Game Changer

By David Hopkins 25 March 2015

Rich Cho sounds laid back, but steer him onto the topic of food and he soon turns into an animated guide who can rattle off a list of where to find the best Myanmar cuisine across the United States, from San Francisco to Philadelphia.

“I love it all,” said the Yangon-born son of Myanmar emigrants who made a splash a few years ago when he became the first Asian-American general manager in the history of the top professional basketball league in the United States.

Mr. Cho, 49, was just 3 years old when he left Myanmar with his parents for the United States in 1968. But the man who now rubs shoulders with some of the stars of the National Basketball Association (NBA) has never lost his links to the homeland where his family has a distinguished history.

Last August Mr. Cho took time off his current job as general manager of the Charlotte Hornets team to visit relatives in Yangon and catch up with local basketball players.

That was his third trip back since his first visit here in 2004, which left a strong impression.

“It was unbelievable to see where I came from,” he told The Irrawaddy by phone from his home in North Carolina. Mr. Cho hadn’t traveled much as a youth, so it had been “hard to picture” Myanmar.

Isolated Yangon in 2004 felt a very long way from Washington State where Mr. Cho spent his childhood and developed an early passion for tennis, softball and basketball.

After he gained a degree in engineering and worked for a time at Boeing in Seattle, that love of sports made him decide to take a punt on a new career.

In 1995 he secured an internship with the Seattle Supersonics basketball team. Over the next 15 years he rose to become assistant general manager and also secured a law degree.

His ground-breaking appointment as general manager with the Portland Trail Blazers team in 2010 was “definitely humbling,” he said. It was also a rocky experience, lasting only around a year.

“That was a tough thing to go through [losing the job with Portland]. But that’s part of this business, the NBA. There’s a lot of volatility with the job.’’

Mr. Cho was soon recruited as general manager with the Charlotte Hornets and moved across the country to North Carolina. “Fortunately I was able to land back on my feet pretty quickly,” he said.

Family Influence

Riding the knocks, that essential immigrants’ skill, was something he had seen his parents accomplish as they worked to build a successful life in the United States.

Former journalist U Aung Aung Cho (Alan) and Daw Nwe Nwe Yi (Shirley) left Myanmar for the United States to find “a better life” after they obtained sponsorship from a church in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

They ended up settling in Seattle, Washington State, where their distinguished family pedigree, Myanmar work experience and the new university degrees they earned didn’t prevent life from often being a challenge.

“My dad had a number of odd jobs. He worked the graveyard shift at 7-Eleven for a number of years,” Rich Cho recalled. “My mom worked at a library just to make ends meet. There was a period when we were on welfare. Like for a lot of immigrant families that come to the States, it was a tough road.”

There wasn’t much time to dwell on former times when family members had made a mark in Myanmar.

Rich Cho’s paternal grandfather, U Cho, was the first education minister in the post-independence period, a position he held until his retirement in May 1951.

U Cho visited France, Switzerland, Germany, China, England, Scotland, and the United States to study each country’s education system and published several books including “The Effect of War on Education in Burma During Japanese Occupation,” in 1949.

He was also a member of the Burmese Translation Society, which was established in 1947 and was for a time chaired by Prime Minister U Nu.

U Cho died in 1966, two years before Alan and Shirley Cho and their young family departed for the United States.

Rich Cho’s maternal grandfather, U Thant Gyi, was a former deputy education minister who also worked as educational attaché at the Myanmar Embassy in the United States.

Bouncing Back

U Thant Gyi would have been proud of the cultural diplomacy his grandson embraced in 2012 when he traveled to Yangon as a sports envoy sponsored by the US State Department.

Together with three other envoys, Mr. Cho held basketball workshops and clinics with young local players.

“I saw the passion that a lot of kids have for basketball, so it was really fun to be a part of,” Mr. Cho said, adding that he was surprised at the high skill level of some of the players.

The following year the NBA and the State Department sponsored 12 young Myanmar basketball players, accompanied by members of the Myanmar Basketball Federation (MBF), to take part in basketball clinics in the United States. The group also attended a Charlotte Hornets home game.

Basketball is still struggling to find its way in Myanmar. There is no annual basketball competition and the game has failed to gain widespread appeal due to a lack of financial resources and mismanagement, U Maung Maung Myint of the MBF told The Irrawaddy.

But he’s hoping for better days ahead. “The younger generation must have the right to play, the time to play, a place to play,” U Maung Maung Myint said.

Rich Cho’s experience may provide an inspiration for young players. The boy from Yangon, who once washed dishes at a pancake chain and rose to head a significant NBA team, knows a thing or two about rising from humble beginnings.

Wei Yan Aung and Thet Ko Ko contributed to this article, which first appeared in the March 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.