Sonics assistant general manager Rich Cho is not a household name even amongst Sonics fans. But general manager Rick Sund says he canít imagine how other teams survive without a similar person in their organizations. Choís job title fails to do justice to the number of duties he has with the Sonics. He is responsible for knowing the ins and outs of the salary cap to help the Sonics best exploit it and is the teamís associate legal counsel in addition to his traditional front office duties. Since starting with the Sonics in 1995 as an intern for Wally Walker while he was attending the Pepperdine University School of Law, Cho has moved up in the front office steadily, most recently being promoted to assistant GM during the summer of 2001. SUPERSONICS.COM caught up with Cho to find out a little more about his duties and his background.
SUPERSONICS.COM: Can you describe what a typical day is like for you?
: A typical day is pretty hard to describe. It really depends on the time of year. I am pretty busy throughout the year, but the busiest times of the year for me are in May and June prior to the NBA draft, in July and August during the free agency period and in February prior to the trade deadline. On the basketball side, my responsibilities include assisting Rick Sund in player contract negotiations, drafting all player contracts, handling anything related to the salary cap and the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and working closely with our college scouts. I also deal a lot with both the NBA legal department and player agents. On the business side, Iím involved in a variety of legal issues ranging from sponsorship agreements and employment contracts to immigration matters.
Compared to other front office executives, your duties are much broader, right?
Cho: Yes. Teams have different infrastructures within the front office. Every team is a little different. Most teams have a dedicated salary cap person, but some teams donít. Some teams have in-house counsel, while other teams use outside counsel to draft player contracts and handle legal matters. Iím sort of a hybrid of everything.
Do you enjoy that variety?
Cho: Yeah, for me, my job is really interesting because itís all basketball-related. Itís all fun for me and I really enjoy coming to work every day. I like the fact that I can combine the pure basketball part with the legal and analytical side.
Have you always been a basketball fan?
Cho: Yeah, Iím basically a sports junkie Ė especially a basketball junkie (and a tennis junkie too). Itís something that I would follow just as closely if I was only a fan and not involved in the front office of a team.
How did you hook up with Wally Walker?
Cho: I was in my first year of law school and I sent a cover letter and resume to the Sonics, and it was addressed to Wally because he was the general manager at that time. A couple months later, I heard back from him. He called and he said he wanted to be the most technically advanced GM in the league. He said he was going to be down in L.A. for a game, and to meet him at his hotel and he would interview me. He wanted me to give him a sense for how I could help him meet his goal. Being a basketball junkie, I put my pseudo-GM hat on and came up with some ideas about how I could make that happen. What actually helped me was my engineering background Ė I have an undergraduate degree in engineering and I also worked for IBM during engineering school. With the basketball junkie part and the computer and engineering background, I came up with some ideas, and luckily for me he offered me the internship after the interview.
Were you expecting that contact to evolve into a long-term position, as it has?
Cho: I was hoping it would, because I was an engineer at Boeing first, after I got my undergraduate degree. I spent five years at Boeing and I realized I eventually wanted to do something sports-related. I did some research, and I found that a number of people involved in sports - on the team side, the agent side and the governing body side (e.g. the NBA side), had law degrees. So I quit my job at Boeing and decided to try and pursue a career in sports law.
Has your lack of playing experience hurt you at all?
Cho: I donít think so, because I really follow both college and pro basketball closely. I think to do this job well, you really have to live and breathe basketball. One of the important parts of my job is to follow both pro and college basketball closely because the job itself involves a lot of discussion about players and strategizing about different ways to improve the team Ė everything from which college games to scout, which free agents to sign, and looking at possible trades to improve the team. Itís important to know a playerís playing background, his productivity, what a playerís strengths and tendencies are, how a playerís skills would complement and fit it with players on your own team, and perhaps most importantly, itís essential to be able to accurately gauge a playerís market value around the league.
So thereís no attitude like, ĎYou didnít play Ė you canít understandí?
Cho: Not really. I would say the league is split as far as front office people that have played pro basketball and those who did not. There are a number of general managers that didnít play pro basketball. With the complexities of the salary cap and the Collective Bargaining Agreement, I think there is a lot more to running a team than just having the NBA pedigree. Iíve been fortunate enough to gain a lot of experience and knowledge working for both Wally Walker and Rick Sund.
Did your work with the salary cap evolve naturally?
Cho: Yeah, it evolved because of my law school experience, my legal background, and my mathematical background - the cap is really numbers-oriented Ė and also the complexity of the cap and the Collective Bargaining Agreement required someone who could devote a lot of time to studying it. Luckily for me, it was good timing.
Thatís an obvious area where your law background helps you. How about your engineering background?
Cho: Having an engineering degree and an analytical background has helped me a lot in both understanding and applying the salary cap and Collective Bargaining Agreement rules. In particular, the combination of the law degree and engineering background has helped me become really detail-oriented in a job that often requires me to be very meticulous.
How important do you think it is for teams to understand the cap in this day and age?
Cho: I think itís extremely important, because every transaction has salary cap and luxury tax implications - whether itís re-signing a player, signing an unrestricted or restricted free agent, trading players, or waiving players. Different salary cap rules apply to different types of free agents and each type of transaction has its own salary cap rules, restrictions, and exceptions. Itís important to know both the short-term and long-term salary cap and luxury tax impact of any type of transaction. I think understanding the salary cap rules and the Collective Bargaining Agreement is one of the most important aspects of a GMís or Assistant GMís job.
What are some other teams that have stood out in terms of managing the cap?
Cho: San Antonio has done a real good job. Detroitís done a good job. Those are two main ones. New Orleans has done a good job too. Theyíve all stayed very competitive with a fairly low payroll.
In baseball, analytical methods, especially the use of statistics, have made significant inroads in recent years, a point driven home to the mainstream by Moneyball. Do you see a similar trend in the NBA?
Cho: . We do a lot of statistical analysis, both to evaluate players and to prepare for contract negotiations. I think the trend in the NBA is towards more technology and statistical analysis. In baseball, historically thereís been a lot more stats analysis involved. Youíve got a multitude of stats just for pitchers, righties vs. lefties, switch-hitters, on-base percentage, batting average with and without men on base, just to name a few. Basketball is not as extensive, but itís definitely going in that direction.
What advice do you have for someone who is an intelligent basketball fan and wants to get into management as you have?
Cho: The main thing is to do an internship with the team. That gets your foot in the door, gives the team an indication of your abilities and your work ethic, and gives you an idea of whether or not you like the business and the type of work youíd be doing. Thatís the best way to get in, an internship. After that, you just need to be persistent!