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NBA executive Rich Cho (JD ’97) reflects on his nearly three-decade career in professional basketball

May 17, 2021  | 2 min read

MVPs are made of more than just impressive statistics—even in fantasy sports. Rich Cho (JD ’97), the vice president of basketball strategy of the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team, believes in a holistic, all-encompassing approach to team building.

“Fans tend to think building a professional basketball team is similar to fantasy basketball, but there are a lot of things that happen behind the scenes that people probably aren’t aware of,” Cho says. “We spend a tremendous amount of time analyzing player performance and key character traits to find out who exactly we are inviting onto our team.” 

Cho’s meticulous methodology is crucial in drafting player contracts, exploring statistics and analytics, reviewing the financial landscape, and applying an “eyes, ears, and numbers” approach to preparing for the NBA draft, trades, and free agency.

A former Boeing engineer, Cho mentions that one of the most fulfilling aspects of his career is “combining pure basketball with the cerebral part of the business.” A popular guest speaker at colleges and universities nationwide, Cho shares that a strategic player evaluation system was an idea he initially pitched in 1995 to secure an internship with Wally Walker, a former NBA player and executive for the Seattle SuperSonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder). Landing the internship immediately after sharing his forward-thinking solutions and while a student at Pepperdine’s Caruso School of Law, Cho eventually became the SuperSonics’ director of basketball affairs and the team’s assistant general manager for 10 years.

Before he accepted his job with the Grizzlies two years ago, Cho made history by becoming the first-ever Asian American to be named the general manager of an NBA team upon joining the Portland Trail Blazers in 2010. Following his time in Portland, he worked for Michael Jordan as general manager of the Charlotte Hornets. Over the years, Cho has received countless letters from fellow Asian Americans who have expressed their admiration for him as a role model, offering their gratitude to someone who has inspired them to feel a sense of pride and belonging. Cho says that knowing his path has inspired others has been one of the most humbling aspects of his career.

On February 25, 2021, in recognition of his continued efforts to foster a community of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), Cho received the Alumnus Award at the inaugural Belonging Awards hosted by the Caruso School of Law. For Cho, maintaining a DEI perspective in his staff hiring process is an integral part of his leadership style and a practice he keeps close to his heart. Rather than following a traditional paradigm that frequently creates a narrow candidate pool, he assesses the underlying skills that each open position needs in order to maximize success. 

“When you have a DEI mindset and actively seek competence beyond bullet points on a resume, the candidate pool widens because it is no longer constricted to any preconceived notions,” says Cho. “Having a DEI approach to problem solving—whether  it’s on the court or off the court—brings  a much broader and more valuable range of perspectives to any team.”