Want to be an NBA General Manager? Here are 10 Potential Career Paths

By Brian Clapp | April 20, 2015
nba general managers
Being an NBA general manager puts you in charge of what goes on the court - but how do you get there?
While in college and working at the campus television station my future started to become clear. I had finally figured out my path, I was destined to work in front of the camera at a sports network.

Not exactly a bombshell discovery, many have had the same vision, but for me it was groundbreaking since so much of my college life was spent adrift.

My older brother was the first person I told, and being supportive of this journey he began researching how all of the sportscasters on ESPN got their start. He provided me pages of printouts detailing where Larry Beil went to school, what Craig Kilborn studied as an undergrad and the first TV market Suzy Kolber ever set foot in.

Turns out I didn't have the on-air skill set, at least not then, but this background information provided me a clear path to success if I chose it and an answer to the question - how?

Many people ask us how to become an NBA general manager, the answer: start with research much like the kind my brother conducted for me.

We've already profiled the sports career path of ten MLB general managers - now we take on the NBA general managers:

Sam Presti – Oklahoma City Thunder


Hometown: Presti was born and raised in Concord, Massachusetts

how to become a NBA General Manager
Sam Presti, General Manager Oklahoma City Thunder
College: Presti graduated from Emerson College with a degree in Communication, Politics and Law - becoming the first Rhodes scholar nominee in the history of the school. He was also a four-year basketball letterman, serving as team captain his junior and senior seasons

First “Job”: After graduation Presti had his sights set on the NBA and was fortunate enough to find himself at a Basketball camp in Aspen, Colorado that Spurs GM R.C. Buford was scheduled to attend.

The camp lasted four days, but Buford didn’t show up until the final day and Presti knew if he was going to make an impression he had to act fast. The then 23-year old saw Buford refereeing a game and decided to run up and down the court with him, peppering questions about landing an internship with the team.

Both Buford and Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich were impressed, but only impressed enough to offer him a video internship that paid just a minuscule amount. Presti was allowed to break down video within the cozy confines of a converted custodial closet.

Sports Career Path:

  • Video Intern – San Antonio Spurs

  • Basketball Special Assistant – Spurs

  • Assistant Director of Scouting – Spurs

  • Director of Player Personnel - Spurs

  • Vice President/Assistant General Manager - Spurs

  • NBA General Manager – Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Executive Vice President/General Manager – Thunder


Getting the Band Back Together: Presti is an accomplished drummer and has produced three music CDs with all proceeds benefiting the Extra Ordinary Needs Fund at Children’s Hospital in Boston.

Coach Popovich on Presti: ““He’s one smart dude, No. 1, that’s the first thing you figure out very quickly with Sam. The second thing you figure out, he’s a total team player, just a great human being who is comfortable in his own skin, loyal, hard-working. He couldn’t have been better for us, and he’s even better now.”

Bob Myers – Golden State Warriors


Hometown: Danville, California

College: Myers graduated from UCLA with a degree in business and economics. Steve Lavin, then an assistant coach at UCLA, convinced Myers to try out for the basketball team. Myers made the squad as a walk-on in 1993 before earning an athletic scholarship the following year.

First Job after Graduation: Myers collegiate coach, Jim Harrick, introduced him to sports agent Arn Tellem who hired him as an intern at Tellem and Associates in 1997 while he completed his law degree at Loyola Law School. This is where Myers flourished, spending the next 14 years as a sports agent.


Sports Career Path:

  • Intern – Tellem and Associates (Sports Agency)

  • Associate Sports Agent– Tellem and Associates

  • Vice President/Sports Agent – SFX Sports

  • Sports Agent – Wasserman Media Group

  • Assistant General Manager – Golden State Warriors

  • NBA General Manager – Warriors


Personal Mantra: "You can't ensure success, but you can deserve it. I like that [saying] because you can't guarantee results, but you can put in the effort to achieve them. If you put in hard work, something positive usually comes with that.” – Bob Myers

R.C. Buford – San Antonio Spurs


Hometown: Robert Canterbury “R.C.” Buford was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas.

College: Buford played college basketball at Texas A&M University and Oklahoma State before receiving his degree from Friends University. Never heard of Friends University? It’s a small (~ 2,500 students) private university in Wichita, Kansas. Their mascot, since I bet you are dying to know, is Freddie the Falcon.

First Job after Graduation: Began his coaching career at the University of Kansas in 1983 under the legendary Larry Brown. Buford spent five years as an assistant coach at Kansas, leaving the program after the 1988 National Championship to follow Brown to the NBA.how to prepare for your sports job search ebook

Sports Career Path:

  • Graduate Assistant – University of Kansas

  • Assistant Coach – Kansas

  • Assistant Coach – San Antonio Spurs

  • First Assistant Coach – Los Angeles Clippers

  • Assistant Coach – University of Florida

  • Head Scout – San Antonio Spurs

  • Director of Scouting – Spurs

  • Vice President/Assistant General Manager - Spurs

  • NBA General Manager – Spurs

  • President of Sports Franchises – Spurs Sports and Entertainment


All-Star Team: When Buford made the jump to the NBA as an assistant on Larry Brown’s staff, the other assistants were a who’s who of the current industry - Gregg Popovich, Alvin Gentry and Ed Manning. His powerful friendships don’t stop there, while playing at Oklahoma State his best friend on the team was current Kansas Head Coach Bill Self.

Masai Ujiri – Toronto Raptors


Hometown: Zaria, Nigeria

how to become an NBA General Manager
Masai Ujiri, the first African born general manager in any of the four major US pro sports leagues (Photo Courtesy: TorontoSun.com)
College: Ujiri immigrated to the US and attended Bismarck State College where he played basketball for two years. He transferred to Montana State University - Billings, but left after one semester without playing.

First Job after Graduation: Ujiri played professional Basketball in Europe from 1996-2002. After ending his playing career, he began working as a youth coach in his native Nigeria. His big break came after impressing an Orlando Magic scout…just enough to get an unpaid international scouting gig with the team.

Sports Career Path:

  • Youth Coach in Nigeria

  • Unpaid Scout – Orlando Magic

  • International Scout – Denver Nuggets

  • Director of Global Scouting – Toronto Raptors

  • Assistant General Manager – Raptors

  • Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations – Denver Nuggets

  • NBA General Manager – Toronto Raptors


On playing professionally in Europe: "I made some money, learned a lot about basketball and introduced myself to everyone. When my playing career ended, I got out my black book and starting making calls." - Ujiri

1st Times Two: Ujiri is the first African-born general manager for a North American major league sports team … he is also the first general manager to yell “F--- Brooklyn” during a fan rally prior to a playoff game between his Raptors and the Brooklyn Nets.

Daryl Morey – Houston Rockets


Hometown: Morey was born in Baraboo, Wisconsin but primarily raised in a small town outside of Medina, Ohio

College: Morey graduated from Northwestern with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and an emphasis on statistics. He later received his MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he would later return as chairperson for the highly acclaimed MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference – the largest student run conference in the world.

First Job after Graduation: Morey’s introduction to the sports industry post-graduation wasn’t with a professional team, rather he worked as a Principal consultant for a strategy consulting firm, The Parthenon Group, and later as a statistical consultant with STATS, Inc.

Sports Career Path

  • Principal Consultant – The Parthenon Group

  • Statistical Consultant – STATS, Inc

  • Senior Vice President Operations and Information – Boston Celtics

  • Assistant General Manager – Houston Rockets

  • NBA General Manager - Rockets


Pro Basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley on Morey and the entire Sports Analytics Community: "All these guys who run these organizations who talk about analytics, they have one thing in common: They're a bunch of guys who ain't never played the game, they never got the girls in high school, and they just want to get in the game. I've always believed analytics is crap. I've never mentioned the Rockets as a legitimate contender, because they're not. Listen, I wouldn't know Daryl Morey if he walked in this room right now."

In fairness, Morey did respond saying via Twitter that Barkley was, "spewing misinformed, biased vitriol disguised as entertainment."

Chris Wallace – Memphis Grizzlies


Hometown: Buckhannon, West Virginia

How to become an NBA general manager
Grizzlies General Manager Chris Wallace alongside one of his best signings, Zach Randolph
College: Wallace attended the University of Kansas but actually dropped out prior to graduating…twice. Recalls Wallace, "One day in class, I had an epiphany. Everyone was diligently taking notes and I said to myself, 'What am I doing here?' I was taking journalism classes but I knew I didn't want to work in journalism. I said, 'This is a farce.'"

First Job after Graduation Leaving: Wallace started up the basketball publication Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook from his parents’ house, where he lived for over a decade after leaving ‘Rock Chalk Jayhawk’ behind. You read that right, he lived with his parents from 22 years old until he was 32.

Niche magazine publishing doesn’t exactly make you rich, but it can get you noticed as many of his subscribers were NBA executives, including Jon Spoelstra of the Trailblazers who offered him his first job as a scout.

Sports Career Path:

  • Scout – Portland Trailblazers

  • Scout – Denver Nuggets

  • Scout – Miami Heat

  • Director of Player Personnel - Heat

  • NBA General Manager – Boston Celtics

  • General Manager, Vice President of Basketball Operations – Memphis Grizzlies


Read between the lines NBA: “Despite the fact that you may not see us frequently on National television, we like to think we have a pretty good team here and a team that will be a challenger in the Western Conference.” – Chris Wallace

It’s not all glamour: In 1992 the Miami Heat offered Wallace a job as a scout…for $25,000/year.

Sam Hinkie – Philadelphia 76ers


Hometown: Hinkie was born in the Netherlands, but later moved to Easley, South Carolina when he was three.

College: Majored in Business Administration while attending the University of Oklahoma, where he was named one of the top 60 undergraduates in the county by USA Today. After that feat, he went on the Stanford Business School where he received his MBA.

First Job after Graduation: Between undergrad and his pursuit of a Masters, Hinkie jumped into the business world accepting a position with Bain & Company and later Bain Capital in Australia.

But, when he attended Stanford, he began to shift his focus towards the sports industry, advising the San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans on draft strategies and statistical analysis, and working part-time for the Houston Rockets.

Sports Career Path:

  • Special Assistant to the General Manager - Houston Rockets

  • Vice President – Rockets

  • Executive Vice President – Rockets

  • NBA General Manager – Philadelphia 76ers


On Building a Champion: "We're focused on how to put the building blocks in place that have a chance to compete in May. Those teams win in the high-50s. They don't win in the teens and they don't add two or three wins a year and they don't add a win a month for a little while to try and get to where they're going. They get all the way to the 50s. And they get there usually on the backs of great players.” - Sam Hinkie

Ryan McDonough – Phoenix Suns


Hometown: Hingham, Massachusetts

how to become an NBA general manager
Suns general manager Ryan McDonough (right) alongside head coach Jeff Hornacek
College: McDonough graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication. While at UNC, McDonough worked with several of the teams in the sports information office and even spent a summer calling games for the Double A Carolina Mudcats.

First Job after Graduation: McDonough interned with the Boston Red Sox while in college, but desired an NBA career path. He sent in his resume to the Boston Celtics, just as a new ownership group was taking over, and landed a job in the video room.

It was a humble beginning for the young man that would become one of the brightest young minds in the NBA, “"It wasn’t so much a room as just a collection of loose VHS tapes," he says. "My job was, one, to get more tapes because there weren’t that many. Also organize and edit what we had in a more efficient manner."

Sports Career Path:

  • Intern – Boston Red Sox

  • Special Assistant to Basketball Operations – Boston Celtics

  • Special Assistant, Video – Celtics

  • Director of Amateur Scouting – Celtics

  • Director of International Scouting – Celtics

  • Director of Player Personnel – Celtics

  • Assistant General Manager – Celtics

  • NBA General Manager – Phoenix Suns


All in the Family: McDonough’s father Will was a renowned sportswriter, best known for his work with the Boston Globe, his brother Sean is a highly-regarded play by play announcer for ESPN, and his other brother Terry is the Vice President of player personnel for the Arizona Cardinals.

Neil Olshey – Portland Trailblazers


Hometown: New York

how to become an NBA general manager
Blazers GM Neil Olshey (left) has deftly maneuvered his roster and relationship with billionaire owner Paul Allen (right) (Photo courtesy: OregonLive.com)
College: Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York

First Job after Graduation: Olshey had stars in his eyes after graduating from Le Moyne, originally determined to become a professional actor, not an NBA executive. He appeared in television commercials, print advertisements and had roles on various soap operas.

Sports Career Path:

  • Director of Player Development – SFX Sports

  • Director of Player Development – Los Angeles Clippers

  • Assistant Coach – Clippers

  • Director of Player Personnel – Clippers

  • Assistant General Manager - Clippers

  • General Manager/Vice President of Basketball Operations – Clippers

  • NBA General Manager – Portland Trailblazers


Philosophical Approach: “It’s really important to create the best environment possible, so we can transition to a players-first culture. When these guys go out and they talk to guys or they tweet guys or they text guys or whatever, they can say, ‘Nobody takes better care of players than the Portland Trail Blazers. This is the best place I’ve been. They have the best resources, best environment, best building, best home crowd and everybody’s got our back up here.’

"That’s what players want to hear. And your players become your best recruiters. We’re creating the best basketball environment we can create, so this will become a top-tier basketball destination.” – Neil Olshey

John Hammond – Milwaukee Bucks


Hometown: Zion, Illinois

College: Hammond played Basketball while obtaining his Bachelor’s degree from Greenville College in Illinois


Sports Career Path:

  • High School Coach in Nebraska

  • Assistant Coach – University of Nebraska

  • Assistant Coach – Houston Baptist

  • Assistant Coach – Southwest Missouri State

  • Scout – Minnesota Timberwolves

  • Assistant Coach – Timberwolves

  • Assistant Coach – Los Angeles Clippers

  • Scouting Director – Detroit Pistons

  • Lead Assistant Coach – Pistons

  • Lead Assistant Coach - Clippers

  • Vice President, Basketball Operations – Detroit Pistons

  • NBA General Manager – Milwaukee Bucks


A Sense of Confidence:  “I am in a position in my life and professionally where I am secure in myself. I feel very fortunate about that, I have been around the league for so long. I know who I am and I know my abilities, so it is not about being concerned. You’re not looking over your shoulder, you’re just glad you have the opportunity. Obviously, you’d like to keep the opportunity, but I feel good about the chances I have.” – Hammond on his position as General Manager of the Bucks

Conclusion:


If you are convinced that you need to go to the top school in the nation or else never stand a chance as an NBA general manager - you are mistaken. Le Moyne College, Friends University, Emerson College, Greenville University - these aren't exactly the cream of the ivy league crop.

Although, much like baseball, there is a trend of new NBA general managers's having a background in analytics more than coaching. Guys like Daryl Morey, Sam Presti, Sam Hinkie and Ryan McDonough didn't make their marks on the sidelines, but rather in the spreadsheets.

The choice is yours how you will pursue your dreams - this is just a blueprint of actual success stories, not a singular mandate.

photo credit: center court via photopin (license)

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