Thunder GM Sam Presti addresses Emerson College in live recording of The Woj Pod
Before addressing a gym full of students at his alma mater, Sam Presti tried to explain to his wife how surreal it was to be back on the Emerson College campus in Boston.
“I’m realizing this has happened,” the Thunder general manager said, recounting their phone conversation to the audience. “It’s crazy.”
Presti joined ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski in the first-ever live recording of The Woj Pod on Thursday. They talked for over an hour on topics ranging from his college basketball experience to trading Russell Westbrook and Paul George.
He became especially reflective as the conversation neared its end.
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“In a lot of ways I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to do this,” Presti said, “because it’s kind of zapped me in some ways, how surreal (it is) and how grateful I am for so much and so many people that have ... been patient with me and supported me.”
Here are several takeaways from the latest episode of The Woj Pod:
Trading Westbrook and George
A pair of trades that sent the Thunder on a completely different trajectory than it had originally planned at the beginning of the summer, sending George to the Clippers and Westbrook to the Rockets went over without public drama.
When Wojnarowski asked Presti talked about receiving Paul’s trade request this summer, Presti became introspective.
“I think in my earlier days, when I was really early doing this, I probably would have reacted differently, to be honest with you," Presti said. "I think my pride probably would have got in the way a little bit. I think I probably would have taken offense to it. I think over time I was able to look at it and say, well, first thing’s first, I need to get out to L.A.. I need to sit down, I need to talk to him. Because I think those types of conversations are better face to face, man to man.
“And Aaron (Mintz, George’s agent,) was great about that. He was delivering the news, he told me that Kawhi (Leonard) and him had been talking for a while now, and it had gotten to the point where they felt it was something they wanted to bring to me. I think I would have been foolish to, one, just ignore that because you can’t ignore that. He’s such an important piece to your team. But the other thing is, I’ve learned over the years, there’s always a solution. And I think you’ve got to be opportunistic several different ways, and one of them was, first, let’s talk.”
Presti put a similar emphasis on talking with Westbrook during his trade negotiations with Houston.
“As difficult as that trade was to work on with Russell because it truly was the closing of a particular chapter, it was one of the more gratifying things I’ve ever done," Presti said. Just because of the communication that was taking place. I was talking to him directly, with Thad (Foucher, Westbrook’s agent,) but I really wanted to speak with Russell.
“Because that’s another thing I’ve learned over the years is that you’ve got to make sure you’re talking to the guys because sometimes the things that you’re saying, it may not be intentional or malicious, but context is everything, and making sure things are delivered correctly. And Russell and I talked quite a bit during that, and I kept him updated, and that’s where he wanted to go. And again, just like with PG, we were able to make it work for everybody.”
Emerson College connections
The Thunder’s front office is filled with former Emerson College basketball players. Presti, Rob Hennigan, vice president of insight and foresight, and Will Dawkins, vice president of identification and intelligence, all graduated from the NCAA Division III school.
They played for Hank Smith, who coached at Emerson for 16 years and now works as a scout for the Thunder.
“Winning 20 games at any level regardless is not an easy thing to do," Presti said. "And Hank was able to do that pretty regularly for quite a long time in conditions that were not like this. Somehow, he tricked us into thinking that not having a gym, washing your own uniform, literally having no amenity whatsoever to make you feel like you’re a college basketball player, was a strength. And that that was our advantage. And we totally bought it, hook line and sinker. And it worked out well for some of us.”
To illustrate Smith’s ability to evaluate young talent, Presti told the story of how Smith took him to a Arlington High School game to show him a player who was better than him.
“Truth has it, he really was,” Presti said. "To this day, and God love him, I’ve never met the man in my life, but there was a kid from Arlington High named Phil Barlow. Phil, if you’re out there, you crushed my confidence. And to this day, when I see point guards, I say, ‘That guy sees the game like Phil Barlow does.’”
A vulnerable moment
As Wojnarowski wrapped up the live podcast recording, Presti interjected to ask if he could tell one more story.
“I want to give a look into this guy real quick," Presti said. “This is a real story. And I think it’s a real human story, and it’s important to tell.”
He painted the scene after Game 7 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals at Oracle Arena. The Thunder lost 96-88 after a wild series.
“The game was over,” Presti said. “Our season was over. We’re going into the summer of Kevin (Durant’s) free agency. And when you’re up 3-1 (in the series) and you have the chance to do something unique like that, it’s a crusher. So, I’m sitting in what probably was a broom closet, just trying to make sense of what happened. And this guy (Wojnarowski) pokes his head in.
“This is like out of a movie. I’ll never forget. I almost felt like I was looking down on this. And I’m staring into the ground like, ‘What? How did that happen?’ He poked his head in and he goes, ‘You know what?’ He goes, ‘Sam, you built a championship team. There’s just more than one championship team this year.’ And the thought to do that during that period of time. … Adrian’s a great example of that humanity (in this business), and that’s why he can get someone like me to agree to do this.”
The full interview is available on The Woj Pod: http://www.espn.com/espnradio/podcast/archive/_/id/26974840