- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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Sam Presti got a bit of the "Glory Days" treatment Wednesday. He arrived in Boston in time to take a stroll past his old dormitory at Emerson College. He later hooked up with his former Emerson coach, Hank Smith, at TD Garden for the Celtics-Thunder game. There were also some teammates at the game from his high school hoops squad at Concord-Carlisle High. Presti got them tickets.
Presti was a Dual County League star at Concord-Carlisle. He was nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship (which he didn't get) after a distinguished career at Emerson. While at Emerson, he was a two-time member of the Great Northeast Athletic Conference all-tournament team.
Honestly, does it get any better than that?
Presti is in the discussion for the NBA Executive of the Year award in just his third season as the general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder. He is only 33 years old and the unquestioned architect of one of the NBA's feel-good stories of 2009-10. It's a story that has no bad end in sight and has thrust the publicity-shy Presti into the spotlight. Others are happy to do the talking for him.
"The word that comes to mind is 'cerebral,'" said Smith, his coach at Emerson. "He was always thinking. Before the game, during the game, after the game. Very serious. Very dedicated. I always thought he'd end up doing something like this.
"I liked him as a player in high school and I recruited him, but I didn't get him right away. Virginia Wesleyan did. But then the next thing I know, he's calling and I am one happy coach. He was a good all-around player for me, but you always knew there'd be something bigger for Sam."
Looking at the young talent Presti has assembled since he took the job in 2007 almost makes you want to relocate to the Sooner State. When he signed on just before the 2007 NBA draft, the Thunder were the Seattle Sonics, one year from relocation, barely hanging on in the Emerald City. Presti saw a team that, save for one nice playoff run in 2005, was basically a 35-win team and not a lot more. He had Ray Allen. He had Rashard Lewis. He knew he'd get either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant in the 2007 draft. So he went to work.
Durant fell into his lap at No. 2. Allen was traded to Boston -- a hugely bold, and unpopular, move at the time for a 30-year-old rookie GM -- for the No. 5 pick in 2007, Jeff Green. (Others were involved, but Green was the key. And he had two big 3s at the end of Wednesday's game to seal the Thunder's 109-104 victory over the Celtics.)
Presti knew Lewis would leave as a free agent, but he got the Orlando Magic to do a sign-and-trade deal and received a huge trade exception. He used that to take Kurt Thomas' contract off the Suns' hands for two No. 1s. He then dealt Thomas to the Spurs for another No. 1.
In subsequent drafts, Presti took Russell Westbrook in 2008 and James Harden in 2009. He traded for Thabo Sefolosha and signed Nenad Krstic as a free agent during the 2008-09 season. In the upcoming draft in June, the Thunder will have three of the first 32 picks.
The Thunder, with Durant having an MVP-type season (he is no worse than third in most people's minds), are in the thick of the playoff picture in the tough Western Conference. They showed their mettle against the Celtics with the estimable Durant pouring in 37 points. It was Oklahoma City's 46th win of the season. The team won 43 games in the two previous seasons combined.
"There were a lot of questions about our team coming into the season," Presti said. "And with good reason. There was a new coach, a lot of new players, but I knew after seeing how hard they all worked, especially in the summer, that I was not going to underestimate our guys.
Asked whether he knew it would turn out like this, Presti said, "I don't think anyone knew. But we're still learning because it's all brand-new."
Presti's NBA résumé includes a long stint in San Antonio, where he started as an intern doing film work in the video room for coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford. (His former coach, Smith, was wearing a Spurs jacket at the game.) Legend has it that it was Presti who, just before the 2001 draft, went up to Popovich and said, "I really think you need to take another look at this kid Parker." Popovich had not been impressed with Tony Parker after his first workout with the Spurs, but Presti had seen a lot of Parker and was convinced that the 19-year-old was worth a second look. Presti had been with the Spurs for one year. Popovich agreed to look anew. The rest is history.
Presti rose through the ranks to eventually become assistant general manager to Buford. He was schooled in the San Antonio Way and has brought a similar mentality to Oklahoma City: Try to avoid the jerks, try to avoid overspending, try to hire the right people, try to sustain what you have (if you want to sustain it, of course).
Presti also benefits from the one-team advantage that the Spurs enjoyed in San Antonio: There's no other major pro team in Oklahoma City. On most game nights, the local newspaper will have three writers at the game (unless it's spring football practice at Oklahoma or Oklahoma State). There is still a very strong sense of civic pride in Oklahoma City that the city has managed to land an NBA franchise. Presti is doing his part to make sure the fans have something to embrace for some time.
You look at the Thunder's roster with all this young talent and you wonder whether Presti can keep it together in today's NBA climate. The Bulls couldn't do it with their young talent (Ben Gordon, Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, etc.), but Presti doesn't have an albatross contract on his payroll as Chicago did with Ben Wallace. The Thunder have one of the lowest payrolls in the league -- nowhere near the luxury-tax threshold -- and will have tons of room in 2011 to either re-sign their young'uns or go in a different direction.
"We want this thing to continue, to not skip steps," Presti said. "We've managed our salaries to give us a lot of flexibility down the road."
Presti didn't get a chance to get out to Concord on this visit. He scouted the National Invitation Tournament in New York on Tuesday night (missing Oklahoma City's victory in Philadelphia), then drove up to Boston on Wednesday. But there was enough from his not-so-distant past at the game to make it feel like coming home, even though he hasn't been a New Englander by residence since he left Emerson in 2000.
"Sam is still a legend at Emerson," said former Emerson hoopster William O'Connell, who was at the game. "We love him. He's a hero to Emerson College men's basketball."
Said Presti, "I always enjoy coming back. I have an affinity for New England, but I also love calling Oklahoma City home. The pace of life is great. It's just great to be a part of all of that."
It's even better when you can leave your hometown with a win.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.