There is no doubt that Rich Cho’s intelligence, NBA-related financial expertise and new-generation managerial approach played roles in his hiring as general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers.
But buried beneath Cho’s rapid-fire mind and an overwhelming pile of statistics and numbers are old-school personal relationships.
A longtime friendship with Portland strength and conditioning coach Bobby Medina that dates back to Cho’s internship with the Seattle SuperSonics in the mid-1990s. A still-developing friendship with Blazers coach Nate McMillan that also originated in Seattle. And relationships with Portland scouts Michael Born and Chad Buchanan that are based out of respect and admiration.
Cho’s Grade-A talents earned him the job — and the right to be heralded by Portland owner Paul Allen as the future image of NBA executives.
But by already having relationships with key members of the Blazers’ organization, Cho said he should be able to hit the ground running. The longtime Pacific Northwest resident believes that his skills will compliment assets provided by Born and Buchanan. Meanwhile, Cho’s respect for McMillan’s leadership should allow the duo to form a bridge that directly connects the team to Allen.
“I’ve seen Nate grow both as a player and as a coach,” Cho said. “He’s been a tremendous coach, and he and I have mutual respect for each other. I just really look forward to working with him. There’s a comfort level there on both ends. But there’s also mutual respect and a trust factor.”
Trust will be key for Cho, as the first-time GM takes over a team that has endured progress and disarray in recent months.
Cho will begin his mission to bring a second championship to Rip City with a clean slate. But he follows in the wake of former general manager Kevin Pritchard, whose three-year regime appears to have been ultimately undone by a lack of trust and inner-organizational faith.
Asked if he received assurances from Allen and team president Larry Miller that he would be allowed to run the Blazers without impedance, Cho responded with theory.
The 44-year-old Washington State graduate said that in any organization, a successful GM must run every significant decision by the owner. Cho’s past experience with the Sonics and the Thunder taught him that. And as both small and major items were openly discussed, relationships founded upon trust were strengthened.
“You always have to communicate with the owner,” Cho said.
McMillan said he learned to trust Cho as the former intern rose through the ranks of the Sonics organization. The ex-Seattle coach’s belief in Cho then solidified with a big-name trade made during McMillan’s Sonics tenure.
McMillan said no one within the franchise believed that the deal could come to fruition. Then Cho went to work behind the scenes, pulling off a move that left a strong impression on McMillan and team executives.
“That stuck out in my mind,” McMillan said. “That maybe one day he’ll have his opportunity to be the GM of an organization.”
Meanwhile, Born and Buchanan said they were impressed with Cho’s diligence and inexhaustible attention to detail during the long grind of an NBA season. While Born and Buchanan crossed the globe, grading players and scouting prospects, they often ran into Cho, as the then-assistant GM worked to strengthen a fast-rising OKC team.
Born and Buchanan liked what they saw and agreed with what they heard: Cho was legitimate, and he preferred victories instead of the spotlight.
At the same time, Portland’s premier scouts caught the eye of Cho.
“I have a great deal of respect for them,” Cho said. “My approach is team oriented, so I’m going to ask them a lot of questions and get a lot of their input. … We’re going to work together and come to some decisions on different acquisitions. And I’m looking to learn from them, and I hope they’re able to learn from me.”
As for Medina, Cho referred to the longtime Blazer as a “salt-of-the-earth guy.”
“He and I have been friends for a long time,” Cho said.
Now, Cho has received the opportunity McMillan long ago envisioned. And the Blazers’ new GM is surrounded by people who are eager to see how much the busboy-turned-engineer-turned-NBA-executive can accomplish.
“I think it’s a great fit, and it definitely helps that I know some of the people around here,” Cho said. “They had nothing but great things to say about the Blazers franchise.”