When Koby Altman talks about his time at Middlebury, one of the first things he shares is how he once had a profound dislike for a centerpiece of the liberal arts curriculum.
“Thinking back to my Middlebury experience, I had to write like 500 papers,” he recalled during his visit to campus last weekend. “And at first, I hated that. I hated every second of writing papers.”
The Brooklyn, NY native weathered his early writing struggles, though. Now, in his role as the Cleveland Cavaliers’ general manager — one of pro sports’ most visible positions, even after a certain big-name star departed for the bright lights of the West Coast earlier this summer — Altman leans every day on the writing skills his liberal arts education gradually pounded into him.
“I eventually became a really good writer [at Middlebury],” he said proudly. “And that’s needed in any profession because at the end of the day you have to make arguments, support them with data and analytically drive home the points you want to make. Every day that we discuss players, I’m making an argument.”
The story of the former liberal arts student’s ascent to sports management stardom is one of facing challenges, like those droves of essays, head-on and passing them with flying colors. A Posse Scholar and hard-nosed point guard for Jeff Brown’s basketball program, Altman graduated from Middlebury in 2004 with a degree in sociology and anthropology. Afterward, he spent a few years working the treacherous New York City real estate market with no business background (where he “did very well” for himself), but then ditched the lucrative desk job to pursue his dream: a career in pro hoops.
That financial success in the sports world was improbable didn’t matter. He missed the game too much to stay away, and his corporate job just wasn’t doing it for him. Something was missing, he said.
So, he dove into basketball: for several years he coached at Amherst College as a graduate assistant while working towards a sports management degree at UMass Amherst. He then assisted with USA Basketball for a while, where, he jokes, “I was the best towel-washer around.” He rose through the ranks steadily, working as a graduate assistant at Southern Illinois University for the 2009-2010 season then as a full-time assistant at Columbia University.
At no point was it easy.
“Every step along the way, you certainly have to prove yourself,” Altman said of his early years in the world of professional basketball management. “For me, personally, I had to figure out if I had the confidence to do this. When I was with USA Basketball, [I was] working with some of the best Division I coaches in the country and some of the best players in the country that [were] going to be top ten draft picks at the time. That was when I really realized I can play in this space.”
Altman doggedly made connections during those early years, and by 2017 he had been hired by the Cavaliers as a scout and had worked his way up the ranks of the organization’s front office. Then, when David Griffin was let go as general manager that summer, Altman was tapped to take his place.
His peers and mentors say he accomplished it all due primarily to a skill that Middlebury preaches as a foundational part of its educational mission: the ability to sit down with anyone, look them in the eye and connect. Debbie Bial, President of the Posse Foundation, told Middlebury Magazine that Altman has the “unique ability to make people feel comfortable no matter what the topic of conversation is.”
Reflective and self-aware in tracing his development (both as a basketball executive and a human being), Altman remembers Middlebury as a place where his people skills were allowed to develop and shine.
“Being from Brooklyn, which is this dynamic, diverse place, coming here, getting an amazing education, meeting new people…helped me become the person I am and enlightened me,” Altman said. “I grew immensely in terms of my intellectual curiosity at this place. That’s helped me relate to so many different people and this place pushed that on me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was really growing intellectually and in terms of being able to converse about a variety of topics.”
Altman’s penchant for human interaction was on full display last weekend when he visited campus, attending a variety of gatherings for student-athletes, sociology majors and Posse scholars. At a breakfast for student-athletes interested in careers in sports management, Altman walked around the room, introducing himself to every student present. He looked each attendee in the eye, asked his or her name, where they were from and what they were majoring in. When he came across students from the San Francisco Bay Area, he was quick to poke lighthearted fun at their Warriors fandom.
“He brings such a light and fun, positive energy to the room that was pervasive throughout all of the athletes,” said Kira Waldman ‘20, a varsity basketball player who attended a dinner with Altman and the men’s and women’s basketball teams. “He genuinely wanted to know what we were each interested in and a little bit about our backgrounds.”
Based on Altman’s weekend on campus, it seems he is as appreciative of creating moments of meaningful connection as he is adept at engaging in that process: he spoke to hundreds of students throughout the weekend and not once did his interactions appear anything less than sincere.
“I think what Middlebury gave me was a curiosity for all these different things and different people,” he said. “It’s great to be back.”