A group of exhausted local basketball players, standing with hands on knees at centre court found enough energy to applaud Rich Cho’s Myanmar language greeting of mingalabar.
They had reason to be tired after spending two hours running through drills in Myanmar’s stifling heat but equally excited as, Mr Cho, a Yangon native, returned as part of a US Department sports envoy to his hometown.
When his speech finished players gathered around for photos. One brought a basketball and pen, seeking an autograph from the first Asian American general manager in National Basketball Association (NBA) history.
“It has been great to be back,” Mr Cho said, “I have only been back one time, in 2004. Although I grew up in the states I have a lot of pride in being Burmese.”
Mr Cho and his family left Myanmar in 1968 when he was just three years old. They first lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana before settling in the Pacific Northwest in Washington sate. Mr Cho graduated from Washington State University and landed his first job in the NBA with the Seattle SuperSonics (who were later rebranded as the Thunder) while studying law at Pepperdine University in 1995.
In 2010, after helping to orchestrate the Thunder’s first playoff appearance in franchise history, Mr Cho was named general manager of the Portland Trailblazers – a first for an Asian American in the NBA. After less than a year with the Trailblazers Cho was let go but quickly hired by the Charlotte Bobcats in June 2011.
Mr Cho was returning as part of a sports envoy sponsored by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in conjunction with the NBA and Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). The program has sent nearly 50 NBA and WNBA players, coaches and officials to over 20 countries since its inception in 2004.
“I think it’s terrific,” Mr Cho said of Myanmar’s recent steps towards democratization and openness, “anything that we can do from a sports standpoint to help the game grow here and grow it from a grass roots level. Get some excitement going around basketball and sports in general.”
While in host countries the NBA and WNBA representatives pass on techniques and training methods to both coaches and players. They also get a chance to see how their skills translate to lesser-known local sports, in the case of Myanmar the rattan ball game chin lone.
Others joining him on the inaugural trip to Myanmar were ex-NBA player and current Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Darvin Ham, former NBA player Marty Conlon, and former WNBA player Allison Feaster.
The importance of the experience for Mr Cho and the timing of the trip were not lost on Mr Conlon.
“This is a country that is in the news a lot in the United States the last year. So for me to be part of this trip, especially with Rich coming to the place where he was born, with the success he has had in the NBA, it is very exciting, ” Mr Conlon said.
Mr Conlon was an NBA journeyman spending eight seasons with as many teams starting in 1992 before heading to Europe in 2000. He retired from playing in 2005 but has found a second career as a globetrotting ambassador for the game through a position with the NBA’s Basketball Operations International.
“Each one is very exciting,” Mr Conlon said of the clinics he has been part of in countries including Uzbekistan, India and Jordan, “ but especially here (Myanmar) because of what has happened here in the last few years.”
“Absolutely,” agreed Mr Ham of the positive impact such outreach projects have on the game. “Whenever you can come share the game with these kids who knows? Like Rich Cho, born here in 1965 and now he’s a general manager in the NBA. You never know what types of seeds you’re planting but it is good to get out here and plant them.”
Mr Ham has also embraced his role as a spokesperson for basketball in his post playing days. He became a widely recognisable face of the game during the 1996 NCAA Tournament when he shattered the backboard on a powerful dunk while playing for Texas Tech. The moment was captured on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine under the headline, “Smashing!”
And 16 years later Mr Ham is shocked to find a poster-sized printout of the magazine cover hung on the wall of the Myanmar Basketball Federation court.
“No, this is crazy man,” Mr Ham replied when asked if he ever expected to see the image in a place like Myanmar, “I’m going to have someone take a picture of it and email it to me.”