From Burma to the Blazers
by Eric Apalategui | © Washington State University
Richard Cho ’89 was born in Burma (Myanmar), an impoverished Asian country on the United Nations’ list of least-developed nations. When he was just three, his family moved to the United States, saving and economizing for a better life.
Four decades later, Cho has landed his dream job as a general manager in the National Basketball Association. Today, the first Asian American to become a GM leads the Portland Trail Blazers, the only remaining NBA team in the Pacific Northwest. Now he hires players, offering salaries in the millions.
“When I was growing up, when we emigrated here, my family was on welfare for a while, and food stamps,” says Cho. He grew up in Federal Way, where for 20 years his father supported the family working nights at a 7-Eleven. Cho had a string of similar jobs along the way to earning his engineering degree at Washington State University.
“Coming from a humble background, I’m very thankful for the position that I’m in,” says Cho, who today volunteers at team-sponsored charitable events like meals for the homeless. “One of my philosophies is to treat people like I would want to be treated. It sounds so simple, but I’m not sure it’s always practiced.”
Cho says he also is the only engineer managing an NBA team, a league where lawyers and ex-professional players dominate most front offices. He had been an engineer at Boeing during the early 1990s. But he never shook his childhood passion for sports. So he quit his job—somewhat to the chagrin of his conservative family—and enrolled in law school at Pepperdine University. He had learned that most professional sports managers had either played the game or had a legal background. Since he knew he would never be a professional player, he chose the second route.
It worked. The Seattle SuperSonics hired him as an intern while he was still a law student in 1995. Two years later, with a law degree in hand, he landed a permanent job with the team and, thanks to his legal smarts and his facility with numbers and statistics, quickly rose through the organization. In 2000 he was promoted to assistant general manager.
He moved with the team when the franchise became the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2008. Then last summer Blazers owner Paul Allen and team president Larry Miller hired him to Portland. Cho already had a reputation as someone who could figure out notoriously difficult salary cap calculations in his head. Before landing with the Blazers, a Sports Illustrated writer had dubbed Cho “the Swiss Army knife of the Thunder’s front office.”
Cho gives some credit to his time at WSU: “I think going to engineering school really gave me a good foundation for problem-solving.”
“He’s able to decipher a lot of information without emotion (and) doesn’t lose sight of the big picture,” says Bill Branch, an assistant general manager with the Blazers who worked with Cho with the Sonics and Thunder. “That analytical-type thinking puts all of us in a position where we double-, triple-check our information before we send it to him.”
Visitors can spot that engineering background at the Blazers’ business offices and practice facility in suburban Tualatin. Magnetic tiles holding player biographies dominate a wall of his office and tile boards encircle a conference room. The tiles, which Cho first made as a Sonics intern, have evolved to include data such as player salaries and draft rights for every team in the league.
Like solving a problem through engineering, assembling an NBA roster capable of winning a championship takes patience, time, and attention to detail. “I don’t think you can build a championship team overnight,” Cho says. “You have to look at the short-term and long-term effect of every transaction.”
In late February, the Blazers’ homework resulted in a trade of three role players and additional draft rights for forward Gerald Wallace, who had been an All-Star and defensive standout with the Charlotte Bobcats. Cho says the hard-charging Wallace meets his and coach Nate McMillan’s criteria for who they want on the team: “In general, I want players with character, players that play both ends of the floor, players that are good teammates, meaning they’re not selfish, players that have a competitive edge to them.”
It was the first major roster change for Cho, who started the 2010-11 season by showing the team a video of the waning moments of Portland’s losses to Houston and Phoenix in first-round playoff series the last two seasons. He challenged them with an analogy that perhaps only a GM with an engineering degree would concoct:
“At 211 degrees, water’s really hot. At 212 degrees, it boils. Boiling water creates steam that can power a steam engine. One degree can make a big difference. I challenged the guys to make that one degree of extra effort,” says Cho, who had large magnets with the words “212 Degrees” posted on each player’s locker. “There’s not a big difference between good teams and great teams.”
Since his promotion, nearly all of the many stories written about Cho have used the words “soft-spoken,” “analytical,” and “intelligent.”
Those descriptions may be nothing-but-net accurate for the buttoned-down Cho, but they leave out a surprising trait that he only reveals to those who face him in friendly competition: “trash-talker.”
Branch remembers a charity golf tournament they played when Cho didn’t even own a set of clubs. “He hits about three good shots and he’s already talkin’ smack,” Branch recalls with a laugh. “There’s only a handful of people who would know that.”
“If you know me,” says Cho, a sports nut since childhood who likes tennis and ping pong as well as basketball, “you know I’m very competitive, I don’t like to lose, I like to talk trash.”
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