Kim Stone’s anxiety swelled with each keypad touch. It was a call she had made over and over and over again, to a voice that loves her unconditionally, yet she was still nervous.
She was in her early 30s, a rising star in sports business with the Miami Heat navigating a public life in private. She wasn’t disingenuous, but she wasn’t revealing, either. Stone didn’t ask her employees how they spent their weekends because she didn’t want to be asked how she spent hers.
But Stone had grown tired of, well, not being her true self in all aspects of her life, and she decided it was time to start. So she made the call to the person who brought her into a world that, up to that point, asked her to be anyone except for who she truly was.
“Mom, I’d really love for you to come visit, but I have to tell you something,” Stone recalls of the conversation with her Kentucky-born mother. “‘You know my roommate? She’s not really my roommate. She’s my girlfriend.’ My mom said, ‘That’s great, as long as you’re happy. I’ll see you next Tuesday.’
“That was it.”
Before coming out, Stone, who spent the last two years with the Golden State Warriors as general manager of Chase Center, was working her way up the business side of the Heat organization. She was the vice president of service and retention. It was a far cry from her start as a member of the game-day stats crew as she simultaneously played and refereed amateur beach volleyball — which is how she met her wife of 14 years.
After coming out, her personal life and career took off. Stone, whose love for business is older than her love for sports, was still the same rising star, only she was able to be her authentic self in every part of her life. The weight that lifted off her coincided with an increase in her confidence. Her relationships strengthened during her 23-year career with the Heat, a tenure that featured titles such as general manager of AmericanAirlines Arena and executive vice president of business development.
She has become one of the most successful people in a sector of sports that doesn’t garner near the same amount of attention as its on-court counterpart.
“My access card still worked,” Stone says while laughing and reminiscing about the moment she came out.
Stone has manufactured a successful 25-plus-year career in sports while, in her personal life, simultaneously navigating a country that wasn’t designed for her to prosper. Stone and her wife got married in Canada in 2007. Stone’s son wasn’t officially her son until two months after he was birthed because of a Florida order that didn’t allow adoptions by same-sex couples. Relationships were slow to develop because Stone didn’t know how people would react to who she is.
“Someone told me that if you haven’t had the U.S. Supreme Court decide your civil rights, then you have not been discriminated against,” Stone says. “I’ve had these experiences in my life, even though I’m not going through the racial injustices from a first-person point of view, but I know what it means to be considered an outsider.”
Stone grew up in the small town of Hendersonville, N.C., a place she says “has more Baptist churches than Starbucks.” Stone says she didn’t come from a religious family, but “we were religious enough.” She played volleyball and basketball in high school and was the sports editor of the school newspaper before becoming a “glorified walk-on” on the UNC-Wilmington women’s basketball team. But an ACL injury derailed her basketball career, and she left for the University of North Carolina after a year and a half. There, she returned to her sports roots and majored in journalism.
Even back then, though, Stone struggled with her identity. There was no one around who she could look at as a role model, no one who could sympathize with what she was feeling.
“You weren’t allowed to have the feelings I had,” Stone says of her struggles then. “I just kept them down inside.
“It was like, ‘Ahhh … I just think she has a cute blouse.’”
It wasn’t until after college, when Stone got her first job in the sports information department at the University of Miami (Fla.) in the early 1990s, that she entered a pocket of the country she could relate to, a place where the things she buried were celebrated in the light. In Miami, Stone saw the role models she was seeking. She witnessed business executives flying gay-pride flags outside of their homes. It was a world she wasn’t familiar with but one that had the inclusion she didn’t know she was looking for all along.
After a brief stint as a sports publicity director at the University of Texas, Stone returned to South Florida in 1994 — and her career began on a blurring trajectory. Stone worked in the Heat’s media relations department for four years. In 1998, the franchise opened the AmericanAirlines Arena and executives were seeking people willing to take on additional opportunities, and Stone raised her hand. “I’ll try that. I’ll try that,” she says.
In 2000, she became the director of operations for the Miami Sol, the now-defunct WNBA franchise. When that crumbled in 2002, Stone was asked to work under Eric Woolworth, the longtime Heat president of business operations. Working with Woolworth was the meshing of interests — sports and business — that had a gripping impact on Stone. She “loved putting things together.” Stone would often spend her free time reading a no-longer-in-publication magazine called “Working Women,” which she describes as Forbes for women.
“People used to make fun of me,” Stone says. “‘Why are you reading that?’ I thought it was fun! I wanted to be these women.”
As the years went on, heading different departments on the business side, Woolworth offered Stone the general manager position at AmericanAirlines Arena. The job entailed oversight of many functions of an arena, including the ticket office, building security, event security, cleaning and everything else that allows a consumer’s viewing experience to happen without hiccups.
“When (Eric) pulled me into his office for the GM job, I was shocked because I had never done this,” Stone says. “He told me he was hiring me for my leadership skills, not to change the light bulbs.”
Stone’s biggest challenge while in Miami came when Hurricane Irma began its destruction in South Florida in 2017. The Category 5 hurricane wasn’t Stone’s first experience handling the operations and safety of the building amid a significant storm during her tenure — there were several significant hurricanes during her time with the Heat. But Irma was certainly the most chaotic. She stayed at AmericanAirlines Arena during that period and helped manage an elite response team to mitigate all of the things the storm was doing to the building.
Three years later, little did Stone know that her experience in crisis management, which also included navigating H1N1 (swine flu) and its impact, would pay off again, this time in the form of a globe-sweeping virus, just mere months after she and her wife and child moved 3,000 miles across the country.
“My life changed dramatically at that point,” Stone says.
It was 2019 and Stone was ready for change. She found one in San Francisco. As she tells it, she could have stayed in Miami for another 23 years and been content. However, she wanted a challenge, she wanted a “second chapter” in her professional life. Additionally, the opportunity to be in on the ground floor of the opening of a state-of-the-art arena that sits on 11 acres and shares joint ventures is something Stone saw as “once in a lifetime.” Lastly, the chance to work for executive Rick Welts, a well-respected businessman and the NBA’s first openly gay executive, was an experience Stone felt she couldn’t pass up.
“Part of why I came to work for Rick is his leadership, and it’s also, obviously, the team, the president … there is no backlash,” Stone says. “No discrimination or marginalizing would happen for me and my family. We were nothing but embraced and loved here in the Bay and Miami. I’ve worked for amazing organizations. I had other job offers when in Miami, and the first thing I’d do is Google ownership, the person calling me, the community, and I’d look it all up. I don’t ever want to worry that something could happen to my family because someone decides whatever they decide and do something. You don’t need that hanging over your head. Fortunately, for me, there are places where my lifestyle isn’t an issue. I want to be able to call my wife my wife and my son my son.”
When the Warriors were looking for a general manager for Chase Center, Welts had one name at the top of his list: Kim Stone. However, the organization never bothered calling her. Welts and company were under the belief that Stone was “untouchable” because of her sparkling reputation and the success the Heat organization had over the last decade under her guidance. For years, in this circle of sports business, the AmericanAirlines Arena (now referred to as FTX Arena) was widely considered one of the best facilities for the guest experience, no matter the event. A lot of that was led by Stone.
Welts and his team interviewed several candidates, none of which checked every box. Then, out of nowhere, an intermediary reached out to Welts and asked if there would be interest in chatting with his top target about the vacancy.
“We scrambled with our senior staff … we scrambled to get them together into the office, on a weekend, to interview Kim the weekend after I got the call,” Welts told The Athletic. “It was the easiest decision that we’ve ever made. It was unanimous that if we could get her on board, that she would be the person to help launch the Chase Center.”
Upon arriving in San Francisco, Stone immediately was off and running as a leader in the launch of the Chase Center in September. She oversaw and had a hand in developing finance programming, engineering programming and several other sectors that needed to be created from scratch. This was her opportunity to do what she always wanted to do: transform a city.
Then, six months after the opening of the Chase Center, COVID-19 put its grip on the world. The Chase Center, along with arenas worldwide, shut down.
Stone, her bosses and her team immediately got to work. They created an internal task force “Operation Dub Nation,” an executive team that would meet with Warriors owner Joe Lacob, who has a master’s in epidemiology, to brainstorm COVID-19 response ideas. The group set up a program to align and stay up to date with the protocols both statewide and nationally.
Within a few months, the work Stone’s group did allow in-person group workouts at the Chase Center to happen during the thick of the pandemic. There were detailed testing protocols. All of the work this group put into the building’s health and safety protocols culminated into the Warriors ending the regular season with 8,000 fans inside Chase Center.
“This is where Joe’s and Rick’s vision, the way we structured ourselves, paid off,” Stone says. “It all lended us an opportunity to have a minicamp, open with no fans, have some fans and then get 8,000 people into the arena for the final game. I was proud to be part of the organization and proud to be part of the efforts of the organization.”
After two years in the Bay Area, Stone, for family reasons, is heading back to Miami. She has plans of continuing a long career in business in South Florida, the same place it all started.
In over 25 years, Stone has assembled a successful career that has carried a singular theme: You can do what you want. There are other ways to be in sports outside of dribbling a basketball, swinging a bat or kicking a ball. There are ways to persevere, even when society diminishes your possibilities because of your race, gender or sexuality — or you limit them out of fear of how your true self will be received.
Stone spent nearly three decades accruing numerous accolades and building up some of the most successful franchises in recent NBA history. All of that, though, she hopes pales in comparison to the message her story sends.
“You have to know your values in life,” Stone says. “You have to make sure you’re true to those. That’s how I think you achieve what’s important to you in life. You can find a way to make it happen. I went and got married in Canada, I was going to have a son no matter what. Those things are important. I want people to know it’s worked for me, and it may not work for everybody, but if you value who you are and try to work along those lines, I tend to think things will work out for you.”