Attendees of the Park Synagogue Men’s Club’s annual Sports Night and Steak Dinner on Dec. 13 were treated to an intimate evening with Cleveland Cavaliers General Manager Koby Altman.
Altman, who became the Cavs GM this summer, discussed a wide range of topics with emcee Aaron Goldhammer, an on-air host at ESPN Cleveland, including Altman’s Jewish heritage, his family and how he came to get involved with basketball and later the Cavs.
Speaking to approximately 200 people at Park Synagogue East, Altman said he got his love of basketball from his mom, Deborah, and said his mom loved former University of North Carolina head basketball coach Dean Smith, and Altman said she became “obsessed” with the sport.
“Because of her, that’s the reason I’m in basketball,” Altman said of his mother.
Altman said his mother moved to Brooklyn for her career as a social worker, and she quickly fell in love with the New York Knicks. Altman said when the first NBA Draft Lottery was held in 1985, and the Knicks won the lottery to earn the right to select eventual NBA Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing, his mother was excited.
“I was maybe 2 or 3 years old at the time in my crib,” Altman said. “My mom woke me up, screaming, that we got the No. 1 pick and Patrick Ewing.”
Altman admitted he was a “die-hard” Knicks fan, a as a kid growing up in Brooklyn, and discussed one of the few times he had been awe-struck in his career, when he met Ewing, now the head basketball coach at Georgetown University.
Goldhammer asked if the “aggressive New Yorker” in Altman ever comes out during trade negotiations or contract discussions, and Altman said it comes out the most when he’s in a taxi or an Uber.
“Those guys are unbelievable, so it’s like, ‘c’mon, man, I know where I’m going!’” Altman said. “People think New Yorkers are you know, assholes, but we’re not. We’re just efficient, we want to get where we’re going.”
The discussion turned to Altman’s college career at Middlebury College in Vermont, where Altman was a three-year starter on the basketball team. Altman said he earned a full ride scholarship to Middlebury as part of a program to bring together kids of different races and send them to smaller liberal arts schools, such as Middlebury. After college, Altman said he went into real estate.
“I think for sure real estate helped me in this job,” Altman said. “It’s constant negotiation. Every single conversation … especially in trade negotiations, making both sides feel comfortable with things, how do you relate to this individual personally and make them feel good about the transaction? Only difference is you’re dealing with human beings, and there’s emotions there, so you got to be able to understand those emotions and real estate gave me a great foundation for that.”
He also discussed the trade of All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving shortly after taking the position, after Irving requested a trade and Altman ultimately ended up dealing him to the Boston Celtics. Irving requested a trade in a bit of an awkward time for the Cavs, as Altman was the assistant GM at the time of the initial request.
“It’s hard, because one, you never want to trade a player of the magnitude of Kyrie Irving,” Altman said. “That’s not what you want to do. So that wasn’t fun. You had every team calling, and a lot of times I was like ‘No way, you’re not even close, I’m not going to trade the guy, you’re not close.’ So, I made sure that they knew this wasn’t a fire sale and this wasn’t something I was going to do over the next two days or next week. They needed to know that I could take the guy to training camp and beyond. That would have been horrible, having him there and all that stuff would have been hard too in training camp, but they needed to know from the jump this was going to be a high, high price. If you wanted a chance at this guy, you had to come with it.”
Altman said for him, the hardest part regarding the Irving trade negotiations was that it “just kept dragging on and on.”
“It wasn’t fun for (my fiancé) Rachael and me,” he said. “We kept pushing back the vacation.”
He said his former boss, former Cavs GM David Griffin, remains a mentor and a “great friend” to him and that having Griffin’s blessing to take the GM job after Griffin and the Cavs were unable to reach an agreement on an extension was “huge.”
“He’s actually officiating our wedding,” Altman said. “I learned a lot from him, but nobody’s ready to be tossed in three days before the draft and right into free agency and Number 2 (Irving) asking for a trade. It all happened real fast. You short of put your head down and go and pretend like you know what you’re doing.”
Altman said he wasn’t too concerned about the team going into the season, given the roster and the coaching staff.
“We had a great team coming back, regardless of Kyrie,” he said. “LeBron James is on the team, OK? So it’s not all lost, it’s good.”
During the question-and-answer session of the night, a young fan in an Isaiah Thomas jersey caught Altman a bit by surprise. Altman had noticed the fan at the beginning of the night and appeared to be expecting a question regarding when Thomas, who was acquired from the Boston Celtics in the Irving trade, would return from a hip injury that has sidelined him the entire season so far.
“Is LeBron going to leave?” the fan asked, as the crowd laughed.
“I don’t know, I know that our job is to be successful and put the best players around him, make this fun and a place he wants to be,” Altman said. “I know that he remains committed to the city, and his foundations and Northeast Ohio. Beyond that, it’s my job to make sure we have a very competitive team next year and this year and always try to compete for championships and make this somewhere he wants to be.”
Prior to the evening’s discussion, Altman, along with Goldhammer and Park Synagogue Rabbi Joshua Skoff lit the menorah for the second night of Chanuakah.