Welts never makes it about him. His focus is first on all the people around him - the star players and everyone else in the franchise, from the top to bottom, people in the community who have made sacrifices and even the construction crews working long hours through that rainy day last month.

"This is it! This is great!" Welts declares, raising his arms in the air and still smiling ear to ear on a dreary Bay Area day.

As All-Star weekend approaches in Los Angeles, the Warriors hope they will be on the NBA's list soon enough to host the showcase event. Golden State boasts four All-Stars again this year: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.

"Well, he spearheaded the arena project and he's had to do all the behind-the-scenes stuff with political leaders. I've worked with Rick for 11 years now starting in '07 in Phoenix. He's one of my favorite people," Kerr says. "He's an unbelievable leader because he is inclusive, he communicates, he makes everybody feel good about their role in things. He is strong and sure of himself without being a know-it-all. So he's got great qualities as a leader because he's really just a good person to be around and makes you feel good about what you're doing."

The first six months starting Chase Center were spent digging down three stories to create area for parking, the main arena structure and adjacent practice facility.

By early next year, the building will be done and interior work will begin.

Welts can't wait, saying: "We're right on schedule for opening the summer of '19. No surprises so far, no issues with soil conditions or anything that could really delay the project. We're tracking really well."

"You see the growth and you see where he comes from. He worked his way up to this project," says Durant, a key face in the project's groundbreaking last year . "He's going to make it the best for the players and the fans and anybody that comes in there to perform. Anybody that just wants to come into that arena, he's going to make it the best arena in the world. Grateful that I get to play for an organization with such high hopes and big dreams and people like Rick that are looking to push the culture forward, as a culture of basketball and sports. He's just a great example to look at."

Welts first met Lacob and Guber more than six years ago, spending an afternoon at Lacob's home and having dinner when the discussion came up: "We think we would have a chance to move the Warriors back to San Francisco."

"I was like, 'Really?'" Welts recalls. "That more than anything else was like a 'Wow' for me. ... Imagine somebody saying, 'OK, you've spent 40 years doing this now you can take everything you think you've ever learned about your business, your industry and given a unique form that will never be duplicated and is going to last for decades, and have a chance to do it your way and better than anybody's ever done it.' If you're lucky, it's a once-in-a-career kind of opportunity. And everybody here feels that, because everybody contributes to it."

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