Why Russ And OKC Put Their Trust In Sam Presti
- After Kevin Durant left town, Thunder GM Sam Presti had to rebuild around his one remaining star. Can his surprisingly competitive patchwork crew make some noise in the postseason?
This story appears in the April 17, 2017 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
Thirty miles northwest of Oracle Arena, on 411 acres of secluded woodlands in the San Geronimo Valley, the crowds sit in silence. They file into a two-story cedar building, place shoes in cubbyholes, pour cups of hot tea. They plop down on the octagonal oak floor in the Great Hall, using pillows as seat cushions, and gaze out floor-to-ceiling windows at turkeys roaming the grasslands, hawks circling the redwoods. Three instructors stand on a low platform, flanked by twin Buddha statues, and explain the first rule of a retreat to Spirit Rock: No talking. Not over lunch in the meadow, not on strolls across the hillside, and certainly not during meditation sessions in the Great Hall.
For Sam Presti, the general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder, extreme displays of self-discipline are not a problem. Three years ago a Thunder doctor warned Presti about the effects of carbohydrates, and he has not consumed so much as a crouton since. Two years ago Presti’s wife delivered their first child, and he vowed to write the boy a letter from every road trip. Approximately 70 notes and postcards already fill a safe deposit box in an Oklahoma City bank. During the organization’s annual cardiac stress test, players typically hop off the treadmill after eight or nine punishing minutes, when the administrator can take a clear ultrasound of their pumping heart. Presti stays on the belt for up to 14 minutes, speed and incline spiking every 30 seconds, his barrel chest heaving and burning. He wants the administrator to take the clearest ultrasound.
He stretches himself, which is why he strode into Spirit Rock alongside 160 strangers on the morning of Sept. 3, his only companion a sack lunch from a nearby natural foods store in West Marin. Presti meditates, but he is no Phil Jackson, and the Labor Day weekend retreat spanned 18 silent hours over three days. The schedule sounded daunting enough, before taking into account the setting. Presti is among the most prominent NBA GMs—marked by the clear-framed specs, the crisply parted hair, the omnipresent Blackberry (he keeps several backups in case the company goes out of business)—but he still passes largely unnoticed outside of OKC. He could have chosen a mindfulness center anywhere. Yet when the time came to clear his head and draw his breath he traveled all the way to the Bay Area, across the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge from Oakland, where he was predictably surrounded by Warriors T-shirts. As he glimpsed the bright yellow in the Great Hall, he laughed, though obviously not out loud.
Two months had passed since the Thunder’s private plane left the Hamptons without Kevin Durant. KD was off to Oakland and Presti to Oklahoma City, set apart for the first time since 2007, when Presti was the 29-year-old boy genius put in charge of the Seattle SuperSonics. In his first three summers he drafted Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, a line atop the résumé that would dazzle Red Auerbach and Jerry West.
But on that July 4 flight, only one cornerstone remained, and Presti opened the plastic folder he carries everywhere. Presti is an insatiable reader—when a book is recommended on the road he asks his assistant, Glenn Wong, to find the nearest store where it is sold; he prefers not to wait for Amazon Prime—and within the folder he keeps copies of passages that move him. Over time some documents are removed, others added. A packet of his favorite quotes has mushroomed to 55 pages. From his seat near the front of the plane, Presti fished out Teddy Roosevelt’s Citizenship in a Republic, a speech the former president delivered at the Sorbonne in 1910. Much of the text Presti had already highlighted, including a sentence a quarter of the way down:
“There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder.” But suddenly he was struck by the following sentence as well, which he’d never highlighted before, not when his team fell in the 2012 Finals, nor when horribly timed injuries to Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Durant capsized them in ’13, ’14 and ’15. “Well for these men if they succeed; well also, though not so well, if they fail, given only that they have nobly ventured, and have put forth all their heart and strength.”
The plane landed, Presti raced home to grab a shower, and then held an evening press conference in which he effusively thanked Durant for nearly a decade of service. While praise poured into Presti’s phone from corporate leaders—marveling at the GM’s grace in what could have been a Comic Sans moment—he and his staff holed up in a conference room at the Thunder’s D-League headquarters. The practice court at their main facility was being resurfaced and the fumes were unbearable, but they had to work. A roster crafted around two megastars was down to one, and nobody knew how to build around Westbrook because he’d never been a leading man. When LeBron James left Cleveland for Miami as a free agent in 2010, the Cavaliers salvaged a crucial sign-and-trade that netted two future first-round picks, two seconds and a massive trade exception. Oklahoma City recouped nothing for Durant. Officials listed the names of remaining free agents on a board. Everybody of interest was gone. The board might as well have been blank.
"We have to be careful of anything that’s rushed,” Presti said into his Blackberry on the night of Aug. 2, 2008, as he strolled from a minor league baseball game at Bricktown Ballpark to the National Memorial. It was his first trip to Oklahoma City, back when the franchise had no nickname, no logo and no gym. The summer-league jerseys were generic black and gray. Will Dawkins, one of Presti’s prized deputies, typed up the voice memo under Initial Thoughts. Presti still keeps them in his folder. Rather than scramble after a questionable free agent in Durant’s wake, the Thunder spent their remaining salary cap space on a maximum extension for Westbrook, saving a sliver of room to acquire backup point guard Semaj Christon and power forward Joffrey Lauvergne, small moves that would prove significant.
Presti replayed for the front office in July a film clip he has shown many times, from Apollo 13, the scene when carbon dioxide reaches near-fatal levels in the crew’s spacecraft and technicians must find a way to swap out circular CO2 scrubbers for square ones. “I suggest you, gentlemen, invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole,” intones Ed Harris, as flight director Gene Kranz. The astronauts jury-rig a filter using the cover of the flight manual, a roll of duct tape and a grab bag of spare parts. Presti calls their concoction bricolage, a French term referring to imperfect art, pieced together with whatever materials are available.
“Sam was down,” assistant GM Troy Weaver recalls, “but he masked it pretty good.” Nine years Presti had spent grooming Oklahoma City for a golden era that ended before it peaked, just as Westbrook and Durant reached their primes, buttressed by young talent and a manageable cap sheet. He didn’t have time to wrestle with why. “The prevailing emotion was disappointment,” Presti says. “Staring down the reality that this portion of our history would remain incomplete, unknown, somewhat jagged for the remainder of time. Kevin made what he felt was the best choice for him and followed his instincts. That’s all a man can do. The prevailing emotion wasn’t tied to him or his decision. It was actually broader, because it was held by a group of people, a community of people, coming to terms with the indefinite. But we knew from our history the only way forward was to advance, to use our values as a launching point, to continue to create our future.”
Presti stayed in Oklahoma City, attempting to buoy spirits during video conferences with colleagues from different departments, celebrating even the most minor accomplishments by the development group or the medical crew. He dispatched Weaver, a mentor for players, to summer league in Orlando. He asked loyal lieutenants such as Paul Rivers and Michael Winger to research the nature of shots Westbrook creates. Outsiders assumed Westbrook should be ringed by floor-spacing snipers, like Harden in Houston, but Presti demands evidence. Before training camp he called Warriors coach Steve Kerr and texted general manager Bob Myers, to wish them luck they didn’t need.
Franchises that lose free agents of Durant’s caliber essentially forfeit the next five seasons, barring a King-sized change of heart. But in Year 1 A.D., Oklahoma City is back in the playoffs as a No. 6 seed, thanks partly to some bricolage in Bricktown. Assets obtained when the Thunder dealt Ibaka to Orlando in June allowed them to add reinforcements around Westbrook, as they discovered what he required. Stretch forward Ersan Ilyasova, a throw-in from the Magic, was shipped to Philadelphia on Nov. 1 for spring-loaded stopper Jerami Grant and a $7.5 million trade exception. Point guard Cameron Payne, made expendable by Christon’s emergence, was sent to Chicago at the deadline with Lauvergne, Anthony Morrow and the trade exception for power forward Taj Gibson and sharpshooter Doug McDermott. Center Steven Adams and wing Victor Oladipo, signed to extensions in October, produced arguably their finest seasons. Rookies Alex Abrines and Domantas Sabonis showed promise. Meanwhile, several high-ranking executives rejected offers from rival organizations anticipating a post-Durant exodus.
Of course, without Westbrook they’re battling the Lakers in the bowels of the Western Conference, but the Thunder’s steady response has sparked hope that their triple-double dynamo could sign a five-year jumbo extension this summer. Westbrook can’t lean on an All-Star teammate, but a blue-chip GM is only slightly less valuable. Presti has prevailed in a large majority of trades he’s made, except the one everybody remembers, when he cast off Harden five years ago in a deal he didn’t want to make but deemed necessary because of oncoming luxury-tax penalties and the Beard’s ambitions. The next season Oklahoma City still won 60 games. “I put my trust in Sam,” Westbrook says, “and he always makes sure we have a chance.” Presti’s history of unearthing gems—he drafted Ibaka and Reggie Jackson at No. 24, Adams at No. 12—inspires faith that he can eventually dig out another. “You know how long my interview was for this job?” asks second-year coach Billy Donovan. “Ten hours. Sam is going to turn over every rock, flip it around and study it from every angle. You take comfort in that level of preparation.”
In the NCAA tournament last month, Presti drove with scouts to the subregional site in Tulsa, playing deejay in the car and queuing up everything from Bob Dylan to Sly & the Family Stone. He flew to a major conference tournament for the sole purpose of examining a fringe second-round pick. And he spent a mid-winter weekend on the road in South Dakota with the Thunder’s D-League affiliate, the Blue, at their Best Western in Sioux Falls. “Ask me anything,” Presti told players over dinner, his treat.
Nothing about Presti’s process has changed—he still decompresses at home with his drum set, Bose headphones blasting James Brown into his ears—other than the circumstances. In a sense, he started girding the group for crisis 3 1/2 years ago, when he flew to the University of Pennsylvania for a two-hour meeting with Karen Reivich. “It went five,” Reivich clarifies, “because it’s Sam.” Reivich is the lead instructor for the resilience programs run out of Penn’s Positive Psychology Center, which has trained 40,000 members of the U.S. Army to think more optimistically in high-stress situations, and has done the same for the Thunder. Reivich lives in Philadelphia but is a regular in Oklahoma City, steering coaches and staffers through role plays, case studies and breakout sessions, designed to help them express what they’re grateful for, rather than what they’re upset about. Presti’s comments after Durant’s departure, like the ones after Westbrook’s injury in 2013, were peppered with the word gratitude. This March, Reivich oversaw a session led by Presti, who asked everyone in the room to bring an image meaningful to them. “You have to understand why you are the way you are,” Presti says, “and be able to express that to others. That’s how you create environments where people feel connected and vulnerable.” The first picture chosen by the boy genius, now 40, was of his special ed teacher.
"You know you shouldn’t be here,” Harriett Stevens told Presti during supervised study at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School, but he didn’t have a lot of other places to go. He was an only child whose parents were in the midst of a long and difficult divorce, so it was hard to be at home. His school in the Boston suburbs was filled with kids bound for the Ivy League, and he couldn’t bear to be with them. His grades, mostly Cs and a couple of Ds, earned him a seat with Mrs. Stevens. “Don’t compare yourself to other people,” she said, patiently standing over him as he completed homework he wouldn’t do anywhere else.
Presti eventually found his adolescent sweet spot at the back-left table of the Concord-Carlisle cafeteria with students in the Metco Program, kids bused from predominantly African-American neighborhoods such as Mattapan, Roxbury and Dorchester. Two of them—Keenan Smith and Anthony Halls—and their pal from Concord, Mike Johnson, were basketball players, drawn to a white kid with a fade who listened to Public Enemy, tagged along to see Do the Right Thing and asked honest questions about race. The night Presti was cut from the varsity baseball team as a sophomore, he called the hoops coach. “I’m going to play for you next year,” he declared.
His game was equal parts grit and sizzle. (“We called him Bob Sura,” says Smith, invoking the flashy Florida State star who logged a decade in the NBA.) Presti hung a picture of his high school rival, a guard from Acton-Boxborough named Jimmy Dee, on his bathroom mirror. He even went to Dee’s football games, eyeing the boy from the bleachers, as if he might glean inside info. Upon graduation, Presti enrolled at Virginia Wesleyan, where he played guard by day and drums by night at blues bars around Virginia Beach. But he missed Boston, and after watching tape of the team at Emerson College, he transferred for his junior season. To make captain, he needed a 3.0 grade point average, and his communications professor was known as one of the toughest on campus. But Mike Brown was generous with office hours, so Presti showed up at his door on Beacon Street every day to review the upcoming assignment. Presti easily cleared the GPA threshold while recruiting local musicians to record a CD, with proceeds going to Children’s Hospital. Brown nominated him for the Rhodes scholarship.
But all that really matters is that he encouraged Tommy Farrell when the freshman hurt his back in a conditioning drill and considered heading home to Aspen. Tommy’s dad, the superintendent of Aspen public schools, was grateful. So grateful that he mentioned a basketball camp held every summer at Aspen High School, operated by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford, who sometimes took an intern back to San Antonio with them. Tom Farrell Sr. needed one camp counselor in the summer of 2000 and he offered the position to both of Emerson’s senior captains. “You should go,” co-captain Tommy Arria told Presti. “You’ll do something with it.” Presti mowed fairways at Pinehills Golf Club and sold parts of his drum set to afford the plane fare. He slept in a classroom at Aspen High, cleaned the cafeteria, enforced the curfew and never saw Popovich or Buford. I sold a 16-inch floor tom for this? he groused. On the fourth and final day of the camp, Buford walked in the gym.
As the GM refereed a scrimmage, Presti ran up and down the court with him, pleading his case. “When you get to San Antonio,” Buford relented, “I want you to call this guy. His name is Mike Budenholzer.” Presti had never heard of the Spurs assistant. He booked a room at a Holiday Inn off I-35 and bought an ’86 Buick Skylark with a tape player that only worked when a toothpick was stuck inside. Bricolage. The Spurs, who had already awarded their full-time internship, didn’t know what to do with Presti. He ran the shot clock at practice, mopped the floor, stocked the fridge. He rebounded for David Robinson and Danny Ferry. Sometimes he slept on a training table at the Alamodome. Once he had to be scolded for eating all the Power Bars. After Tim Duncan won $300 in a shooting game, he handed the cash to Presti. It was more than the backup intern made in a month.
Rick Carlisle was out of the league back then, and when the coach visited San Antonio, Presti chauffeured him around in the Skylark. Carlisle did not seem to notice the steering-wheel column collapse on the way to Pizza Hut. As Carlisle chugged Mountain Dew over a pie that night, he scrawled on a sheet of paper NBA lingo Presti would have to memorize, terms like Hawk Cut and Blind Pig. After dinner, Carlisle asked Presti to write some advanced reports. Presti looked puzzled. “Describe some games,” Carlisle explained, “and send me what you write.” Less than a year later, Carlisle was coach of the Pistons and the Pizza Hut document was still the only thing hanging on the wall in Presti’s apartment. “Rick called,” Popovich told Presti one day. “He’s interested in hiring you. But you can’t do that.”
By then, Presti was already going to Buford’s house almost every night, hauling a Gatorade duffel bag stuffed with VHS tapes of draft prospects like Gerald Wallace and Tony Parker. They’d watch until 1 a.m., and then Presti would come back the next night, same bag jammed with new tapes. He leaped up the ladder, to basketball operations assistant and assistant general manager, constantly quizzing Buford on the CBA—even as the GM cleaned his garage. In June ’07, Presti left San Antonio for Seattle with a photo of the chair at the AT&T Center where he sat next to Buford. Three weeks later, he drafted Durant.
"Are you sustainable right now?” Donnie Strack asks Presti, because exercise, meditation and a stringent diet don’t ensure anything. “I’ve read the stories about Urban Meyer,” says Strack, Oklahoma City’s director of medical services, in reference to Ohio State’s hard-driving football coach. “That’s what Sam used to be like. Twenty-four hours a day. Maniacal.” In addition to the PowerPoint presentations and scouting dossiers, Presti held individual exit interviews with everybody in the organization and filled pages of a journal late at night, sometimes by the light of the memorial. He constructed a buttoned-down franchise that embodied the order he lacked as a kid, lawn at the facility meticulously mowed, labels on organic juice bottles forever facing out. “I like dealing with Oklahoma City,” says one prominent agent, “because it’s no-nonsense. It’s corporate.” You just have to decipher the Silicon Valley lexicon, deploying a “challenger spirit” instead of a “scarcity mind-set.”
Strack has seen his friend mellow a bit with age. When center Enes Kanter broke his arm punching a chair during a game in January, Strack met with Presti and came away feeling that no one was to give the mortified big man a hard time about it. “The day Enes started basketball workouts, Sam was out on the court, clapping him along,” Strack recalls. “Enes came back four weeks after surgery for a fractured ulna. That doesn’t happen.” Equally astonishing was the scene at Presti’s 40th birthday last fall when his wife, Shannon, brought Smith, Halls and Johnson to Oklahoma City as a surprise. But that night the Thunder were finalizing the extensions with Adams and Oladipo. Presti was torn. After a brief stop at the facility, he went out to dinner with his buddies and let Winger handle conference calls, returning to negotiations later.
Presti was not a Metco kid, but he endows an annual college scholarship for one graduate of the program from Concord-Carlisle. He also runs a leadership group at three underserved high schools in Oklahoma City and conducts seven sessions per year, plus an out-of-state field trip. When Durant left, Presti did not seek sympathy from peers. His first instinct was to call students he met in the group with real problems, like former John Marshall football players Keyshawn Shells and Marco Grier, who were in a car accident that killed a friend. “When I run into difficult situations,” Presti says, “those are the guys I find myself communicating with.” Another is Tyler Zander, a basketball player from Chisholm High, whose leg had to be amputated six years ago after it was caught in a grain auger.
“Sam walked into my hospital room and I was like, ‘Man, this is really cool, the GM of the Thunder came to see me,’” Zander remembers. “I thought that would be it. But then he kept texting every couple weeks, and he still hasn’t stopped. What I’ve come to realize about Sam is that he truly believes he can learn from everybody in some way.”
He still talks to Tom Farrell Sr. He recently ate lunch with Mrs. Stevens. He travels every summer to Steven Adams’s basketball camp—in New Zealand. “He’s the boss,” Adams says, “but he’s also a pretty average bloke.” He can’t stand to lose touch. After a meeting with commissioner Adam Silver in New York City last August, Presti drove to his grandfather’s old house in Westbury and convinced the new owner to let him see the shed where he, his father and his grandfather sunk their handprints into wet cement 37 years ago. Then he rode to his other grandpa’s house, in Sands Point, and finagled a tour there as well. Dig through his office, past the Frank Lloyd Wright books, the Miles Davis records and the magnetized quotes (“We don’t flinch”) and you will find his past in pictures: the Westbury shed, the San Antonio apartment, the AT&T Center seat, Jimmy Dee and Keenan Smith and Tyler Zander, now a first-year medical student at Oklahoma, posing with the doctor who cut off his leg.
Then there are the images of Durant and Harden and Westbrook—the three players who have defined this NBA season—beamed every night to the world. Presti recoils at the suggestion that any of those snapshots sting. Gratitude. Nobody wants to lose a legend, but it’s better than never experiencing one at all.
The Thunder, like pretty much every other playoff team, are still stuck in the woods behind the Warriors with no map. They don’t have the second pick, which is where they snagged Durant, or the third, which is where they gambled on Harden, or the fourth, which is where they shocked with Westbrook. What they do have is the Blackberry-toting visionary who assembled that magnificent trio in the first place, still taking the trips, writing the reports, empowering the deputies, banging away at the big drum.