Last month, Rich Cho of the Portland Trail Blazers became the first Asian American General Manager in the NBA. Rich kindly took time from his busy work schedule to talk candidly to Hyphen about his passion for sports, his love of sushi and the three things he’d bring with him on a desert island.
I understand that you and your parents emigrated from Burma, now called Myanmar, when you were very young. How has that experience shaped your career path or work ethic?
We came from Burma in 1968 when I was three years old. The first time I went back was six years ago, and it really made me feel even more grateful to have the opportunity to be educated and grow up in the States. Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of resources, and we struggled quite a bit. We were on food stamps for a long time, welfare. My dad worked the graveyard shift at 7-Eleven and my mom worked in a library and took an hour-long bus ride into work every day. Coming from a humble background made me not only hungry to succeed, but I also wanted to make my parents proud.
So I did some research on you, and learned that you have an engineering degree from Washington State University. Since engineer ranks right up on the top there with doctor and lawyer, how did your parents react when you decided to pursue a career in the sports world?
[laughs] They were actually really surprised, I think. They were a little apprehensive about the whole thing because I had this stable job and stable income at Boeing for five years. I hate to generalize, because it’s not the case with everybody, but, being Asian, my parents were very risk-averse. And when you have a stable job and income and choose to go into the unknown -- and spend all this money taking out loans! -- it raises a lot of anxiety. But it was my goal to get to sports through sports law, because I did some research and discovered that sports agents and executives working for teams as well as governing bodies like the NBA and NFL had law degrees, so I left my job at Boeing and went to law school.
Are your parents happy now that you’ve made it as a General Manager in the NBA?
My dad passed away when I was in law school in ’95, but yeah, my mom is very happy now that I took that route.
I read that your career started when you wrote letters to teams all around the NBA and the Sonics took a chance with you because your letter was the best they’d ever read. I’m curious: what’d you say in that letter?
[laughs] I wish I had a copy of that letter! I remember taking a lot of time writing it -- I take a lot of pride in my writing. What I wanted to convey to Wally Walker (Seattle SuperSonics GM at the time) was that I was willing to help out in any way I could. I was really looking to learn and contribute in any way.
So you also have a degree from Pepperdine University focused on sports law, contract negotiations and dispute resolution. Of all the sports out there, what made you choose basketball?
Well, I grew up playing a lot of tennis, but I just really loved basketball as well. This is a 24/7 job and I feel very fortunate to have a job in a field that I love.
Did you play basketball at all growing up?
I didn’t play basketball at a high level at all, no. I think I played until 9th grade, and then concentrated on school and tennis. I was a half-way decent tennis player. [laughs]
Being a non-traditional person in the NBA front office, does that impact the way you do your job in any way when it comes to scouting? What advantages do you bring to the table?
I think that one advantage I have is with my math and legal background, and my analytical approach to things, to analyze different issues and help with the decision-making process.
As you know, another Asian American made headlines the same week that you did -- Jeremy Lin with the Golden State Warriors. How do you feel about being the first Asian American GM? Do you think we’ll be seeing more Asian Americans in the NBA?
I’m very honored and really humbled to be the first Asian American GM, but it’s not something that I dwell on. I just want to do my job everyday the best I can, and help build a championship team. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more Asians, because the NBA is such an international game. There are so many people in Asia that it’s probably inevitable that there will be more players. The NBA is a very competitive business, but yeah, I think there’s definitely a chance, because of how international the game is.
With the increase in non-American players and now Jeremy Lin, the NBA is becoming increasingly diverse. What do you think we can expect in the next 10 years?
I expect it to be more diverse. I don’t see a lot of boundaries from the front office aspect. I hope the diversity will continue, for sure.
With your new position as the first and only Asian American GM in NBA history, you are destined to be a kind of hero in the Asian American community. Who is your hero and why?
[laughs] Funny you say that, because honestly, I don’t think a lot of people noticed! Nor do I expect them to. Hmm. I would have to say my mom and dad. They sacrificed a lot for us while we grew up -- I have three brothers and a sister. So they’re my heroes.
Did your parents instill in you your love of sports?
They were really into tennis. My dad was one of the best tennis players in Burma growing up. But yeah, they loved sports, not as much as I do [laughs] but they liked it. When I was with the Sonics, my mom loved going to the games. I think she’s going to make it down to Portland for a few games this year as well.
Are there any stereotypes that you think you defy, or any that you think you conform to?
Oh man! Um. Well, I’m pretty tall, I guess, I’m about 5’11”, almost 6 feet. And I’m a pretty good driver. Uh, what are some other stereotypes? Sorry, I can’t think of any! One of my brothers is a PhD in sociology, so he’d know all that stuff.
What’s your favorite food?
Oh, I love food. I’m a big eater, even though I’m pretty thin, about 160 pounds. That’s one of my most well-known attributes, actually, that I’m a big food guy. If we go on a trip anywhere, for work or for vacation, I’m the one that scopes out in advance what all the good restaurants are and the good places to eat. But favorite food? I would have to say sushi. I love sushi. I’m actually in a cab right now to get sushi. But I also love Burmese food.
If you could time travel to any time in history, what would it be?
If I could go back in time, there is nothing I would rather do than to be able to see and speak to my dad again. He passed away of a heart attack in 1995 when I was in law school.
If you were trapped on a desert island, what three things would you bring with you?
Three things I’d want on an island are my wife Julie and two daughters, Miranda, who will be five in September, and Annika, who will be three. But if that’s cheating, then I’d go with a razor to shave my head, a fishing rod to catch fish for sushi, and a TV to watch sports.
Speaking of shaving, why is it that you shave your head?
[laughs] I started shaving it about six years ago, and I just like it a lot better. I used to wear it pretty long, then had a flat top for a really long time. I shave about once every two days, and it just feels cleaner that way. My wife wants me to grow it out, but I think it makes me look younger, which is always good.
Is there anything that you’d like people to know about you or your approach to your job?
As far as my approach to the job, I feel really grateful and fortunate to be in this position and I don’t take the responsibility and opportunity lightly. I’m going to challenge and push my staff a great deal, probably more so than they’ve ever been challenged or pushed. I want to leave no stone uncovered when it comes to the NBA draft, free agency, and trades. Beyond that, I like to treat people the way I would like to be treated. In addition, because this job is so time-consuming it’s important to me for my staff to spend ample time with their families and loved ones, because at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.
Okay, one last question. Finish this sentence: My favorite thing about being Asian American is ________.
My favorite thing about being Asian American is… that Asian people tend to age well and people think I’m a lot younger than I am. But I think the shaved head helps, too.