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Tuesday, Jul 5, 2022

Q&A with Koby Altman ’04, general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers

Now in his fifth year as general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers (NBA), Koby Altman ’04 Zoomed with Campus reporter Josh Rosenstein '24 to discuss basketball, the pandemic, societal issues and Middlebury. Altman has worked every job in basketball — from towel washer to assistant coach. A three-year starter on the Middlebury men’s basketball team, Altman then earned his master’s degree in sports management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What was your experience navigating the Covid-19 pandemic while also managing an NBA organization?

A: There are a lot of parallels between what we’ve had to do in the NBA and what President Patton had to do at Middlebury. It takes a lot of preparation, a lot of planning, and you need collective buy-in from your players and staff. Just like at Middlebury, you guys needed a collective buy-in and compliance to make that work. You need people to change their behaviors and buy into the bigger picture — which, on our side, is playing an NBA season during a global pandemic. So there have been a lot of challenges, but I do think that we have come together as a league and as an organization to meet those challenges and put together a really good product for the fans. I think it takes tremendous leadership from the top with our commissioner Adam Silver. And what President Patton did the first semester with zero positive cases [for most of the semester] from the student body is equally as incredible, if not more so. 

Q: What has the NBA done so far with vaccinating its players and staff members?

A: I want to say at least two-thirds of NBA teams have had vaccination events already. We’ve had a vaccination event. There are people who have their concerns and don’t want to get it. I think that’s a challenge. Whether they cite health concerns, how fast it was rolled out or religious concerns, there are a lot of different reasons why people would not want to get the vaccine — and you have to be sensitive to that. I also think the challenge for college campuses is: Do you mandate it? And next semester, is that something that will be in place for Middlebury? That’s a big question to ask, but I think at the end of the day, we all want a really safe environment for students and athletes. 

Q: Racism plagues our country right now. NBA players and organizations consistently use their platform to demonstrate and call for change, but many times college students and younger generations feel as though their voices aren’t heard. What are your thoughts on this racial reckoning currently happening in our country, and what advice would you give to students hoping to lead the charge towards change?

A: I don’t think [NBA players] get enough credit for their bravery. We look to them to help the movement, or even lead the movement in a lot of ways. That’s a lot of pressure. You have to be tremendously brave to put yourself out there because it’s a risk. It’s a risk when you dive into different movements like that, especially a movement that’s so emotional and hard for us all. They were able to accomplish tremendous feats, whether that was opening up every single NBA arena for voting, speaking about police reform [or] talking about education.

For the Middlebury side, there is a lot to do and a lot that has already been done. I’ve been really pleased to see a few things happen. I’m away [from campus], but I’m still on the board of trustees, and I’m very involved and try to stay abreast with what’s going on, especially on the athletics side. I was really pleased to get a call from Erin Quinn, the athletics director, about the initiatives he wants to put in place. The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee’s five-year plan to address those issues is a really tremendous first step. I think the hard part is how you continue to make that sustainable, even after you leave campus. It’s up to everybody at Middlebury who really cares to ask how can we help and what can we do — that’s the first step. We all have to step outside of our comfort zone. And you could say that it’s not affecting us here on this beautiful campus and the friendly confines of the Middlebury community, but it is. We all have to step outside our comfort zone and take a risk, and what does that look like for Middlebury students? Is that social media posts? Is that learning more about the issues that plague these black and brown communities? Is it protesting? Is it donations? What is it that you're doing to take that step, and not just saying “you know what, that’s not really affecting me”?

Q: Can you talk about your journey from Middlebury to the Cleveland Cavaliers? What advice would you give Middlebury students who branch out on their own journeys and inevitably run into obstacles?

A: I still pinch myself every day. It’s an unbelievable job, and I’m very fortunate. I get to watch basketball every day. If you’re going to work every day and having a blast, that’s the goal. I think Middlebury students are really well-versed to get to the highest level of whatever industry they want to get into. We think of ourselves as a small school, and that we can accomplish great things, but can we get to the top? I think we can because the thing that Middlebury teaches us is to become incredible thinkers. It also teaches us to navigate a bunch of different scenarios, to think on our feet and to make arguments that we back-up with data. We’re very analytical, but we can also write. That’s going to serve everyone really well, no matter where they go. I remember writing a thousand papers at Middlebury, and I hated it. But now at my job, I have to make an argument every day. I have to back that argument up with sound data points, make a conclusion, and sell that. 

In terms of my journey, every year I try to create a great basketball experience for myself. Whatever level that was, I grabbed a hold of that, and I wanted to be great in that role. I think that’s helped wherever I’ve gone. Each step along the way, whether it’s at USA Basketball, where I had to wash towels and bring ice around, to what I have to do now, I was great in my role. At one point, I was the best towel washer in the country. Hands down, best in the country. And that helped me get more responsibility at the next step and the next. 

Q: I’m sure being an NBA general manager comes with its fair share of stress and pressure. What are some of the moments where you feel the most pressure, and how do you deal with it?

A: Mental health has become a really big issue, and the misconception is that there is something wrong with you. I also think that the high stakes I might have to go through is no different than you having to prepare for a big exam. I think reaching out to talk to someone is a really healthy thing. I also know you have to find your own routine. For me, every day I need some level of decompression, something mindless. Whether it’s 20 or 30 minutes, I don’t ever get an hour, where I’m literally decompressing and not thinking about basketball. I’m either by myself, or I put on a shitty show, or something that takes my mind off of basketball completely. You can’t be all consumed with that exam for 24 hours a day. That’s not healthy. Whatever it is, going for a run or going to that special place to be by yourself, that brings you to some level of equilibrium, so you’re ready to go back and attack the problem. And it’s not hard to find a beautiful spot at Middlebury. We need to love ourselves and give ourselves that time to regenerate to go back and attack the problem, or else we’re going to burn ourselves out.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?A: I’m really happy we did this. We have great alumni. I really am pleased that you reached out, and I also think that as a community, the students should reach out to talk to these alumnus in different areas more. We’re excited to give back to the campus and the community from afar, because we can’t come up as much as we’d like. This has to continue on, and I think you’re starting a trend which is great, in reaching out to alums, and getting their thoughts on society, and bringing them back into the fold.