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Basketball Notes

Portland GM Cho is truly a trail blazer

By Gary Washburn
August 29, 2010

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After 15 years, one of the NBA’s brightest minds finally has an opportunity to implement his state-of-the-art ideas.

The road traveled by new Portland general manager Rich Cho is unlike any other executive in league history. Just six weeks after the Golden State Warriors signed Jeremy Lin, making him the first Asian-American player in NBA history, Cho was hired as the first Asian-American GM.

The 45-year-old Cho has long been considered a brilliant mind, the salary cap expert who earned his engineering and law degrees during his tenure with the Seattle SuperSonics. Even after the Sonics relocated to Oklahoma City and Cho helped build the Thunder’s current foundation, he remained in near anonymity beyond the tight NBA circles.

Cho’s story is remarkable. A native of Burma, his parents were sponsored by a Baptist church in Fort Wayne, Ind., and relocated there in 1968 after Burma was converted to a Socialist state. His parents attended college in Indiana before eventually moving to the Pacific Northwest.

Cho grew up in Federal Way, Wash., as his father worked for nearly 15 years on the graveyard shift at a 7-11. During his childhood, Cho worked as a busboy at International House of Pancakes, as a waiter as a Chinese restaurant, as a berry picker in Auburn, Wash., and as a telemarketer for a health club.

The ascent to NBA GM was a cherished ride for Cho. He equipped himself with an engineering degree from Washington State and a law degree from Pepperdine. During his internship with the Sonics in 1995, a cash-strapped Cho slept on the floor of his brother’s small apartment.

It was his tireless work ethic that helped aid the growth of the Thunder.

“When I was growing up, we struggled a lot and we were on welfare and food stamps,’’ Cho said last week. “That’s part of who I am. I am not ashamed of it. It’s why I am grateful for this opportunity. I’ve had a lot of odd jobs and some of it was to help the family out.

“When I am at the arena and I see men and women selling hot dogs on game nights to make ends meet, I kind of know where they are coming from. That’s why one thing I try to always do is treat people how I like to be treated.’’

Cho is hardly a self-promoter. He is reluctant to conduct interviews because of his shy nature. But when the Trail Blazers fired Kevin Pritchard in June, Cho aggressively chased the job. His previous relationship with Portland coach Nate McMillan, who was Seattle’s coach during Cho’s tenure as assistant GM, aided in his hiring.

He inherits a team much like the one he departed in Oklahoma City, laden with young talent and on the verge of making a splash in the Western Conference. Health has been Portland’s major deterrent the last few years, and the Blazers must wait to see if Brandon Roy and Greg Oden start the season healthy.

Before Cho’s arrival, the Blazers acquired the draft rights to Luke Babbitt and signed Wesley Matthews to bolster their backcourt. Guard Rudy Fernandez recently asked for a trade, but Cho maintains he will not make a deal just to appease the Spanish star.

“If there’s a trade that we feel like will improve the team, then we won’t hesitate to make a trade,’’ he said. “But I want to improve the team, if [the deal] makes sense. Right now I’m in the process of asking a lot of questions and getting the answers I need. The situation [with depth] will work itself out like it did in Oklahoma City. I’d rather have too much depth than not enough depth.’’

The circumstances of Pritchard’s firing are still murky, as is the reason he was allowed to make decisions on draft night. But Portland’s ownership has made it clear that winning is a priority. McMillan changed his entire coaching staff, including trusted assistant Dean Demopoulos, who joined Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro in Los Angeles.

Cho inherits a high-pressure situation but plans to deal with issues meticulously.

“I don’t take this responsibility and opportunity lightly,’’ he said. “As far as [being] Asian-American, I am definitely honored to be the first in major sports. It’s not something I dwell on, I just want to do my job and help improve the team. I would never say that it was my time, but I have been through a lot of situations through my time in the league that has helped me prepare to become a GM.’’

He returned to Burma for the first time about six years ago, an experience he called “really, really humbling.’’ It reminded him of the sacrifices by his parents. His siblings have all enjoyed successful careers — one brother a college sociology professor, another a middle school teacher, and another a tax preparer, and his sister has worked as a department store executive for more than 20 years.

“I look back and wonder how my parents were able to feed us and clothe us and bring us along just not making a lot of money,’’ he said. “I feel fortunate in that regard. [Going back to Burma] made me realize how lucky I am that my parents valued education and wanted to come to the States to give us a better opportunity.

“I just feel fortunate to be in this position. It’s not important for me to get accolades. It’s always been my goal to be a GM and I knew being a GM for me would take an owner to think outside the box.’’

MOVING MAN
Chandler has been on the go
Not long ago, Tyson Chandler was considered damaged goods, a chronically injured center whose desire was being questioned. Foot and toe issues limited him to 96 games the last two seasons.

After toe surgery and extensive rehabilitation, Chandler has resurrected his brand with a solid performance for Team USA, and he will take that momentum to his new team, the Mavericks, who acquired him from Charlotte in the Erick Dampier trade.

One NBA coach who observed Team USA in New York said Chandler, the squad’s only legitimate center, was moving as well as he had since his days receiving alley-oops from Chris Paul with New Orleans.

“I’m finally at 100 percent. The summer before last I had a surgery and I was kind of fighting back from that [last season],’’ said Chandler. “I was up and down. I feel back to normal.’’

Since coming out of Dominguez High School in Compton, Calif., in 2001, Chandler has been more developed defensively than offensively. That helps on Team USA, which has enough scorers. What it needs is a rebounder and shot-blocker with length. When healthy, Chandler is one of the league’s best at protecting the basket.

“I understand I have to be an anchor for this team,’’ he said. “I have to be an anchor out there vocally and I have to control the paint out there.’’

Chandler’s situation in Dallas is murky because the team signed Brendan Haywood to a six-year, $55 million contract, presumably to be its starting center. Chandler has been a starter most of his career and wouldn’t concede the job just yet.

“I’m just going to fill whatever role is needed,’’ he said. “I’m a win-first type of guy. If that’s starter, if that’s backup, whatever the situation may be [I’ll be ready].’’

EARLY FORECAST
No breeze in the East
While the rejuvenated Heat and the new-look Bulls join the Magic as threats to unseat the Celtics in the Eastern Conference, Boston center Kendrick Perkins believes the strength of the East is in its depth. Teams such as the Bobcats, Bucks, and Hawks could emerge and perhaps overtake one of the powers.

When asked if the Celtics are the favorites, Perkins said, “I feel like there’s a lot of teams in the East that are overlooked that are pretty good that will sneak up on you. I think it’s going to be an interesting season and I am looking forward to it.’’

Celtics forward Paul Pierce, who never stops thinking about basketball, said he has projected the Eastern Conference playoffs and believes there is just one potential opening.

“It’s deep, it’s going to be strong from top to bottom,’’ he said. “I study the game constantly. I see seven teams in. You got us, you got Chicago, Orlando, Atlanta, Miami, Milwaukee, and Charlotte, and the other one is going to have to fight it out. Those other teams are all in the same boat. But I got those seven getting in and I got Charlotte because of Larry Brown, he is such a good coach. And Milwaukee, [Scott] Skiles is such a good coach, he is going to get them in.’’

DENVER DILEMMA
If Melo’s out, do they panic?
It appears the smoke in Denver is turning into fire, and the Nuggets, like the Cavaliers, will have to begin a major rebuilding project around the trade of Carmelo Anthony. The four-time All-Star is leaving a three-year, $65 million extension on the table and has an opt-out clause after next season, which he is expected to exercise. The league’s collective bargaining agreement expires after the season and Anthony could be the first major player affected by the new agreement unless he is traded within the next year and agrees to an extension with his new team.

Anthony has said he is concerned about the future of the Nuggets, but this may be a case of a player yearning for a change and wanting to play closer to his Eastern roots.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets hired highly regarded former scout Masai Ujiri as executive vice president of basketball operations, and his first assignment will be to talk Anthony into staying or facilitate a trade. Second, he has to trade malcontent J.R. Smith after police decided to investigate an altercation Smith had with another man during a pickup game at the team’s practice facility. Smith has been in constant trouble during his time in Denver; he pled guilty to reckless driving in a crash that killed a friend two years ago. According to an NBA source, some players were told by team officials to be rough with Smith during workouts, and he apparently snapped during the pickup game.

Anthony has been critical of the team’s frontcourt. The Nuggets have rode oft-injured big men Nene and Kenyon Martin for years and neither are healthy. Nene will not play for Brazil in the World Championships because of a leg injury, and Martin is recovering from yet another knee surgery and could miss most of the regular season.

Layups
Just when it appeared Larry Bird was generating some positive news in Indiana, he was blindsided by a 1-2 punch that puts the franchise in more turmoil. First, rookie guard Lance Stephenson was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend Aug. 15, and Friday, the league suspended potential starting shooting guard Brandon Rush five games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Bird has spent the last five years ridding the organization of the bad seeds that cultivated the Pacers’ unsavory off-the-court reputation that has cost the team fan support. Stephenson is out on bail, and Bird told reporters he will work to get Rush help. This is Rush’s third failed drug test. The first two are kept between the league and player, meaning Bird had no idea of Rush’s transgressions until the third failed test . . . The Knicks signed swingman Patrick Ewing Jr. to a partially guaranteed contract Friday, correcting a mistake they made two years ago by releasing the son of the Hall of Famer because they did not want to buy out Stephon Marbury. Ewing is a defensive workhorse and deserves a chance to display his skills in the NBA. He played for his father, a Magic assistant coach, during the Orlando Summer League and participated for the Knicks’ summer league entry in Las Vegas . . . If Kwame Brown had accepted the Celtics’ minimum salary offer a month ago, he would be in green and not Shaquille O’Neal. Brown, instead, waited for better offers. Brown accepted a $1.3 million, one-year contract from the Bobcats and owner Michael Jordan, who, while in the Wizards’ front office, drafted Brown first overall in 2001 after being blown away during a workout. That is the last time Brown blew anyone away with his skills.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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