“It’s one of the most important things we talk about in Cleveland when we go about the hiring process or go about our draft process, is we want fountains not drains.”
—Koby Altman ’04
Intro: An hour a day started to turn to two hours a day, started to turn to let me help out during games, started to turn out let me help with the varsity and at which point it just struck me, you need to be doing this. How could you make a career doing this?
LP: You are listening to Midd Moment, a podcast of ideas from Middlebury’s leaders, independent thinkers who create community. I’m Laurie Patton, president of Middlebury and professor of religion. My guest today is Middlebury alum, Class of 2004, Koby Altman. In 2017, Koby was named the 11th general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Prior to being named GM, Koby had been a part of the Cavaliers staff for five years and was an integral part of a team that between 2015 and 2018 reached four straight NBA finals and won the Cavs their first NBA championship in 2016. Like so many before him, Koby’s love of basketball started on the court.
He was a three-year starting point guard at Middlebury, where he was known as a leader with a competitive spirit and was loved by his teammates before he graduated in 2004. Koby is dedicated to community engagement outside the realm of basketball. A Posse scholar himself at Middlebury, Koby is on the national board of directors for the Posse Foundation, which identifies, recruits, and trains individuals with extraordinary leadership potential, providing full tuition scholarships.
I reached Koby over the phone while he was in his office in Cleveland. Together we spoke about the power of mentors, including his single mom who was the one who introduced him to the game; how to be a fountain and not a drain; and Vermont weather as the great unifier.
Thank you for joining me in the conversation today.
KA: Thank you, President Patton. This is exciting to be on and I’m honored to be a guest.
LP: Many of our listeners are avid fans of Midd basketball, but some may not be as deeply entrenched in the sports world. I’m wondering if you could humor us with a brief job description, in your own words.
KA: At the core of what I do is a deep talent evaluation of our players and procuring those players for our team. We want people with great attitude, great work ethic, and people that really wanna be in Cleveland to create a culture here that’s thriving and that people wanna be a part of. It’s an exciting job.
Recording: Final seconds tick off, it’s over. Cleveland wins game seven, LeBron James and the Cavs do it again.
KA: Obviously, before this year, we went to four straight finals and won a championship. And now we’re trying to regrow that thing here in Cleveland.
LP: So you mentioned the word attitude. Tell me a little more about how you think about what makes a great attitude in 2019 cuz it might have looked different even 30 years ago.
KA: It’s one of the most important things we talk about in Cleveland when we go about the hiring process or go about our draft process, is we want fountains not drains. So we want givers not takers, we want people that exude energy, enthusiasm, that come to work with a smile on their faces. One drain can ruin a locker room, or ruin the front office. I think for us, it’s really important here in Cleveland that we have the right attitude every day when you come to work and it starts with me.
I come with a smile, make sure you understand what’s important to each person close to you and in your front office and your players, and your staff. And makes you continue to grow that.
LP: That’s a great metaphor, I love that. A lot of what we do both as managers or educators is figure out how we can deal with really difficult problems and name them, and name them in a way that isn’t a drain, but it’s more like a fountain. So how do you deal with top issues that really do have to be named and talked about without being a drain?
KA: What’s hard is we’re in a huge, huge business that’s very, very ego driven, and results based, every game, every season, every playoffs. And so trying to figure out the person that’s not all about themselves, that’s not all about the “me.” You really want to find the teammate, the one that wants to help their peers. We go out and we live scout and go watch prospects. We would love to see the interactions that they have, not when they score cuz we know they’re talented, but what’s their interactions like on the bench—when another player on their team makes a great play are you high-fiving that player?
And so, are you a great teammate? And I think that could be in every walk of life from the corporate world to academia, are you a great teammate?
LP: Did the players know that they’re being watched for that or did they only think that you’re watching them for their talent?
KA: Players are shocked to hear when you bring up different incidents that happened over the course of the year that had nothing to do with what happened on the court. Well, I saw you come off the court and you got into with your coach. You remember that, you weren’t watching the fact that I had 20? No, I was watching your interaction with the coaches.
So it’s an education for them too and it’s such a fragile thing and our job is to find the right fit. So I need to make sure it’s the right cultural fit as well, to go along with the talent, and that’s a really, really hard, hard job. But all of the evaluation goes into that—on the court, the off the court, the interactions, and the attitude.
LP: So you use the term fragile. I’m wondering about how you grew up thinking about fragility and strength.
KA: Good question, I think, um, I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, with a single parent mom who was a social worker at a public school, Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn, New York, for 30-something years.
You didn’t sense it, but she had to work really hard. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she was a single parent working really hard. But she was growing me up and putting me around some really good male role models as well. But she was white woman raising a black kid, and at that time that raised some eyebrows, right, that wasn’t normal.
So I always looked at her as like this really strong figure that knew what she wanted in life and didn’t go with the norm. And then on top of that, being raised in Brooklyn, which is the most diverse place, I think in the world, it really grew me playing on the street in Brooklyn and growing up that way, you learned a lot of strength, you learned to interact with all walks of life.
LP: Tell me more about those male role models that your mom made sure you had.
KA: Yeah so, a few of them, one was, I’d like to call my stepdad. They’d never gotten married but Carl was her longtime boyfriend and he took me everywhere. We went biking, we went to the beach. Sam Entrado, who she worked with at Sheepshead Bay High School, has helped me over the course of my career, been an amazing mentor to me.
He actually—which is very interesting of why I chose Middlebury—he took me to trips to Vermont when I was younger. To go from the inner city to go up to Vermont in the summers, I did that a few times, was very, very cool and profound for a young kid coming from Brooklyn, New York.
My mom sort of putting me around these male role models growing up was a huge part of who I became.
LP: But you haven’t mentioned anything about basketball yet. So I’m wondering what was your first memory of playing and how did you grow to love the game?
KA: My mom was a basketball junkie and I also think it’s cool, you always hear about the dad being the one that introduced you to the sport. That was my mom. She went to the University of North Carolina. She was basketball crazed, as UNC fans usually are. She moved to New York and became a huge Knicks fan. And so when I was born, I was sort of indoctrinated into becoming a Knicks fan. The story goes that I was in my crib. I was maybe two years old or something like that. And the Knicks won the first-ever draft lottery.
Recording: The second pick in the 1985 NBA draft goes to the Indiana… The horseshoe works. Basketball is back in New York City, my friend.
KA: And she screamed and woke me up in my crib. But as long as I can remember, if the TV was on, basketball was on. I would see highlights and I would go try to mimic those highlights on my nerf hoop. I would break multiple nerf hoops a year. Even if I got my hand on a tennis ball, I would be dribbling up and down the hallway hours on end, trying to replicate a Magic Johnson pass or Michael Jordan up and under lay-up.
LP: So you remarked upon the fact that it was your mom and not your dad, do you think you would have been a different kind of basketball fan if it had been a father figure rather than a mother figure to introduce you to the sport?
KA: I don’t, I think what’s great about the NBA in general is we’re definitely the most inclusive, diverse major sport in the world.
It’s just a great momentum we have now with women in the front office and women on the bench. At some point there’s gonna be a women’s head coach in the NBA. And so this is a woman sport too. Women’s basketball is great. And I think they’re just as passionate as we are and so they can introduce the sports to their kids and get the same level of excitement.
LP: So you were a Posse scholar at Middlebury. You were probably blown away because not only had you been having this strong positive identification with the state, you then got this chance to go to Middlebury. Did you know about Middlebury before, like in your visits to Vermont?
KA: Yeah, the Vermont trips, when I was younger, I identified Ben & Jerry’s. Not so much colleges, but as I got into high school, I started to figure out I wanna go to a really good academic school and play basketball at that school. And so I had the opportunity to try out for Posse, which is a very, very vigorous process and multiple rounds to get to even the finals, where Middlebury officials come down and select you but at that point Posse was only five schools.
So Middlebury was one of the schools and Middlebury, hands down, was the best school academically on that list. And then my childhood memories of Vermont sort of creeped in and I said this could be a great fit. I didn’t have it yet, but I said let’s go up and check out the school cuz I actually drove there with Sam Entrado.
And we drove up there and I was like, man, this is, this is a country club, this is incredible. And he sort of joked around, he said, you see those mountains over there? Yeah, Middlebury owns all those mountains too. And we do—the Snow Bowl—but I got more and more immersed in Middlebury, learning more about the programs there, learning more about the basketball program, and just the history and what a well-thought-of school this was.
And I was very fortunate to be selected.
LP: When you got there, was Middlebury the kind of place that you expected and what were some of your challenges? Because I meet with Posse students regularly and I am always thinking about ways in which a school that was not designed for folks other than the kind of white New England middle class elite. And, we frequently hear from our students that, Middlebury wasn’t built for the student body of 2019.
KA: So, I think obviously there’s a cultural shock of going from a big inner city population to just a much, much smaller community. Obviously the makeup of the student body—at that point I think it was 90 percent white. I think we’ve come a long ways from then. But to me, I think the biggest challenge was, can I compete academically at this place? Coming from a public school in New York City, it didn’t get me ready for the rigors of a Middlebury College.
I’d never checked out a book to do a paper. And so when you’re asked to do five papers that first semester, you’re like, wait a second, this is difficult. You look around, like anybody does, and say, wow, everyone else is way more equipped to compete in this classroom setting than I am.
What Posse scholars come with is a lot of competitiveness, that diverse background, a great story, toughness, a grit that can certainly adapt to any situation cuz they have these great stories to tell of what they came from, where they’ve been through. And now adding an incredible education to that, makes them just incredible candidates for whatever they wanna do.
The class that really helped me was The Writing Process. That class gave me the confidence to really compete in the classroom setting, brought my papers to life, and now I’m a great writer. And I have to do it every day. I have to make an argument every day in my job.
And I attribute it back to the education at Middlebury, which at the time I didn’t like writing 5,000 papers, I hated it. But it really gave me the tools that I needed to compete in the job that I’m doing now.
LP: Can you also share a story of when you felt at Middlebury like you really belonged?
KA: It’s funny, I checked the weather today cuz I still have Middlebury on my weather app. And it’s going to be a beautiful day today. I guess it’s gonna go up to the 50s. And it’s gonna be sunny out, and everyone’s gonna be wearing shorts even though it’s 50.
Right, those beautiful spring days when everybody’s out on campus walking around, smiles on their faces, or just outside, we’re enjoying the campus, the beautiful weather, Vermont, that’s when everybody belongs. I think it’s the same thing when we get dumped on and there’s 12 feet of snow and we’re all scrambling to get to class cuz it’s one degree outside and you’re half a mile away from Bicentennial Hall, and we’re all sprinting to get there. We get inside and we’re all like, hunh. It doesn’t matter what walk of life you’re in, you’re in the same situation during those times.
LP: When you graduated, you didn’t actually pursue a path right away in basketball. What was your time like? Educators write about the fact that the first year in college and the first year out of college are the scariest years of a young person’s life.
And I’m wondering what that first year out of college felt like and what were you thinking about and what did you decide about what your career was supposed to look like?
KA: Over the course of your time at Middlebury, you’re exposed to a lot of different things and I think the thing that, at least I thought was, everyone was going into finance or business or some sort of, at least my friends, economics.
And I thought you had to justify the education by going to make money. I really did. Because it was such a prestigious school. The resume gets you in the door at so many different places. And so I said, what am I doing? I got this Middlebury education, let’s go put it to work.
And so I went into commercial real estate in New York City and did really well to the point where I’m like, I need to stick this out. And so I moved to the city, in Manhattan. Lived about two blocks from my office on, I was living on Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street, which is right by the Flatiron Building which is one of my favorite buildings in the world. Living in Manhattan is different than living in Brooklyn. Manhattan was dynamic, Manhattan was glitzy, Manhattan was corporate. It was the biggest stage you can live on. And so I’m living on Fifth Avenue in New York City. I loved it.
And so I was doing really well in commercial real estate, but something was missing. I didn’t love going to my cubicle every day and making calls. And though the real estate business was exciting, it wasn’t giving me the fix that I knew I needed. Around year two, I sorta snuck down to Xavier High School.
Legendary coach, Coach Joe McGrane, who coaches at Xavier High School, which was a camp I used to go to when I was younger. And I just asked him, I said hey, hour a day I can sneak outta work and help coach. And he said, absolutely, come down and help out with the freshman basketball team.
And so an hour a day started to turn to two hours a day, started to turn to let me help out during games, started to turn out let me help out with the varsity and at which point it just struck me, you need to be doing this. Forget about the money. How could you make a career doing this? And I remember talking to Sam Entrado and he mentioned UMass down the road has a really good program for sports management. And that’s when I figured out I needed to go back to school and do what I love and forego this incredible apartment on Fifth Avenue that still some people are upset that I gave up.
As I’m looking at UMass sports management, I realized that Amherst College is right there. And obviously we played against Amherst a lot and so I reached out to Coach Hickson. This is one of the best Division III, I’d say one of the best coaches ever, regardless of level.
They had a spot opening up for a graduate assistant sorta spot. In which case, I can go to UMass and coach at Amherst and get my tuition waived at the same time. It was an incredible deal and so I was able to be a part of the Amherst basketball staff for two years, coaching incredible kids, being in sorta my comfort zone cuz it was NESCAC. So I knew the cast of characters, I knew the coaches, I knew the players, I knew I could recruit on that level. And also get a wonderful master’s degree at UMass, which is one of the best sports management programs in the country.
So when that opportunity to coach at Amherst came, I jumped on it because I knew I could parlay both those opportunities into something really meaningful.
LP: So Amherst and pursuing that passion as a career kind of opened up to you over the course of that year, two years.
And so lots of people could have had that move. I know several who’ve had very similar kinds of moments, but they didn’t end up as the major figure in NBA that you did.
KA: Ten years later to be a general manager was insane. You couldn’t tell me that when I first started that path.
But all I did each year was try and have a great basketball experience. And UMass really accelerated all of it with another great mentor of mine, Sean Ford, who runs USA Basketball men’s programs. And he gave me an opportunity to each summer be with the Junior National teams, that, one went to New Zealand, one went to Germany. We won gold medals, a number of them went on to NBA careers. And so now, what it gave me was a reassurance that not only can I work with the Division III athlete, but I can work with the future All-Star. But going from Amherst to Southern Illinois for a year, that was my first Division I experience. And then two years at Columbia University. The Ivy League was incredible, that was Division I experience. And then finally getting to Cleveland as a scout, was obviously career changing. So just really trying to fulfill the responsibilities that I had or was given and be the best in that role, be the best at that, and then you get more responsibility.
LP: You talked a little bit about going from Division III to Division I, and then you were in the Ivy’s. And then you’re in the pro’s, so you’ve been in actually four really different basketball environments. I’ve had some experience with a Division I basketball school, having been the dean at Duke and it is really different going to a Middlebury basketball game versus going to a Duke basketball game. And I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about that difference?
KA: Well, first of all, I’ve spent a lot of time in Durham this year. But no, I spent a lot of time at Duke. I think what’s interesting about the difference between, say, Middlebury basketball versus Duke basketball, I think a lot of the principles are the same, the basketball is the same. It’s the size and athleticism that’s sort of the difference. You can sorta pick out right away the guys that won’t be able to make it to our level because of the size and the strength and the length and the athleticism that you get on an NBA floor every day.
I will say I think Division III basketball is really, really good, and they’re playing at the highest level at Division III. Those guys can play Division I basketball, they can compete for sure.
LP: Yeah, and I’m thinking also Middlebury is one of the places that’s won the most national championships since we were allowed to compete in national championships in the ’90s. So there’s all these really interesting ways in which we kind of try to combine the best of scholarship and athleticism. Would you agree with that or would you say that’s true no matter where you are in the Ivy’s or Division III or Division I?
KA: Obviously I’m biased, but in terms of the Division III athlete that wasn’t given anything in terms of a scholarship, that had to fight, that had to compete, that’s doing it truly for the love of the game but also doing it at a super high level. And also that’s very, very academic, those are unbelievable candidates for their next position, in any walk of life. And then you mix that with a Middlebury education.
When I’ve come back to Middlebury to talk, I wanna make sure that the student athletes understand that they’re equipped to do this.
LP: When you’ve come back to campus, it’s been such a great event for so many folks. One of the biggest questions that we’re dealing with on campuses these days is the question of what I call, inclusive excellence.
How do we find a way to really make sure that we recruit the best students from all around the country, from all walks of life? And make sure that that sense of belonging that is so important for a college student really happens for them. And I’m wondering about senses of belonging in basketball, more broadly.
KA: Yeah, I think for Middlebury, I think they’ve done such a wonderful job. Or you guys have done such a wonderful job, of not just bringing people in from every walk of life, but internationally, recruiting great kids. And I think that’s emblematic of what we’re doing at NBA as well.
In the NBA, they say there’s 450 players. 100 of those players, almost one fourth of our league, is international. They were born outside the United States. And I think one of the things that I didn’t do a good enough job of when I was in college was go up and talk to a kid from a different country.
Those are some of the best experiences I have. When I’m overseas scouting and I’m at some random cafe in Spain and I’m talking to them about their culture and what’s going on there, that’s when I get the most growth. And Middlebury does such a wonderful job bringing in great international students and then at the same time, sending us internationally, as representatives of Middlebury, for study abroad stuff. So, to me, I think that’s a big deal.
LP: So I wanted to end with a final question that I ask all our guests. Something that I work a lot with different people on is how they continue to remain inspired throughout their life.
And so it’s a very simple thing that I ask which is, what’s your question? What’s the question that you’ll never know the answer to, but you’ll never get tired of asking?
KA: I would ask you the same question in that, why do we keep pushing? Why are we not content?
I won’t say we’re not happy. I’m very, very happy, I have a wonderful wife, I have a little daughter. Why are we still pushing? What else is out there that I’m trying to get to? But I don’t know if that’s ingrained in us in terms of our competitiveness. There’s a greatness that we’re trying to achieve. There’s a collective body of people that you feel responsible for. Why do we keep pushing?
LP: This was such a great conversation and please keep pushing. Please keep doing what you’re doing. I’m gonna think about your question in all sorts of ways over the next couple of weeks as we continue on with the semester.
Thanks so much for joining us.
KA: Thank you very much.
Hi, this is Erin Davis, producer of the show. Midd Moment is produced by myself and Juliette Luini, Class of ’18.5, with help from Chris Spencer. If you have a Midd Moment to share, a time when things came together in a particularly Middlebury way, share your memory on social media using #middmoment or record a voice memo and email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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