Koby Altman’s Journey from Brooklyn to the Top of Cleveland’s Front Office
Koby Altman has packed a lifetime’s worth of experience into his 34 years. And with less than two months remaining until Media Day, the Wine and Gold’s new General Manager is just getting started.
The story begins in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where Altman was raised by his mother in a single-parent household. And he can trace a specific memory in that household to the possible genesis of his love for the game of basketball.
”My mom went to UNC for graduate school, and because of Dean Smith, she fell in love with the game of basketball,” recalled Altman. “Afterward, we moved to New York, where my mom was a social worker – and the Knicks became her favorite team.
”In that first-ever NBA Draft Lottery; I think I was two years old and I was sleeping in my crib when the envelope was opened. When the Knicks won it, my mom went absolutely crazy – woke me up, screaming that we were gonna get Patrick Ewing! Woke me up right in my crib.”
Altman isn’t your stereotypical brash, fast-talking native New Yorker. But those who’ve worked with him in the Big Apple and beyond know that it’s brewing just beneath the surface.
”(Koby)’s a New Yorker – and if you ever watch him order a sandwich, you’ll understand,” laughed Kyle Smith, Columbia University’s head coach during Altman’s tenure as an assistant. “He gets what he wants in a nice way. But he’s firm and he’s not afraid of criticism – and that’s part of growing up in New York. I always like to say that in New York, every conversation’s a negotiation. And that’s what he got from being born and raised there.”
Altman was an assistant under Smith – now the head coach of the University of San Francisco’s men’s team – before joining the Cavaliers in 2012. Smith saw early on that Koby was destined for bigger things.
”Ivy League recruiting is very unique and there’s a lot of moving parts, and I’m sure, being an NBA GM, there’s even more,” praised Smith. “But I just think his mental flexibility and intellectual capacity will allow him to juggle those things. He’s just pretty darn shrewd.”
Altman embraces his upbringing in one of the most diverse and dynamic places in the world.
”Growing up in Brooklyn definitely helped me with my interpersonal skills – being able to talk to any walk of life,” Altman admits. “You cross-range from any different type of socio-economic and racial backgrounds. Religions, sexualities. It’s just a melting pot. And growing up there gave me a lot of tools that I use today as a general manager.”
“I always like to say that in New York, every conversation’s a negotiation. And that’s what he got from being born and raised there.”
Kyle Smith, Head Coach at University of San Francisco
As a prep athlete, Altman was a standout point guard for New Utrecht High School in Bensonhurst. And from there, his life took a sharp turn – earning a prestigious Posse Foundation Scholarship to attend and play ball for Middlebury College – one of the most respected liberal arts universities on the East Coast.
Going from the sometimes hardscrabble streets of Brooklyn to the pastoral campus at Middlebury was somewhat of a culture shock for Altman. But the Cavs current top personnel man adapted accordingly.
”Middlebury was, at that time, about 92 percent white, but I always looked at it as an opportunity – and I was able to assimilate much faster than most of my minority peers because I was on the basketball team,” said Altman. “But I looked at it as an opportunity to share my background, my diversity.”
And while Altman’s basketball career never moved beyond Middlebury, the skills he learned off the floor are critical to this day.
”(Middlebury) taught me how to write well,” Altman recalls.
“We wrote a million papers back then. And I didn’t realize the value of it back then, because I was p*ssed that I had to write so many papers. But you learn how to make arguments, articulate your points and provide sound, reasonable data for why you believe such a thing. And to this day, that’s what we do (in the front office): we make arguments, we support it with data. When you do research on players, you’re making an argument at the end of the day.”
If there’s any place that loves a good argument, it’s New York City. And that’s where Altman returned after graduating from Middlebury. But he didn’t go back for basketball.
Altman – a Brooklyn, New York native – has been with the organization since 2012, working his way up from pro personnel manager to director of pro personnel to Assistant General Manager, a position he’s held since the start of the 2016 campaign.
Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images
”You graduate from these high academic schools so you think you have to go out and make money right away – so that’s what I did,” quipped Koby. “I had all this background of summer camps and basketball and I had no business background. So I thought: Let me do something to have some sort of business experience on my resume so I went into commercial real estate.”
Altman spent almost the next three years wheeling and dealing in Manhattan for a firm called Friedman-Roth – learning another skill that he’d eventually use: the art of negotiation.
But as rewarding as the real estate business was, Altman’s first love was basketball. At lunch, he’d sneak down to Xavier High School – about four blocks away from his office – and help out the freshman hoops team for an hour a day.
”At that point, I said: ‘This is what I need to be doing.’ I was making good money in real estate, but it was time to go back to what I loved doing.”
Altman had made enough money to make some of the sacrifices he knew he’d have to in order to work his way up the basketball ladder. That next step began with post-graduate studies at UMass, where Altman worked towards his Master’s degree in Sports Management.
Splitting time between his studies at UMass, Altman was given the opportunity to be an assistant under legendary D-3 head coach Dave Hixon at Amherst College – against whom Koby competed while running the point for Middlebury. In Altman’s first year at Amherst, they returned to (but lost) the national title game.
But as hectic and challenging as the school year was, it was Altman’s second summer with the UMass mentorship program that propelled him (eventually) to the NBA.
”At UMass, they try to match you up with a mentor, and my second year I was matched up with Sean Ford – the director for Men’s programs at USA Basketball,” said Altman. “I remember when they sent me the email with his name on it and I did some backflips.
”We got into formal conversations and I met him in person at the Final Four. And I remember we talked for a while and he said, ‘Would you want to go with one of our teams to New Zealand? You’ll be a team manager and you’ll do all the grunt work and …’ I didn’t even let him finish. I said: ‘Absolutely.’”
That summer, Altman worked with Team USA’s Gold-medal winning U-19 squad – one coached by Jamie Dixon and included assistants Chris Lowery and Matt Painter – and included players like Gordon Heyward, Klay Thompson and Shelvin Mack.
Exclusive 1-on-1 Interview with John Michael & Koby Altman
“That (Team USA) experience gave me a whole new perspective,” Altman said. “I thought I was great on the D-3 level in terms of my ability to coach and create relationships and really contribute. But being at that level, I was never at that level – I didn’t play at the Division I level, I didn’t coach at the D-I level – but being able to interact with players at that level showed that I could do it.
”And it gave me a great sense of confidence that I could work with players and coaches at the highest level, regardless of my background – in terms of where I’ve played and where I’ve worked.”
Two years in the Team USA program produced two Gold medals for Altman. But more importantly, it propelled him into a different echelon among NBA and D-1 peers.
”Through that UMass internship program, I was in the Team USA basketball fraternity. And there are a lot of guys in the NBA that’ve reached high levels starting with volunteer work. And I always said during those times with USA Basketball: I was the best towel-washer in the country – and I took pride in it. It was a lot of grunt work, but it was a lot of fun. And it sort of built up my resume to a really high level.
From there, things moved pretty quickly for Altman.
After a year as an assistant with his first D-1 school – at Southern Illinois – he joined the coaching staff of Kyle Smith, who’d just gotten the job at Columbia.
”Columbia was a great experience,” smiled Altman. “We started from scratch and built the program. (Smith) talked about building a program, having kids with a great attitude, great work ethic and who really want to be here. And I want to bring that to the Cavaliers when we scout and look for players.”
Altman maintains he’ll have (and seek) that positive attitude in his front office as well.
”I try to have a great attitude for my guys; I want to walk in and bring positive energy. We always you want to be a fountain and not a drain. A drain sucks the energy out of the room – be it the workplace, the basketball floor, the locker room. Your attitude, you can control that.
”We all have down days and we all have challenges, but your attitude has to remain the same.”
After two seasons with Columbia, then-Cavaliers GM Chris Grant – who had a good relationship with Smith – and Assistant GM David Griffin – who had strong ties to USA Basketball – were given Altman’s name as the perfect candidate for a position as Cleveland’s Manager of Pro Player Personnel. He was hired not long after.
At first, the leap wasn’t easy.
”I used to think I was an NBA junkie coming in because I watched every game on League Pass,” said Altman. “And now I’m thrown in this position to just scout NBA. And it was all new because I was from the college (world). You’d think it’d be a natural transition.
”But I got thrown in right away and I knew I had to get really good knowing my pro personnel. And I spent my first year just totally focused on that – learn as much as I could about all 450 players.”
With the Wine and Gold, Altman has seen both sides of the spectrum. He joined Cleveland during the lean years and now finds himself making moves to keep his team atop the Conference and contending for a title.
”It’s funny, my first two years here, we won the Lottery,” interjected Altman. “And the next three years, we go to the Finals.”
“We’ve seen it and we’ve lived through it and we know what goes on in our house.”
The contrasts from then to now – in Cavalier years – is pretty stark.
“Back then, we had a blank canvas. We had ton of cap space, we had a lot of draft picks. We had assets to acquire guys and sign guys. So I was literally scouting some of the best players in the NBA. We didn’t really have any restrictions as far as where we’re at now.
”Right now, we’re very limited in what we can do. Not we don’t look at everybody. We’re looking at minimum guys, taxpayer mid-level exception guys, G-League guys that we like. Back then, I was looking at everybody. We were looking at Kevin Love – long before we got him, long before we got ‘Bron.”
When David Griffin’s contract wasn’t renewed after the 2017-18 campaign, Altman and his front office – one that includes Assistant GM Mike Gansey, Senior Director of Basketball Operations Brock Aller, Senior Director of Analytics John Nichols and Director of Scouting Brandon Weems – got right to work on what’s been a pretty active offseason.
After retaining their own in-house free agent, Kyle Korver, the Cavs’ new-look brass focused on depth – inking free agents Jeff Green and Jose Calderon and bringing young Cedi Osman over from Turkey.
And most recently – actually on his first official day on the job – the Cavaliers signed former league MVP Derrick Rose.
”I think (Rose’s group) went through the free agency process, and it became clear that he valued winning and being in a good situation more than anything,” beamed Altman. “And when they came to us with that mindset, we knew that it would be a perfect fit.”
And despite what’s been, at times, an unkind narrative about the Cavaliers’ 2018 offseason, Altman and his staff remain undaunted.
”(We) ignored the negativity,” asserts Altman. “The year we won the Championship, we had a tremendous amount of adversity. We had a mid-season coaching change, we had trades, things that sort of shook us up a little bit. We’re always going to be a team that gets a ton of media scrutiny. And we’ve been through that.
”We’ve seen it and we’ve lived through it and we know what goes on in our house. It doesn’t rattle us or affect us, because we’ve been through it before. This was something that was not new.”
Even with Training Camp bearing down, the Cavaliers still might have big moves to make. It’ll help having a cool-headed New Yorker experienced in the art of negotiation at the helm.
It also helps that he comes into the campaign with one of the all-time NBA greats heading up his roster – a player with whom Altman has an excellent relationship.
“Well, it’s changed,” laughed Altman. “It’s different now than, ‘Hey Bron, how you doing? What’s going on?’ to ‘Hey, Bron, what do you think about this, what do you think about that?’
”But again, the conversations always remain the same: How does this make us better? How does this person help? (LeBron)’s a tremendous resource. And we’re really fortunate to have him in that regard. Obviously, he’s the best player on the planet, but I love using his mind just as much.”
It’s been an interesting journey for the 34-year-old — from the first NBA Lottery to his hiring as one of the youngest GMs in the Association. And he’s gone from the frying pan into the fire this offseason, with more excitement on the way.
But Koby Altman can handle the heat. He’s from Brooklyn.