Blazing to the Top
Law alumnus Rich Cho takes the helm of the Portland Trail Blazers and becomes the first Asian American general manager in the history of the NBA.
Three years ago, the Portland Trail Blazers were on the cusp of greatness. After years of failing to make the playoffs, the franchise hired new management and won the 2007 NBA Draft Lottery, securing Greg Oden, the promising center from Ohio State.
In the years that followed, their luck waned. They won games, but multiple player injuries and other issues held them back from ever taking the championship. Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City Thunder (then the Seattle SuperSonics) won the second overall pick in the 2007 lottery. They chose Kevin Durant, who went on to win NBA Rookie of the Year and to lead the NBA in scoring—becoming the youngest player ever to win the NBA scoring title. Despite a tumultuous move and name change in 2008, the Thunder doubled their win total from that year to 2010 and made it to the playoffs before being defeated by the Los Angeles Lakers. Then in July 2010, the two stories intersected.
The Trail Blazers' owner, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, sought the strategic leadership behind the Thunder's success. He hired Rich Cho (JD '97), the assistant general manager for the Thunder to take the helm of the Trail Blazers. Cho's background in sports, engineering, and law convinced Allen that he was the one who could take the Blazers from good to great.
"Rich has depth of character, a foundation in business and legal matters and a knowledge of the game of NBA basketball that will help our team get even better," said Allen in a statement. "He is part of the new generation of NBA executives."
The "new generation" refers to GMs who are analytical thinkers instead of former pro basketball players. Cho fits the description to a tee. After earning a degree in mechanical engineering, he was an engineer for Boeing for five years before attending the Pepperdine School of Law for his JD, where he had the express goal of entering the world of sports management. After interning with the SuperSonics during law school, he was hired full-time in 1998. When the franchise moved to Oklahoma City, he relocated with the team, working as assistant general manager for the past nine seasons.
His current post makes him the first Asian American GM in the history of the NBA. "It's an honor," says Cho. "It's humbling. But it's not something I dwell on. I just want to do a good job. My goal was never to be a general manager, my goal was to be a successful general manager and to help the team win a championship."
To that end, Cho has already enacted changes since he accepted the job in July. He has hired two new assistant general managers, overhauled the player development program, placed an even greater emphasis on analytical scouting and quantitative analysis, and created a new rating system for judging talent.
He calls the system the "eyes, ears, and numbers approach." "Eyes" refers to in-person scouting and film scouting. "Ears" signifies doing the background work on players. "What are we hearing? Is the player a hard worker? How is he as a teammate? Is he a leader or follower? What is his personality like?" Cho says the "numbers" aspect is the evaluation of the player. "Is he consistent? How does he play in the big games? How does he play when games are close?"
Rich Cho (center) speaks at a press conference with head coach Nate McMillan (left) and Trail Blazers president Larry Miller (right) —photo credit: Portland Trail Blazers
Ascending to the top was a long road for Cho, who was born in Burma then moved to Seattle with his family when he was three years old. Early on, his family was on welfare and food stamps. His father worked the graveyard shift at 7-Eleven and his mother worked in a library and took an hour-long bus ride in to work every day."Coming from a humble background made me not only hungry to succeed, but I also wanted to make my parents proud," says Cho.
The close-knit family suffered a major blow when Cho was a law student. "My father passed away from a heart attack just a few days before my second year of law school started," he reflects. "I was very close to my father and really struggled that semester, even contemplating quitting law school or taking the year off. Looking back, staying at Pepperdine and finishing law school was the best way to honor the memory of my dad."
Yet another life-changing event happened while Cho was at Pepperdine: he met his future wife, Julie Heintz-Cho (JD '97). They now have two daughters, Miranda and Annika.
During law school summers, Cho interned for the SuperSonics, working for GM Wally Walker. Cho developed a sophisticated software program to rank players in 1995 and even did scouting for the SuperSonics while studying for the Washington State bar exam. "I've been really lucky to work for people like Wally Walker and Rick Sund, the GM after Wally, and Sam Presti in Oklahoma City," says Cho of his early training.
As he takes his years of experience to Portland, Cho is excited for the new season and hopes the team will achieve new heights. "I don't want to just be the best basketball franchise in the league because that's too limiting. There are only 30 teams. I want to be the best-run pro-sports franchise, period."