NBA Welcomes First Asian General Manager

Rich Cho is the NBA's first Asian American general manager. He is in charge of the Portland Trail Blazers. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks with Cho about what the new job, how he rose to the position after immigrating to America from Myanmar, and Asian Americans in the NBA.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

For the first time in history, the NBA is welcoming an Asian-American general manager. That's Rich Cho of the Portland Trail Blazers.

Here's Portland's team president talking about the decision to give Rich Cho the new position.

Mr. LARRY MILLER (President, Portland Trail Blazers): Rich was the only person that we've talked to that we made an offer to, and we are thrilled and excited to have Rich on board as our general manager.

LYDEN: We wanted to learn more about Cho's background and managing philosophy, and what his ascent to the top tiers of the NBA means for Asian-Americans in professional sports and beyond that. So we called him, and he joins us now from Portland.

Welcome.

Mr. RICH CHO (General Manager, Portland Trail Blazers): Thanks for having me on.

LYDEN: So you've been in this job just a few months?

Mr. CHO: Right. I got hired July 19th, and it's been a busy few months.

LYDEN: Well, tell us what being the first Asian-American general manager in the NBA means to you?

Mr. CHO: Well, I'm definitely very, very humbled and honored. But at the same time, it's not something I really dwell on. You know, I just want to do a good job and do everything I can to help the team win. My goal wasn't to be the first Asian GM. My goal was to be a successful GM, and I want to do everything I can to help the team win a championship.

LYDEN: And I know you have a background in law and finance. But I would like to ask how your upbringing influences what you might bring to this. You were three years old when your parents emigrated here from Burma, now called Myanmar. You know, what do you think your background brings to this job?

Mr. CHO: Well, when we emigrated to the states, I was three. It was in 1968. My family and I really struggled. We were on welfare and food stamps, and my dad worked the graveyard shift at 7-Eleven for about 15 years. And the position I'm in now, I really, really appreciate it, and I don't take the responsibility lightly. You know, I did work a lot of odd jobs growing up. You know, I was a bus boy and dishwasher at IHOP. I picked strawberries and raspberries. I was a phone solicitor. So when I go to the stadium and I see men and women selling hot dogs and cotton candy at night to help make ends meet, that kind of stuff really resonates with me.

LYDEN: You later went to Washington State University to earn a degree in engineering and got a job at Boeing for five years. How did you migrate from that to sports management?

Mr. CHO: I started as an intern for the Seattle Supersonics the summer after the first year of law school. And I sent in a cover letter to Wally Walker, who was the president - or the GM of the Sonics at the time, and fortunately, he called me and he said: Hey, Rich. I like your background in engineering. And this was in 1995, before the Internet and before a lot of basketball teams started using quantitative analysis.

So he said hey, I want to be the most technologically advanced GM in the league. So when I come to LA, I'd like to interview you and I want you to prove to me that you can make it happen. So I met Wally at his hotel, and I had a nice interview with him. And fortunately for me, he offered me an internship after the interview.

LYDEN: Rich, I read that you had returned to Myanmar, formerly Burma, at least once since your family left, yeah?

Mr. CHO: Right. I went back there in 2004, and that was the first time I had gone back since we emigrated in 1968.

LYDEN: What was it like?

Mr. CHO: It was really, really fascinating for me. I went back with my mom and one of my brothers, and just to see the place where I was born and some of the relatives that I had never known. It was very humbling, also, because Burma is a very poor country. So I was just really fortunate that my parents believed in education and tried to give us a better opportunity by coming to the States.

LYDEN: What do you think your position says about how Asians are faring in the professional basketball and pro sports arena, in general?

Mr. CHO: Well, hopefully, it's opening some doors. And, you know, I was really fortunate when I did start working for the Sonics that I got to work with and learn from a lot of great people like Wally and Rick Sund - who I was under, too, at the Sonics - and Sam Presti, who I worked for at the Oklahoma City Thunder. And so I think it takes a lot of luck, and I'll be the first one to say that I've been lucky.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Yes, but, you know, fortune favors the prepared mind, and you make your luck. Yao Ming is perhaps the best-known player of Asian descent, but there are a few others playing. What you think accounts for this? Do you think we'll see more Asian-Americans in basketball?

Mr. CHO: Well, I certainly hope so. You know, Asia's a huge continent, as you know, and the popularity of the basketball is growing every day. So I hope to see more.

LYDEN: And for the Trail Blazers, what do you think you are managing style is going to be?

Mr. CHO: Well, I like to get a lot of input from my staff. I never think that I'm the smartest person, so I want to get a lot of feedback and ask a lot of questions to make sure they justify everything that they're believing in. And then I want to take all that information and make an informed decision.

LYDEN: What did your wife say when you told her that you'd gotten this job?

Mr. CHO: You know, she started crying, and it was an emotional time for us. It's just something that I had been working towards for long time.

LYDEN: Rich Cho is the first Asian-American general manager of the NBA. He's with the Portland Trail Blazers, and he joined us from Portland.

Thank you. It's been a pleasure talking to you.

Mr. CHO: Thank you.

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