A growing number of executives running N.B.A. franchises incorporate knowledge about what happens on the basketball court and in the courtroom, while others bring advanced college degrees to their work. Together, they have created what the Portland Trail Blazers’ owner, Paul Allen, termed “the new generation of N.B.A. executives.”
Allen hired Rich Cho as his general manager earlier this month. A day later, the Phoenix Suns introduced Lon Babby, a prominent agent, as their president of basketball operations. The two men pursued law degrees before delving into basketball full time. Cho started as an intern with the Seattle SuperSonics 15 years ago.
Neither Cho, 44, nor Babby, 59, claim to have all the answers for success in the N.B.A. But their legal backgrounds may serve them well in those moments when the court and the courtroom intersect, particularly in arbitration cases. It should certainly come in handy when the league’s collective bargaining agreement, which expires after next season, is renegotiated, requiring the cataloging of a new encyclopedia of details, many of them highly nuanced. With some teams still staggering economically, there is also a heightened emphasis on an executive’s ability to allocate resources properly over several years.
“You use that background and knowledge to help you make trades, in contract negotiations,” Cho said. “That’s one thing where it helps me and Lon.”
Cho and Babby have benefited from a recent tendency among team owners to seek candidates of multifaceted backgrounds when hiring executives. Before the Rockets promoted Daryl Morey, an M.I.T. graduate and an expert in statistical analysis, to his current role as general manager in 2007, teams usually turned to former scouts, players or coaches to run their basketball operations.
Shortly after Morey’s promotion, the Sonics hired the highly respected Sam Presti away from San Antonio and made him general manager. Cho worked as an assistant general manager under Presti, who was a Rhodes scholar nominee at Emerson College, when the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. The two quickly earned a reputation for shrewd trades to acquire high draft picks.
In a similarly innovative organizational move, the Minnesota Timberwolves last year hired David Kahn, a former sportswriter and lawyer, as their president of basketball operations. And this summer the Cavaliers promoted Chris Grant, who holds a master’s degree in educational leadership, to general manager...