Koby Altman had been on the job less than 24 hours when the news broke: All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving had requested a trade.
This was the latest twist in a tumultuous offseason that had questions swirling around the Cleveland Cavaliers. After three straight trips to the NBA Finals and a championship for the ages in 2016, the Cavs suddenly appeared to be an organization in disarray.
At the center of it all was the Cavs’ newly minted general manager, Altman, a Brooklyn native who grew up blocks from where the Barclays Center now stands, with dreams of being an NBA general manager.
But Altman didn’t have the pedigree that most NBA GMs possess. He was a middle-of-the road three-year starter at point guard at Division III Middlebury College, and had a stint in corporate real estate out of school before getting back into basketball. Altman, who is black and Jewish, had only five years of front-office experience when he was suddenly catapulted to the top spot on the Cavs to run a roster that currently has several players — Jose Calderon, Kyle Korverand Dwyane Wade — older than he is.
And now that he had achieved his goal and the gig was his, all Altman had to do was make sure whatever decisions he made didn’t go wrong and potentially help push the greatest player in team history, and one of the greatest in the history of the sport, LeBron James, out the door when he can opt into free agency next summer.
“There’s no manual I was given to say, ‘Hey, take over this team that’s been to three straight Finals, and oh, you have the best player in the world, and you need to manage that and try to get him back,'” Altman told ESPN. “There’s no manual for that. I say it’s incredibly hard, I think they’re all hard. Each job is hard.”
Too early to evaluate Cavs GM Altman.
The Undefeated’s Mike Wise believes new Cavaliers GM Koby Altman’s success will depend on Isaiah Thomas playing at an All-Star level and LeBron James staying next season.
But whatever challenges he has to maneuver, Altman won’t let himself forget that he has basketball at the center of his existence, and he has been willing to do the dirty work — literally, at times — to get where he is now.
“The summer was chaotic and difficult, and at times agonizing,” he said. “There was a black cloud over it. Being back at practice now you realize, wow, this is fun again. This is why I’m doing this.”
David Hixon, the two-time national championship coach at Amherst College, remembers the first time he saw Koby Altman a decade ago.
“His suit was a Division I coaching suit,” Hixon said. “It wasn’t a Division III guy. It was a nice suit.
“When he came into my office, I could tell that he had an edge. That he had a competitive edge about him, which I really liked. … I knew we had a good one and we also wouldn’t keep him.”
After leaving the real estate industry, Altman joined Hixon’s staff as a graduate assistant at Amherst. In his two seasons on the staff, Altman connected with Sean Ford, the men’s national team director for USA Basketball, who was a graduate of the UMass Sports Management program.
Ford got him involved as a manager on USAB’s U-19 2009 World Championship team, where his duties included, among other things, washing the laundry of a pair of future NBA All-Stars — Klay Thompson and Gordon Hayward.
“He always made good choices and was a person that we would want a 19-year-old to be around,” Ford said of the then-26-year-old Altman. “I felt that getting to know Koby and his background and where he came from and what he stood for, I thought that he had high character. I thought that he was trustworthy. He appeared to be very honest. And I also felt that what I liked about him is that he knew what he didn’t know. He didn’t try to prove that he knew something or prove that he was smart.”
Plus, it was hard to be a know-it-all as the unknown guy with a name that sounds like the best player in the world at the time.
“I spelled, in my own mind, I spelled it wrong all the time,” Ford says. “Whenever I would send him an email, I would type K-O-B-E, and the wrong Kobe came up. So that was kind of funny.
“It’s a very unique name, especially in the basketball world, because you think there’s only one, and Koby is trying to say that, no, maybe there’s room for two. Who knows?”
While Altman was never going to score 81 points in a game or have two jerseys retired by the same team, Hixon knew he could make his mark in his own way.
“Everybody was sort of chuckling in my office the other day,” Hixon says. “We were getting ready to play golf and somebody said, ‘Coach, I don’t know if you remember this, but 10 years ago you told all of us that Koby was going to be a GM in the next 10 years.’ I don’t know what on earth made me give that bold prediction, but he was one of those guys that knows what he wants.”
There are only 30 men in the NBA’s general manager fraternity, and Altman stands out among them. At 35 years old, he’s the second-youngest GM in the league behind only Jon Horst of the Milwaukee Bucks. He’s also one of just four black GMs in a league comprised of a player pool that’s more than 70 percent black.
“You don’t realize the magnitude of the job until you get it, and you don’t realize who you touch until you get it,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me about how meaningful it is for African-American youth to see me in that position. I know from my own friends that say: Listen, this is a really big deal.”
Cavs senior adviser Bernie Bickerstaff, who is also African-American, has been involved in the league as either an assistant coach, head coach or in a front office position since 1968. He realizes the torch that Altman bears, having been a coach when Wayne Embry became the first black GM in league history in the early 1970s with Milwaukee. Embry later went on to run the Cleveland teams, featuring Mark Price, Craig Ehlo, Brad Daugherty & Co. But he doesn’t think Altman’s race should define how he’s viewed around the league.
“The guy is methodically organized,” Bickerstaff says. “And he’s got terrific people skills. He engages well. And that’s on top of him having a pretty good basketball I.Q. It ain’t like he just appeared. I think it’s a great opportunity for a young guy. Not a young black guy, but for a young executive.
“At that age and that youth, he’s got to stay in his character. He’s got enough pressure on him other than worrying about, ‘Hey, I got to do a job [to open the door].’ The bottom line, he does the job. That’s the only thing that’s important.”
Cavs center Tristan Thompson says Altman, just like his agent, 36-year-old Rich Paul, represents a new, younger generation that will benefit the NBA.
“The game needs to continue getting younger, in all aspects,” Thompson says. “I think, especially for front office guys and coaches, I think it’s great for the NBA to start giving younger guys chances, especially for an African-American, that’s definitely huge.”
However, while Altman represents an NBA executive youth movement, he isn’t averse to reaching out for advice from the older generation either.
He still counts Joel Radmin, his boss at Friedman-Roth Realty where he worked on spec for Manhattan apartment closing commissions, as having taught him his most important lesson in business.
“He’s worth a lot of money,” Altman says. “And he’s 25 years now in real estate. He said after the first year he started to feel like he got the hang of it, and he started to figure out the landscape. He thought he knew everything. After the second year, he realized he knew nothing. After the third year, he started to figure it out again and got a pace to it and started to think, ‘I get this. I know everything again.’ He said after the fifth year, he realized again he knew absolutely nothing.”
Perhaps it’s the same humility that allowed Altman to walk away from a budding real estate career to pursue hoops. Just because he was successful early didn’t mean he had it all figured out.
“I think he came in when he was 21 years old,” Radmin says. “A year and a half later, he had a great apartment on Fifth Avenue, and he was doing great. He was involved in $20 million deals. … He walked away from a successful career. I had all respect for the move, although I absolutely thought he was insane. And happily, happily, happily he proved me very wrong.”
“There’s no manual I was given to say, ‘Hey take over this team that’s been to three straight Finals, and oh, you have the best player in the world, and you need to manage that and try to get him back.'”
Cavaliers GM Koby Altman
While he was hunting down commissions, he reached out to Joe McGrane, the varsity basketball coach at Xavier High School in Manhattan. Altman, who had flexible hours in the real estate business, wanted to work McGrane’s summer camp — the same summer camp Altman played in as an eighth grader — to see if it could lead to a spot volunteering as an assistant coach on McGrane’s staff during the season. The buckets were becoming more important than the bucks.
“I think the one quality that often gets overlooked and has been vital to his success are his Brooklyn street smarts — you are not going to ‘play him’ or ‘get over’ on him,” McGrane says. “He’s been negotiating his whole life. He knows exactly what he wants and has a plan on how he’s going to get it.”
There’s a photo that hangs above Altman’s desk in his office at the Cavs’ practice facility, depicting Thompson on the floor and four Cavs players — JR Smith and Iman Shumpert grabbing his left arm and James and Channing Frye grabbing his right — helping the big man up.
It’s a reminder of the impression James made on Altman when he came back to his native Northeast Ohio in 2014 for a second go-round with the Cavs and sparked the most successful era in franchise history.
“One of the first practices, a guy took it to the hoop and he missed it and fell and sort of slid toward the out-of-bounds line,” Altman says. “A couple people took a step toward him, LeBron screams out, ‘Pick him up! Pick him up!’ Probably was at half court when he saw it, sprints past everybody to pick him up. Everyone was like, ‘Wow.’ Then the next time it happens, four or five people go pick the guy up.”
It’s the same ethos that governs Altman’s front office. After Griffin’s departure, everyone went to work with no guarantee promotions would come. The draft and free agency were fast approaching, and there was a team to run. “We just thought, ‘Hey, we have an opportunity here,'” says Mike Gansey, who used to run Cleveland’s G League affiliate, the Canton Charge. “All of us kind of had to do a little bit more, and we were just like, ‘Hey, this is our chance to show Dan, to show the rest of the NBA … like, we can do this.”
The group worked so well together that when Gilbert made the decision to give the GM job to Altman, he moved everyone else up as well. Gansey is now the Cavs’ assistant GM. Brock Aller, who spent years as Gilbert’s personal assistant, is now the team’s senior director of basketball operations. Brandon Weems, their scouting director, and Jon Nichols, their analytics director, also got bumped up.
Altman then added Bickerstaff, a longtime NBA presence, as his senior adviser, hired Primoz Brezec as an international scout and Andre Patterson as the director of basketball administration, building the same type of deep front office that allowed Griffin to empower Altman in the first place.
And in the process, Altman has been cognizant of making Gilbert happy, someone who is notoriously mercurial. Gilbert has never given one of his GMs a second contract, cycling through Danny Ferry, Chris Grant, Griffin and now Altman since buying the team in 2005. He’s been known to negotiate directly with agents, cutting his GM out of the process.
“Gilbert wants to win at the highest level, so he’s going to commit all the resources to do that,” Altman says. “You just have to give him the reasons why. That’s all we do every single day is come up with the reasons why. … He wants to see a clear process, and if it makes us 1 percent better and costs us more money, he’s probably going to say yes.”
When the Cavs beat the Warriors in 2016, each member of the front office staff was presented with a T-shirt featuring their likenesses in cartoon form, holding up the championship trophy in a group, just like the ones that became popular with championship teams in the ’80s. They also have a full-scale NBA Jam arcade game with the front office members programmed into the game as players to choose from.
“Other teams that have seen us or have been around us — like pregame stuff, when I’m sitting there watching and talking to a guy from another team — one of our staff guys walks by and we joke or whatever and he’s like, ‘Man, you guys always seem like you want to be around each other,'” Gansey says. “And that’s what Koby brought in here. That’s what Griff brought: Guys that want to be around each other.”
Altman and Gansey both had other NBA offers in the summer of 2016, following the Cavs’ championship, but both chose to stay because of the culture.
Then the summer of 2017 happened.
“He’s been negotiating his whole life. He knows exactly what he wants and has a plan on how he’s going to get it.”
Xavier high school coach Joe McGrane on Koby Altman
First, there was Griffin’s unceremonious departure. He left the team, along with assistant general manager Trent Redden, when he couldn’t agree to a contract extension with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert. Griffin brought Altman into the league in the first place, and will be the officiant at his wedding next summer. But this was a situation Altman would have to quickly come to terms with to have any chance of succeeding in the job that was suddenly there for the taking.
“Really challenging just from a practical standpoint of losing a 20-year veteran in the NBA that’s a great leader and a great mentor,” Altman said. “Not having him around was a shock to the system. Griff was an incredible leader, and grew us through a very deep front office.”
And even though there were rumors that Gilbert would pursue former Detroit Pistons guard and current ESPN analyst Chauncey Billups to join the Cavs in a prominent front office position, Griffin urged Altman to pick up where he left off.
“One of the first things he told me was, ‘You have to do this. You have to now lead this franchise. This is something you have to step up and do,'” Altman said.
Once that hurdle was cleared, Altman had to figure out what to do with Irving. In the NBA, it’s nearly impossible to get fair trade value for a superstar. Teams settle for quarters on the dollar, unwilling or unable to repair the relationship that led their star to be unhappy in the first place.
The same day that Altman was named as Griffin’s successor (not long after Billups bowed out of consideration), news broke that Irving wanted out. The Cavs, planning to announce Altman’s hiring with a press release that Friday, sat on the news over the weekend as the basketball world reeled from the shock of Irving’s request.
“That was awesome,” Altman deadpans. “Talk about getting your texts, your phone blowing up. It was like, ‘Congratulations, but how do you want to move Kyrie?'”
His coach, Tyronn Lue, advised they hold onto Irving, just like the Los Angeles Lakers did when Lue’s former teammate Bryant demanded a trade.
“We wanted to figure out is this real?” Altman says. “Is Kyrie someone we might want to bring back and say, ‘Hey, look, players have figured it out in the past. You’re going to figure it out. We’re going to still be really good, we’re going to be winning games, so it’s not going to be all awful.’ You know what I mean? So thinking about the parameters of that, the implications of that was something we were also always debating.”
The Cavs settled on an unlikely bedfellow in the Celtics to complete the trade once they were convinced there was no turning back with Irving. Not only were they an in-conference rival, Boston was the team Cleveland just ousted in the playoffs with Irving excelling in the series. And Boston was led by a shrewd, accomplished GM in Danny Ainge. No way was he going to let a rookie like Altman get one past him.
“You can’t get better trading a four-time All-Star going into his prime and a 25-year-old point guard going into his prime,” Altman said, “but it gives you a unique opportunity to shuffle the deck and figure out long-term planning, but also figure out what goes around LeBron that’s going to help us win a championship.”
While Irving is playing his same dominant brand of ball in Boston, Isaiah Thomas is set to play for the first time for Cleveland this week. The unprotected No. 1 Brooklyn Nets pick acquired along with Thomas is still a risky asset — the Nets were one of eight teams to finish the 2017 portion of the schedule with 11-13 wins.
That is to say, the jury is still out on whether the Irving trade was a savvy play. It could be great if Thomas returns to All-Star form and the Nets pick ends up toward the top of the lottery. Then again, it could be a disaster.
Now that Altman reached his goal of becoming a GM he’s keeping a wide circle of influencers, including Lue, who he leans on for input as much as anyone.
“I wouldn’t have gotten through this summer if it wasn’t for him,” Altman says. “He’s a big part of our free-agent acquisitions. If I have a player that we think is good, we put him on the phone with T-Lue, and there’s an automatic respect level. He’s super easy to get along with, and he’s also a basketball savant because he can go toe-to-toe with LeBron. That’s worth his weight in gold.”
Lue replaced the fired David Blatt in 2016, so he knows what the transition is like, having gone from associate head coach to the top guy.
“Anytime we were done and dead, Griff would make something happen,” Lue says. “So to try to fill those shoes is tough, but I think he’s done a great job. You can always talk to him. Some guys, you’re intimidated by because of who they are, their stature or whatever. But with Koby, you can always go to Koby.”
Relatability has always been one of Altman’s strong suits.
“He’s a great name-and-face guy, and so when he walks in, he’s got the appropriate handshake for everybody,” Hixon says. “And he shakes hands differently with me than he does, I’m sure, with LeBron. He knows everybody in the room and the places that I’ve gone with him and the people that I’ve met, it’s just amazing. This guy, that guy, and he’s so comfortable with all of them.”
And while Altman took a few personal moments to himself these past few months — he couldn’t resist snapping a photo of the details of the Irving trade on his computer screen when the deal finally, mercifully, finalized — he has tried to steady all the upheaval in his life by keeping the people who fill it the same.
“Everyone stepped up,” Altman says. “The cool part was I got to be the leader I always thought I could be and empower people. We just kept moving forward and getting better incrementally. Yeah, it was a challenge because you never know if you’re ready for it until you get thrown into it, but I got to ramp up.
“This is the family that you want to keep together. To me that was the most exciting part about me getting this job. Obviously it’s a lifelong dream, but I got to keep our staff in place, keep the continuity of the place, and keep everything moving in a positive direction. That, to me, was the biggest thrill.”
The biggest thrill until what the summer of 2018 has in store, of course.
Altman’s wild ride, a 97-day blitz that started with his team losing the Finals, continued with his boss and mentor parting ways with the franchise and was followed by Altman being named Griffin’s replacement a month later. It reached a fever pitch with the Irving trade and culminated with his 35th birthday in mid-September. But it wasn’t finished without one more offseason move.
On a warm Monday night in an empty Quicken Loans Arena, empty save for him and his girlfriend, Rachel Garson, Altman proposed.
“We went into the lower bowl, it was completely dark … They flashed the spotlight on us, and they started playing Beyonce’s ‘XO’ with pictures (on the jumbotron),” Altman says. “At the end of the song, it goes, ‘Rachel, I have a question…'”
She said yes.
Now Altman has to convince James to say “Yes,” to staying in Cleveland. And there’s another Beyonce song that could be just right for that moment: “Irreplaceable.”