Can Cho make it Thunder for Charlotte fans?
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - No matter what happens, Rich Cho is a success in life.
The son of a Burmese immigrant who grew up on welfare and food stamps in Seattle graduated with a law degree from Pepperdine and has a wonderful life with wife Julie and their daughters, Miranda, 6, and Annika, 4.
Cho, 46, already has made more money than he ever dreamed of through his years in the front office of NBA clubs Seattle, Oklahoma City, Portland and Charlotte.
Still, Cho is squaring up with the biggest challenge of his professional career -- turning around the team with the worst winning percentage in NBA history.
During Cho's first season as general manager, the Bobcats went 7-59, losing their last 23 games in a row -- three shy of the NBA's worst losing streak ever.
"I didn't think we were going to set the record for the poorest win percentage in history," says Cho, 46. "I take full responsibility for that."
Cho doesn't deserve the blame for Charlotte's unprecedented futility. He came onto the scene in May 2011, weeks after being fired as general manager of the Trail Blazers. The Bobcats were well on their way to being a mess.
But last season's eyesore record leaves Cho, along with majority owner Michael Jordan and President/Basketball Operations Rod Higgins, thirsting for a turnaround.
I met with Cho at his spacious four-bedroom house in the Providence Plantation development of south Charlotte, a 30-minute commute to the Bobcat offices.
It's a lovely brick home in a wooded suburban neighborhood, with pool and pool house and, if I may say so, one of the more impressive wine cellars I've seen with nary a wine bottle.
"Neither of us drink," Cho says with a laugh.
The Chos were looking for a good school district. Providence Spring, he says, is the No. 1-rated elementary in the state in regard to test scores. And the Olde Providence Racquet Club -- Rich is a doubles aficionado -- is 10 minutes up the road.
Cho hasn't spent a lot of time during the past 12 months playing his second-favorite sport. There is too much work to be done with the Bobcats, who contacted Cho the day after his 11-month reign with the Blazers ended ignominiously.
"One of the questions I asked was, 'Are you willing to take a step back to take two steps forward?' " Cho says. "The answer was unanimously yes. I knew it wasn't going to happen overnight. It was going to be a process."
Cho had experience with the process. He had been the assistant general manager in Seattle from 2000-07 and at Oklahoma City from 2007-09 after owner Clay Bennett moved the franchise. Imagine the pride Cho feels in the Thunder's appearance at the NBA finals.
"I am really happy for Clay, for Sam (Presti, the team's general manager), the front office and the whole city," Cho says. "Julie and I lived there for two years and loved it, made a lot of good friends. It's such a great community. I loved working there, working with Sam and the rest of the guys in the front office."
The Thunder were built largely through the draft, beginning with Kevin Durant as the No. 2 pick in 2007.
(I couldn't help but ask Cho if the Thunder would have taken Greg Oden with the No. 1 pick in that draft. "It would have been really hard to pass on Durant," Cho says. "But in that draft, there were two No. 1 picks.")
The Thunder began a rebuild that year, too, trading Ray Allen to Boston for Wally Szcerbiak, Delonte Green and the No. 5 pick in the draft (Jeff Green) and sending Rashard Lewis to Orlando for a second-round pick (salary dump).
"We won 20 games that year," Cho says.
In 2008, the Thunder took Russell Westbrook No. 4 and Serge Ibaka No. 24 in the draft. That was the season they started 3-29 and finished 23-59.
In 2009, OKC chose James Harden with the third pick in the draft, and all of a sudden, won 50 games.
"It happened fast, but that's unusual," Cho says. "A lot of that goes to how great a player Kevin Durant is. Kevin sets the tone there. He's the leader. He works his tail off, and so do the other guys."
In Charlotte, Cho says, "we're trying to build it similar to how we built it in Seattle/OKC."
Prior to Cho's arrival, Charlotte unloaded its two best players, Gerald Wallace and Steven Jackson. There wasn't a lot of talent remaining to begin last season. Then the Bobcats suffered some injuries and waived underachieving forward Boris Diaw in March. What remained was a glorified D-League squad that didn't win after March 17.
The Charlotte front office is an interesting dynamic. The elephant in the room is Jordan. You may remember him as a player. As an executive, he has been somewhat less successful.
Jordan became minority owner of the Bobcats in 2006 and ran the club's basketball operations through 2010, when he became majority owner. Since then, he turned basketball ops over to Higgins, who had served as GM since 2007.
Higgins and Cho share front-office duties. Though he is too modest to admit it, Cho is the point man on virtually everything, including the draft, free agency, putting together a summer-league team and the hiring of a coach.
"Rod has been wonderful to work with," Cho says. "We complement each other really well. He has a smart basketball mind."
Cho is mindful of not trying to take credit for Charlotte's front-office decisions. He wants everyone working toward a common goal.
"It was a team effort in OKC," he says. "One of the things Sam always preached -- and I really believe in, too -- is teamwork. That's something I've instilled here with the Bobcats."
Jordan has backed away from day-to-day responsibilities, and gives Cho autonomy to make decisions.
"It's been terrific to work with Michael," he says. "He is very supportive. He has taken a step back, but we always keep him informed. When he is in town, we always talk."
It was a blow to Charlotte when New Orleans landed the No. 1 pick -- and presumably Kentucky's Anthony Davis -- in the draft lottery. The Bobcats wound up with No. 2. Cho took it with a stiff upper lip.
"I was disappointed, just like other (12) teams that didn't get the No. 1 pick," he says. "But that's the way it goes. We had no control over it. The No. 2 pick is better than No. 3 or 4."
The first item of business is hiring a coach "before the draft," Cho says. "We're getting there."
Cho interviewed 10 candidates, including former Trail Blazer coach Nate McMillan. An ESPN report said the Bobcats have narrowed their list to three -- former Utah coach Jerry Sloan, Lakers assistant coach Quin Snyder and Indiana assistant coach Brian Shaw.
Cho indicated once the list was pared, he would "bring (the finalists) back and have them talk to Michael."
"One thing that's going to be important for our growth is player development," Cho says. "The coach we hire will have to have a strong emphasis there."
The Bobcats will likely take either Kansas power forward Thomas Robinson or Kentucky forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the No. 2 pick in the draft. I don't see them trading the selection. They are in reconstruction mode.
Charlotte is committed to about $43 million in salary for the upcoming season, including Corey Maggette ($10.9 million), Tyrus Thomas ($8 million) and DeSagna Diop ($7.37 million). And the Bobcats have to decide if they want to retain free agent point guard D.J. Augustin.
'We'll look to keep him as a free agent, if the price is right,' Cho says.
After the 2012-13 campaign, though, only Thomas and 2011-12 rookies Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo are on the books. And Thomas, due $33.4 million over the next four years, is as primo an amnesty candidate as there is in the NBA.
'We have a lot of options available to us,' is all Cho will say.
Cho has revamped Charlotte's scouting system, putting together "the most advanced database I've seen," he says. "It's an eyes, ears and numbers approach. It was something we were going to do in Portland, but didn't have enough time."
Cho won't say anything bad about the Blazers or owner Paul Allen, but he can't help but feel bitter. What began with such promise after a four-hour interview on a yacht in Helsinki ended with a phone call from President Larry Miller telling him it was over almost before it started, with little or no explanation.
"It wasn't the right fit," Cho says. "I'm in a great place now."
Cho is a competitor. He wants to show what happened in Portland was an anomaly. In Charlotte, he wants to emulate the blueprint of Oklahoma City on the way to an appearance in the NBA finals.
I'm not sure he gets there -- it's a long path to nirvana -- but I'm not betting against Cho, either. Maybe someday he'll fill that wine cellar with champagne to uncork in a championship celebration.