When sharpshooting guard Steve Smith was traded to the San Antonio Spurs in the summer of 2001, he saw Sam Presti pretty much every day and at all hours.
Trouble was, Smith had no idea what Presti's official position was with the team.
“He was always around,” said Smith, who led the league in 3-point shooting his first season (2001-02) with the Spurs at 47.2 percent. “If you were new to the organization, you really didn't know his title. He'd be in the video room. He'd be around the coaches, with the players. He was with the general manager.”
Smith won a world championship his second season with the Spurs, played 14 years in the league and now is an analyst with NBA TV.
With the Spurs and Thunder about to commence the Western Conference Finals with Game 1 at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday in San Antonio, Smith reflected back to seeing a 23-year-old Presti constantly processing input during his early years with the Spurs.
“Hard worker and passionate about the game,” Smith recalled of Presti, who ascended from a $250/month film internship to assistant general manager in seven years (2000-07) with the Spurs. “Sam has this personality where he doesn't say much. He lets you do a lot of the talking, kind of listens and learns.”
Presti's traits help explain why a 4-year-old Thunder franchise is in the playoffs for a third straight season and making its second straight trip to the Western Conference Finals.
Smith caught only a fleeting glimpse of Presti, but Spurs president/head coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford got the full-Presti.
In the summer of 2000, Presti was fresh out of Emerson College and working a basketball camp in Aspen, Colo. With an initial dream of someday becoming a high-school coach, Presti tried to get an NBA internship, but Buford didn't arrive until the final day of camp.
While Buford refereed a game, Presti delivered his best sales pitch while literally chasing Buford up and down the court from the sideline.
Buford liked what he heard, offered Presti an internship, then stuck him inside a converted custodial closet at the Alamodome as video coordinator.
Despite his modest, almost invisible existence from the outset, Presti quickly made an impression on Popovich and Buford.
“I think everybody knew before the week was up that he'd be running the league eventually,” Buford said of Presti.
A 1970 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a member of the U.S. Armed Forces Team, Popovich is a man who expects much from those around him, and he absolutely gushes about Presti.
“He's one smart dude, No. 1,” Popovich told the San Antonio Express-News of Presti. “That's the first thing you figure out very quickly with Sam. The second thing you figure out, he's a total team player, just a great human being who is comfortable in his own skin, loyal, hardworking. He couldn't have been better for us, and he's even better now.”
Buford said Presti's rapid rise in the front office was a team effort, not an individual quest by Presti.
“We were in this deal together, so it wasn't just giving him responsibilities,” Buford said. “We shared a lot and we grew a lot. Our whole group continued to grow together and anything you gave Sam, he could handle. He just continued to crank out bigger and better work.”
In June of 2007, Presti became general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics at age 29, the second-youngest GM in NBA history.
“We tried to keep him in a closet for a while, so nobody would know about him,” Popovich joked of Presti's humble beginnings as video coordinator. “It became common knowledge around here that he was very sharp and would be looking for his own deal someplace. The time we had him, we were just thrilled.”
In July of 2008, the Sonics relocated to Oklahoma City, became the Thunder and by the end of its second season, the franchise was well on its way to becoming a league darling.
And it all has come under the direction of a cerebral, wheeler-dealer in Presti, who started out as a jack of all trades and progressed to one of the best traders in the business.