Decatur grad key to Sonics' success

With the Seattle SuperSonics tied at one game apiece with the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the National Basketball Association playoffs, former Federal Way resident Rich Cho couldn’t be happier. Not unless he was wearing a Sonics uniform.

Even though Cho, a 1983 Decatur High School graduate, didn’t play basketball in high school, he’s just as much a part of the Sonics success as Gary Payton or Vin Baker. OK, maybe more than Vin Baker.

Cho traded high tops for dress shoes as the Sonics assistant general manager and associate legal counsel. As assistant general manager, he works with general manager Rick Sund to negotiate player contracts, draft player contracts and work with the salary cap to determine the feasibility of free agent signings, trades and other transactions.

On the legal side, Cho tangles with issues like sponsorship and licensing agreements.

“As a general manager it’s really important to have some one who knows the legal issues and the salary cap,” said Rick Sund, Sonics general manager. “He’s brilliant in a lot of ways and extremely helpful. I’ve been general manager with three teams and always had a right-hand man, particularly with contracts and numbers. Rich is as good as they get.

“Because of his legal background it’s extremely helpful. That might open some doors for him even though he didn’t play. With his background and knowledge, he has a chance to be a general manager not only in basketball, but some other professional sport.”

At 36, Cho is one of the youngest assistant general managers in the NBA and the only person of Asian descent in the NBA front offices. He was born in Burma, then moved to the United States when he was 3. He now lives in Seattle, but his mom, Shirley Cho, still lives in Federal Way.

“I always wanted to do something sports related,” Cho said. “I was good at math and stuff like that so I went into engineering. When you’re in high school you don’t really think about jobs like this. It’s a great job. Everything revolves around basketball. It’s kind of like a family — everyone is looking for the same thing, for the team to do well. It makes it fun to come to work every day.”

After Cho graduated from Washington State University in 1989, he worked as an engineer at Boeing for five years.

“I did engineering just because there wasn’t a lot of other things to do,” Cho said. “I didn’t know of a lot of options. I didn’t mind being an engineer, but I didn’t love it.”

Cho did some research and found that a lot of sports agents and people in the front office of most professional sports organizations have law degrees. So he enrolled in law school at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. in 1994.

While at school, he sent a resume to the Sonics which resulted in a summer internship. He interned again in the summer of 1996, then did part-time work for the Sonics after he graduated in 1997.

As an intern, Cho was asked to design a computerized player evaluation program that would allow the Sonics to compare players for trades, free agent signings

“Wally Walker was the general manager at the time (now he’s president and CEO) and he was looking for an intern that would help him be the most technologically advanced in the league,” Cho said. “We made changes to it along the way, but we use the same basic system.”

The computer program allows the Sonics to compare players based on just about every imaginable statistical category, including salary. Cho also devised a formula to give every player in the NBA a Sonics Evaluation Number, which takes all of a player’s relevant stats and condenses them to one number.

While other teams have since developed similar software, Cho’s program is the most advanced in the league.

For example, if the Sonics want a shooting guard who hits more than 35 percent of his 3-point shots and makes less than $2 million a year, Cho enters the requested stats and a list of players comes up on the screen.

While Cho won’t say specifically which players he helped the Sonics acquire using this system, he said, “We use it for just about all of them.”

Cho’s office in the Sonics training facility is just upstairs from the practice floor where the players work out. Even with the close proximity, he doesn’t hang out with them off the court.

“I deal a lot with their agents,” Cho said. “I know the players and they know me, but I’m more in the front offices. It’s not a good idea to fraternize with them too much because it’s a business and you gotta do what’s right for the team.” Another of Cho’s duties is scouting players for the upcoming draft. He scouted at a few college games this season and was in China earlier this month to check out the 7-foot-6 player Yao Ming.

“You gotta kind of live and breath basketball,” Cho said. “We talk a lot about other teams and players — both college and pro. You gotta know the strengths and weaknesses of players and their tendencies. It’s fun because it’s all basketball related, but at the same time I get to combine the cerebral part of the business.”

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