Rich Cho: Former NBA GM, Budding Pickleball Pro

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- It’s three weeks into the NBA season, and Rich Cho, former General Manager of the Portland Trail Blazers and Charlotte Hornets, is miles from the nearest basketball court. After more than two decades of Novembers spent in front offices in Seattle, Oklahoma City, Portland and Charlotte (not to mention scouting all over the globe), he finds himself preoccupied with an entirely different game: pickleball.

The courts are small enough to fit four to each of the tennis courts normally laid out here at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. There are racquets and balls, sure, but they make a hollow popping noise—the kind you might make with your mouth—when Rich smacks the whiffle-esque ball with his Onix React paddle.

While working part-time for an NBA team, Rich is testing his pickleball mettle against the best players in the world, of his age and skill level, at the Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships. He got the “hall pass” for this week-and-a-half-long event approved by his wife, Julie, and their two daughters, Annika and Miranda, who are back home, around 2,300 miles east in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“They were a little wary, like, ‘Why are you playing so much pickleball?’” Rich tells CloseUp360. “But then they saw how much passion I have into it. Then I wound up having a little success, so they're kind of into it a little bit now and ask about it.”

Whether his prior triumphs in the Carolinas carry over to California remains to be seen. The desert sun, still blazing through the fall, won’t do him and his doubles partner, Tien Nguyen, any favors. Neither will the dry winds whipping through the Coachella Valley.

As for the opposition? They won’t go easy on a relative novice like Rich, who picked up pickleball roughly eight months ago. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Sometimes you forget there’s a whole other world out there,” he says, “that doesn’t live and breathe basketball and whose livelihood isn’t dependent on wins and losses of your team.”

Sports have long been front and center for Rich, especially those predicated on paddles, racquets and nets.

He’s as accomplished at table tennis as you’ll find in the basketball world. He’s a two-time winner of Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s annual ping-pong tournament at NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, beating the host himself in 2013.

Rich is capable on a full-sized tennis court as well, having played in many tournaments in his 20s and 30s. He was on a USTA North Carolina League State Championship team in 2013, and he’s had stints on USTA teams at The Greens Country Club in Oklahoma City. It was there that he found a sense of community after following the SuperSonics from Seattle to OKC.

“When we first moved there, it was a little bit of a culture shock, just a lot different than Seattle,” Rich says. ”But we really grew to love Oklahoma City and there's great people there.”

Among them was Tien. A veteran of five civilian deployments as a communications engineer in the United States Air Force, he also happened to be an avid tennis player.

Through a mutual friend, Rich and Tien met playing doubles tennis. Rich’s even keel proved to be a comfortable complement to Tien’s emotional countenance, like fire melting ice into a babbling brook.

“He has a very quiet demeanor, always thinking,” Tien says, “as much education as he has and his resume in life, and all that stuff.”

Rich Cho pickleball

Rich Cho at the Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships at Indian Wells. (Josh Martin)

Even with the Thunder’s travel schedule, Rich and Tien managed to play once or twice a week during the former’s three years in OKC. And between Rich’s roots in Burma (now Myanmar) and Tien’s in nearby Vietnam, the two found grounds for a strong bond off the court as well.

“We had the Asian food thing in common,” Rich says. “He's been a very good friend over the years—not just to me, but to my family.”

That friendship continued even after Rich graduated from Sam Presti’s salary cap-tracking deputy in OKC to the top job in Portland in 2010—becoming the NBA’s first Asian-American GM—and then in Charlotte in 2011. Whenever Rich’s team had a road game against the Thunder, he and Tien would arrange to indulge their foodie tendencies over dinner—and, when possible, slake their thirst for competition with a round of tennis.

They kept that tradition going last December, when the Hornets came to town to play the Thunder. Over a double-date dinner in OKC, Tien and his wife, Moira, went on and on about a game called pickleball. Tien’s hobby had morphed into a full-blown passion, drawing him and out to Hawaii for a tournament.

“My wife and I were looking at them like they're crazy,” Rich recalls.

But the Chos listened intently, and Rich, ever the quiet observer, took plenty of mental notes.

“It was interesting to hear him speak how passionate he was about it, and how they were going to all these tournaments and started teaching pickleball,” Rich says.

Rich, though, lacked the bandwidth to pick up a new sport. After all, he had a franchise to run and a legend, in Hornets owner Michael Jordan, to please. And with Charlotte struggling through the first third of the 2017-18 season, Rich had his work cut out for him.


Tien Nguyen and Rich. (Josh Martin)

This past February, with the Hornets scuffling at 24-33 and the NBA just returning from the All-Star break, Charlotte parted ways with Rich. His six-and-a-half-year tenure had yielded two playoff appearances and one homegrown All-Star in Kemba Walker.

“Even though it ended,” he says, “I've got nothing but great things to say about the Hornets, and the people that work there.”

Suddenly, Rich found himself flush with free time. He turned his attention to his daughters’ volleyball matches and gymnastics meets, and delved deeper into “Bigtime Bites,” his food blog showcasing dishes from across the country with a basketball-inspired scouting rubric.

But none of those endeavors could come close to getting his competitive juices flowing quite like working in the NBA did. Rich’s three brothers—two in Seattle (Andrew and Patrick), one in Thailand (Chris)—had an idea for him, one he’d heard only a few months before: pickleball.

“They all picked up pickleball and they were having a blast with it,” Rich says. “So I looked up online where I could play some pickleball in Charlotte and there actually happens to be a place about 15 minutes away from my house. And I checked it out one day in the open play and I really loved it.”

So what, exactly, is pickleball, which NBC News (and Rich himself) hailed as “the fastest-growing sport in America”?

“Probably the best way to describe it,” Rich says, “is it's a combination of tennis, ping-pong and badminton on a small tennis court, with paddles that are a little bit bigger than a ping-pong paddle and a little bit smaller than, say, a racquetball paddle or racquetball racquets.”

Unlike those other racquet-centric sports, pickleball requires that all serves be hit underhand—below the wrist and waist—and bounce before the ball is returned, also on a bounce. There are no volleys allowed within seven feet of the net, an area known as “the kitchen,” but players are allowed to enter that no-volley zone should the ball “dink” within its bounds.

“It's a really fascinating game from the standpoint of, there's a finesse game,” Rich says. “They call it dinking, where you're slowing the game down, trying to create angles and waiting for the opponent to pop the ball up so you can smash it. And then there's a power game also where you're hitting drives and volleys, and kind of a banging game. So it's a great mix of power and finesse, and there's actually a lot of strategy involved, too.”

It’s also a game that lends itself well to the sorts of athletes, active and former, around whom Rich spent so much time in the NBA. Brent Barry, who played for the Sonics while Rich was working his way up the ladder in Seattle, plays pickleball. As far as Rich knows, Michael Jordan hasn’t tried it yet, though he’s confident his old boss would fare well on a different sort of court.

“MJ can do anything he wants and be successful,” Rich says. “He's ultra competitive and with his long wingspan, he'd be great at the kitchen line, where that long wingspan really helps you. And he's so athletic and so smart and cerebral, he would be able to pick it up pretty easily.”

The nature of the rules and the size of the court make pickleball accessible to players of all ages, including a 55-year-old like Mike. At the USA Pickleball National Championships, there were competitions for kids as young as eight, seniors 75 and up, and every range in between. At 53, Rich found himself in two separate doubles brackets—one specifically for men between 50 and 54, and the men’s senior open.

At tournaments like this, players are also divvied up by skill level. Each carries a four-digit rating—their USAPA Tournament Player Ratings (UTPR)—tabulated by an algorithm according to match results measured against the relative strength of the opponents involved. In Rich’s case, he arrived at Indian Wells with a rating of 4.725, not far from the highest bracket at 5.0.

“Every time you play a tournament,” he says, “I feel like whether it's win or lose, you learn something.”

Rich Cho Tien Nguyen pickleball

Rich and Tien await a serve at the national championships. (Josh Martin)

Though Rich’s rise through the pickleball ranks has been relatively rapid, it hasn’t come without a considerable learning curve. His background in tennis and ping-pong made the game easy to learn, but the tendency to smash the ball that carried over from those other sports made it difficult to master.

“It's a game of patience, and waiting for the other team to either pop the ball up or make an unforced error,” he says. “I had to really get used to that.”

Rich’s initial competitions, by his own admission, didn’t go too well. In one of those, he and his brother, Andrew, “got spanked.”

But Rich didn’t take his early failures as signs that he should seek satisfaction elsewhere. Quite the opposite, actually.

“After the first couple tournaments where I didn't do too well,” he says, “I started getting a little more serious about the game and really trying to learn about the game.”

He studied with and played alongside seasoned veterans like Bill Cooper, a septuagenarian pickleball master in North Carolina. He practiced different shots with all manner of paddles before settling on the Onix React, a graphite racquet favored by some of the best pickleballers around.

On top of all that, Rich sought counsel the same way a young hooper aspiring to be the next MJ might—by Googling it.

“Just trying to absorb different philosophies and see what makes sense,” he says.

Eventually, Rich’s pickleball game started to come around. He traded in tennis-style slams for a more patient, dink-heavy approach, and honed those skills while building up to his appearance at Indian Wells.

In early October, he won silver in mixed doubles and bronze in men’s doubles at the Oklahoma Senior Games in Oklahoma City. Then he took silver in a tournament in Concord, North Carolina, playing with a 67-year-old man named Peter Popovich (no relation to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich). At the end of the month, he won gold in men’s doubles alongside 28-year-old Andrew Butler at the USAPA Mid-Atlantic Regional in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, despite having to play against younger competition.

“We won a lot of close matches, and were fortunate to come out ahead and get the gold medal,” RIch says. “But I learned a lot in that tournament.”

That victory also gave him the confidence to test his skills against the best of the best. So when Tien came calling in search of a doubles partner for the national championships in Indian Wells, Rich was ready to accept.

Rich Cho Onix

Rich poses with his gold medal and Onix paddle at the USAPA Mid-Atlantic Regional in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. (Courtesy of Rich Cho)

Whatever good fortune Rich had on the pickleball courts in the Carolinas doesn’t follow him to California.

Rich and Tien’s handful of friendly matches together in Charlotte over the Fourth of July don’t quite suffice for chemistry in their first tournament as a duo—not when facing down teams with years (if not decades) of shared pickleball experience. Throw in whipping desert winds and their own errors, and they need only a few matches to be retired from each of their competitions, and head back to the posh Hotel Paseo in Palm Desert.

“Trust me, I have a long way to go,” Rich says. “But I also feel like there's a lot of room for growth and something to shoot for as well.”

Rich has no plans to stop refining his pickleball game anytime soon. He recently tried his luck at another tournament in North Carolina (he didn’t medal), and is eying the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships in Naples, Florida, this coming April.

However he fares there, Rich is guaranteed a spot in next year’s national championships back in Indian Wells, courtesy of his victory in Myrtle Beach.

Despite his aspirations in pickleball, Rich remains fixated on a return to basketball full time. While he’s currently consulting for an NBA team on the side, if he had his way, he’d be back with a franchise by the end of the 2018-19 season.

“I miss the competition and being invested with the team, and I miss the camaraderie around the office. So there's a lot of parts of it that I definitely miss,” Rich says. “But at the same time, I try to look at everything in a positive light, and the silver lining with being let go by the Hornets last February is that I found pickleball, and I've been able to spend a lot of quality time with my wife and family. So that part's been great.”

So, too, has the occasional hall pass to explore his latest non-basketball passion.


Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.