‘My goal is to normalize’

Gay people have made strides in many sectors of American professional life. An openly gay man runs Apple, presides as the governor of Colorado, and an open lesbian runs a Fortune 500 company. But in the highest reaches of men’s basketball, gay people are almost invisible.

In 2011, 58-year-old Phoenix Suns CEO Rick Welts came out, becoming the league’s first openly gay executive. A longtime marketing whiz who hatched the idea for an All-Star Weekend, Welts and his announcement were well-received in league circles. That was 11 years ago.

Business operations, where Welts worked, and basketball operations (known to most fans as “the front office”) have long been separate entities in the NBA. In many cities, like Phoenix, the two are housed miles apart. One is staffed by people who make their living in the disciplines you can find in just about any business — sales, marketing, legal, accounting, human resources.

The team’s training facility houses basketball operations, and it’s an entirely different planet. The din of pounding music can be heard emanating from the players’ weight room. Sweats are the predominant attire. Players, coaches, personnel scouts and athletic trainers roam the halls.

Ryan Resch, 29, works in basketball operations for the Suns, where he serves as vice president of strategy and evaluation for the Suns and essentially functions as the front office’s chief-of-staff. He attends to the big-picture responsibilities of team-building and runs staff-wide meetings alongside general manager James Jones, who has been a mentor to him.

This past winter, Resch came out to Jones, then the rest of the Suns’ staff. He is the first openly gay person in league history to work basketball operations in an NBA front office.

“Ultimately my goal is to normalize for people in and out of the league the existence of gay men and women on the basketball side,” Resch says.

“His coming out was not a big deal in our day to day operations or my personal relationship with Ryan,” said Luke Loucks, who worked under Resch in Phoenix, played four years of basketball at Florida State and recently joined Mike Brown’s coaching staff in Sacramento. “We respect his courage and his decision to let us know, but it really didn’t change anything — because it shouldn’t.”

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Resch’s entry into the world of basketball was not unlike many young hoop fans. He just wanted to be around the game. After his sophomore year at Baylor University, he reached out to Bears coach Scott Drew to see if there was anything he could do to help the men’s basketball team. Drew was happy to oblige Resch’s aspiration. Starting in the 2012-13 season, Resch was named a student manager, handling such glamorous tasks as doing the team’s laundry and buying groceries for the locker room.

Resch was a military kid who moved from place to place, a world tour that included stops in Germany, North Dakota and Las Vegas. On his conservative Baptist campus, he threw himself into basketball and his studies, chalking up the tiny space campus social life occupied in his life to a wholesale commitment to the team. He graduated in 2014.

After a year at the University of Missouri in pursuit of a doctorate in political science, Resch returned to Waco as the men’s team’s graduate assistant, with responsibilities that included data analysis and scouting. He couldn’t quit basketball.

“I had a difficult time letting that team environment go,” Resch says. “When I returned to the team environment at the Big 12 tournament that year, it felt familial, and it felt fulfilling in a way that had been lacking being away from it.”

During his second stint at Baylor, Resch was offered an internship with the Phoenix Suns, beginning his rapid rise in the organization. A year later, he began full-time as a liaison between the analytics group and the coaching staff. Like so many across the globe, Resch took mental inventory of his life during the COVID-19 stoppage. When he did, a realization surfaced that had long been sublimated.

“I finally told myself, ‘You need to stop running away from the obvious, and the obvious is that you’re gay,'” he says. “That’s probably something that I knew the entire time, but that path to acceptance was rocky, and far longer than it should have been.”

We spoke to Resch exclusively about coming out, his time as a young basketball executive in Phoenix and the importance of representation in the NBA.

How did you first come out to the Suns?

My thought was, ‘If I’m gonna do this, then I’m going to do it the right way,’ and I wasn’t going to hide behind it any longer. I told [Phoenix general manager] James [Jones] in my office randomly one day, after practice. We were playing Miami at home and I wanted to bring somebody I was seeing at the time to the game and have him sit with me in our executive suite. And I obviously can’t do that unless you tell the other executives whom you’re bringing. In true James fashion — he has been referred to as the best teammate of all time by several of his former teammates — it was amongst the most nondescript conversations we’ve ever had. By that, I mean there was a beauty in how uneventful it was, because he was just so accepting and so generous and kind about it from the jump. And that gave me the kind of assurance that everything was going to be OK on the work front. After that, there was no grand pronouncement to the staff as a whole. I just started living who I actually am at work.

That’s a dramatic trip, from an analytics intern in 2017 to a VP who’s asking James Jones whether you can bring a guy you’re seeing to a game.

I came to Phoenix the summer of 2017 as a full-time employee, and happened to start around the same time as James. We have similar personalities and share a bunch of common interests, so we immediately developed a good working relationship. One of my biggest goals from the start of my career dating back to Baylor was to make data relatable in a basketball sense. If we can’t frame all that advanced data and modeling work or the results in a language that coaches and front office executives can understand, then we’re failing in our job as analysts. And in order to do that, I had to learn the game in my own way.

When James first began, he and I would have in-depth tactical and strategic discussions about X’s and O’s, and I was very fortunate that he trusted me and didn’t view me as just another data person. I’d learned a lot from [former Suns associate and interim head coach] Jay Triano, who is brilliant in his offensive thinking, and James, who’s also so good with X’s & O’s, buoyed that. The coaching-slash-tactical side really appealed to me, but James made it clear to me that he saw a much higher capacity for me in the role of macro-level, organizational-building of the front office. As James became interim general manager, I took on a much more holistic role in the front office.

In 2019, he elevated me to director of basketball strategy to oversee the building out of an analytics department. Our goal, as we entered that next season [2019-20], was to raise the floor of the organization and make the Phoenix Suns competitive again. After the league shut down in March 2020, we scratched and clawed and argued to be a part of the NBA bubble. I think all of us can say that the bubble really changed the trajectory of our group. That next season, James gave me the title of chief-of-staff, a role I was effectively performing, but the title kind of legitimized it in a way to everybody else. This past season, I served as vice president of basketball strategy and evaluation.

Here you are in the NBA fast lane, moving quickly into a senior position with one of the NBA’s best teams. How are you navigating this other part of your identity — or are you managing it at all?

Let me go back a few years to college, because you really only know what is normal relative to what you see as normal. And during those years, I did not understand relationships — and I’m speaking of romantic relationships. I never felt a strong pull internally to find a woman, or find a wife in a setting where it’s fairly common for most men to do so, and that’s especially something people are looking for at Baylor.

In order to fill that void in my life, I drowned myself in the basketball team. As a military kid, it provided a very stable environment where, for the first time in my life, I had a team, a group who weren’t going anywhere. I wasn’t moving. I knew that the staff, and these people I worked with, were going to be around in my life and there was a lot of value to that.

When I arrived in Phoenix, I got through the first couple years again doing the same thing. I tried to distract myself with my career while also trying to hide the truth inside of me, which I’m starting to realize is, ‘Hey, man, You’re probably not completely straight, and that’s why you’re having a very difficult time putting work to the side and committing to finding a girlfriend.’ Then the pandemic hit, and like so many people I had my anchor ripped away, which was the team. The amount of uncertainty and free time really allowed me to take a step back in my life and to realize that this is not permanent — basketball is not permanent, the Phoenix Suns are not permanent, your career is not permanent. I needed to put myself out there.

I had dated women in the past, and I began doing it again and developed a couple of relationships throughout that time frame, which was not easy during the pandemic. It eventually reached a point for me where I could no longer run from my own reality. I finally told myself, ‘Stop drowning yourself in work, stop trying to hide behind all of that as an excuse for not just confronting who you are and what you are.’

The chief of staff in the Suns’ front office, Resch came out to general manager James Jones in early January. “It was amongst the most nondescript conversations we’ve ever had,” Resch says. “There was a beauty in how uneventful it was.” Jesse Rieser for ESPN

When and how did you move from trying to date women to confronting the reality you are gay?

After Baylor won the national championship [last] April, I was talking to a couple of members of their staff. They were telling me, ‘We’re beyond excited to have won this national championship, but it doesn’t change who you are. It doesn’t change your life. It doesn’t change what’s important in your life.’ Then two months later, I remember sitting there when [the Suns] were up 2-0 in the Finals against Milwaukee, and realizing, if we win this title, I won’t necessarily feel fulfilled in my life. I’ll be happy and I’ll be excited that we’ve done what we set out to do, but I won’t feel fulfilled.

Once I fully reflected on all of that, I finally separated myself from Ryan as the No. 2 of the Phoenix Suns front office. I finally looked at my personal life and I realized just how deeply unhappy I was. The hardest part then was saying, ‘What are you afraid of? Why are you actually afraid to admit who you are and tell the world who you are?’

When I decided to come out this season, I knew I was going to go all in and and open myself up to be vulnerable with my colleagues — who are extremely close friends — and to my people at Baylor, to my actual family, to my best friends, and, put myself out there and not hide it, not run from it any longer.

How did it go?

It was jarring to me when that process began, how easy it became relative to how difficult the build up to it was. What I did not realize until I did fully come out and put myself forward was the community that I would receive, not just incredible support from the people in my life, but other people outside of it — and that representation and acceptance was huge.

I often tell people that one of the reasons that I became more confident in accepting who I was and what I could be is — though it might sound cliched — the letter Tim Cook wrote almost a decade ago. There was comfort in knowing that if the CEO of Apple, one of the most valuable companies in the world, is gay, then why can’t there be a gay basketball operations executive in the NBA without repercussion? Now closeted college managers know they can have a path to basketball operations, and not be relegated solely to the business side.

A number of Suns employees have alleged racist and misogynistic behavior by Suns owner Robert Sarver and others in the organization, and the NBA is currently investigating the Suns. Have you had any interaction with Sarver since you came out?

I hadn’t seen him or had a chance to talk to him in person for a few months after I came [out] to James and the rest of the organization. My then-boyfriend had been coming to games during that period. When I told Robert a couple of weeks ago, he was amazing. He told me, “I’m so happy you feel comfortable enough to live as who you are, and bring someone special to you to a game.” We spoke about Rick Welts. The best part of the conversation was our discussion about how it’s the quality of the work that will determine my trajectory professionally in the franchise. It’s about merit.

How do you see your role in building organization best practices amid the news reports, and the uncertainty of the NBA’s investigation?

So far as improving the culture, who I am will help do that. Empathy and professionalism will be the signature of that culture under the leadership of James and me. That’s noteworthy. I can’t speak to other’s experiences with Robert, but mine have been positive.

What other reservations about coming out did you have, or even having this conversation publicly?

I’m not a very forward-facing person — it’s not my instinct. I like to keep to myself, and don’t like the spotlight or the attention. I try to exemplify what James and Monty do here, which is team-building and being a good teammate. So while I didn’t have a lot of reservations about coming out, my only concern was, for the first time, being public facing. At the same [time], I also realized that it’s important, both from a representation standpoint, but also a normalization standpoint. If I had somebody come before me in basketball ops I probably could’ve reconciled my identity long before I did.

Why isn’t there an openly gay active player in the NBA?

I think people expect a far simpler answer than what gay men are able to accurately give when asked that question — it’s not necessarily as cut and dry as you might think. When we’re talking about players and coaches and other people within basketball operations — many of whom are in their early twenties to their thirties, and still in the developmental years of their lives — I think we have to remember that they’re potentially doing what I did and filling that void. I am one of the people who does believe that we ask far too much of the young men in the league. We ask 19- and 20-year-olds to be the faces of multi-billion dollar franchises. We ask 21- and 22-year-olds to perform at the highest levels during the most stressful moments in front of the entire basketball world. And we ask 23- and 24-year-olds to be concerned about hundreds of millions of dollars. When you have all of that external pressure and consideration about what’s going on around you, you really don’t have much time to think about what’s going on within you.

I’m extremely fortunate that my actualized risk is completely different from the perception of risk that I created in my head. But for a player who’s concerned about risking sponsorships, or extremely high-dollar contracts, or dealing with media questions or podium questions when they’re in the middle of a playoff run, that’s difficult. We don’t necessarily provide people in this industry with the privacy, time or space to become comfortable with who they are. That’s why it was so revelatory when DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love came out for mental health awareness. That was a very large step forward for professional sports, because for the first time we allowed athletes to be introspective, to figure out who they are, what they’re dealing with and come forward and say it. I’m just not sure that the NBA and its surrounding entities have changed that perception of risk.

What would you tell a closeted player who approached you to ask why he should come out?

I would ask him just how rational the risk in his head is because that’s what I had to reckon with — separating irrational risk versus rational risk. I quickly discovered after I came out to friends, family, coworkers that the irrational risk far outweighed the rational risk, and so far there has been very little rational risk that has actually come to fruition. Your life will get better because you’re finally living in an aligned state with who you are. If you want to reach that kind of personal joy and that kind of personal fulfillment, then it is certainly something that you should do.