A Slam Dunk

Garth Glissman’s Road to the Big Time Was Paved by Hard Work and Vision

By Michael Kelly

Garth and Katie Glissman with their 3-year-old daughter, Grace.
Garth and Katie Glissman with their 3-year-old daughter, Grace.

Hmm, here’s an unusual way you could become an executive in the NBA:

Coach Class D-2 high school basketball in Nebraska for eight years, and then open an email from the pro league that says it has never seen a resume quite like yours. Wait. You didn’t send in your resume. This must be a joke.

Out of curiosity, you reply.

After a number of phone discussions over the next few months, you fly to New York for an interview. Then you stun your friends and colleagues by accepting a job with, yes, the National … Basketball … Association.

Glissman lettered as a Husker quarterback in 2004.
Glissman lettered as a Husker quarterback in 2004.

That’s the very condensed version of how Garth Glissman – a Nebraska native who sold peanuts, pizza and pop in the stands at Husker football games during his high school years and then was an invited walk-on at NU for basketball and football – went to work in 2016 for the NBA. Today at 40 he is the vice president of basketball operations.

“Garth is a very gifted and skilled professional,” said Byron Spruell, the NBA’s president of league operations. “He truly embodies the essence of teamwork and commitment.”

How did the NBA find him? It was as simple as the league’s human relations office being intrigued by his resume on LinkedIn as a practicing attorney who also coached high school basketball.

Yes, the short version of how Garth Glissman went to work for the NBA leaves out parts of his life path. Among them:

• In college, he said publicly that someday he’d like to be governor of Nebraska.
• At graduation, he was conferred a degree “with highest distinction” (summa cum laude).
• He became a Rhodes Scholar finalist.
• He won a top award at the University of Nebraska College of Law and then worked at the state’s largest law firm, where he rose to partner.
• He married a lawyer, Katie Kotlik, and they have a daughter, Grace, who turns 4 in July. Garth’s job is based in New York, but they keep a home in Omaha.

From his last year in law school through the first several years of his legal career, Glissman loved moonlighting as a non-paid high school basketball coach. Though he was a longtime pro basketball fan, he never dreamed of becoming part of the NBA.

Glissman at the 2017 NBA Finals in Cleveland.
Glissman at the 2017 NBA Finals in Cleveland.

It’s quite a story. Better start back at the beginning.

Garth Glissman was born in 1982, son of Blayne and Susan, and grew up on a small farm 15 minutes north of Memorial Stadium. His supportive parents, he said, instilled a love of learning but he was “fanatical” about sports. (After a divorce, his school teacher-administrator mother remarried and is now Susan Volker.)

Garth attended K-12 in the Waverly School District and in boyhood read about the Huskers in the Lincoln Journal Star and the Omaha World-Herald. With his own money, he subscribed to Huskers Illustrated. In those days, he said, only a few regular-season Husker games were televised, so he also listened intently on his radio.

“I tell young people today that they don’t know how good they have it,” Glissman said. “They have an entire world of information on their smartphones.”
At age 10, he became interested in politics because of the 1992 presidential campaign. That’s the year Bill Clinton defeated incumbent President George H.W. Bush and third-party candidate H. Ross Perot.

Garth’s fifth-grade teacher, he said, was the “dynamic” Sue Munn. As an incentive, if any of her pupils achieved reading a certain number of pages in books, they could ask her to invite someone to the classroom.

Though he had taken a liking to politics, Garth asked not for a politician but for a particular star high school athlete – Scott Frost, now the Husker coach. He arrived at Hamlow Elementary wearing his Wood River High football jersey and stayed the entire school day. Even as he went to Stanford his first two years of college, Garth wrote him letters.

Scott Frost and Glissman were together before the Independence Bowl in 2002. Frost was an interim graduate assistant for the game.
Scott Frost and Glissman were together before the Independence Bowl in 2002. Frost was an interim graduate assistant for the game.

In eighth grade, Garth got a job selling concessions at Memorial Stadium. He thinks back to the ’90s as a “romantic era” in Nebraska football, including the historic run of three national titles in four years.

At Waverly High, he was a “good-not-great student.” A late bloomer physically, he grew to 6-foot-5 and led the Viking teams in football and basketball. After a promising junior year of basketball, averaging 17 points and 11 rebounds, he played on the select Godfather’s AAU summer team. But at practice before his senior season, he suffered a double-dislocation of an ankle while trying to dunk over a teammate.

“I couldn’t quite grasp the rim,” Glissman recalled, “and we fell down simultaneously. He landed on me at the same time I hit the floor. The doctors were worried they might have to amputate my foot.”

College recruiters backed off, and after graduating Garth spent the 2000-01 year at the New Hampton prep school in New Hampshire. He went there to play basketball but it turned out to be a transformative year academically.

Glissman, bottom left, invited Frost as a special guest to his fifth-grade class.
Glissman, bottom left, invited Frost as a special guest to his fifth-grade class. Scott Frost, sporting his high school football jersey from Wood River, visits with Garth Glissman’s class. Garth is sitting on the floor in the blue shirt to Scott’s right.

“It was a combination of maturity and having my eyes opened to a different part of the country and a different way of thinking,” Glissman said. “By the time I showed up back at the university a year later, I was a serious student. I applied the same rigor to academics as I did to athletics, and I was just as competitive.”

He had drawn interest from Ivy League schools but wanted to return home for a simple reason: “I loved Nebraska.”

Accepting an invitation to walk on from NU basketball coach Barry Collier, Glissman practiced with the team but didn’t play in games. On days when the Huskers traveled, he stayed in Lincoln and began winter weight training with the football team. Noting his strong throwing arm one day, coach Frank Solich invited him to walk on as a quarterback in the spring of 2002.

Glissman drew attention from sportswriters by playing well in scrimmages, and he started for the White team in the 2003 Red-White spring game, completing nine of 17 passes for 78 yards. But he didn’t rise to the top of the depth chart.

One weekend, though, he served as host for a recruit and his parents on an official visit – Zac Taylor. A quarterback, Taylor became the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year as a Husker and in February this year coached the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl.

Glissman coached Parkview Christian School in Lincoln to its first state tournament appearance in the school’s 36-year history.
Glissman coached Parkview Christian School in Lincoln to its first state tournament appearance in the school’s 36-year history.

Glissman lettered as a Husker in 2004, Bill Callahan’s first year as head coach, and ran onto the field to cheers on Senior Day. But that was it. He never completed a pass in an actual game.

No, Garth Glissman didn’t make Husker history. Academically, though, he received the Glenn Gray Memorial Award as the top undergraduate majoring in … history.

If Glissman didn’t dazzle on the court or the field, he surely starred in the classroom – in four years of college courses, all A’s. (He is still disappointed about two A-minuses.) But before entering law school, he decided to take a gap year.

In 2005-06, Glissman taught American history at a different Eastern academy, Salisbury School in Connecticut, an all-boys boarding school. He was the varsity quarterback coach and co-head coach of the JV team, as well as the JV head basketball coach.

“In hindsight,” he said, “seeds were sown that year that led to where I am now. I fell in love with basketball again.”

He could have attended almost any law school but returned to Nebraska, living with his parents to save money. “I wanted to live and work in Nebraska. I had the goal of someday entering public service. If my heart was in Nebraska, I thought that’s where I should go to law school.”

His main hobby in those years, no surprise, was sports. Chris Schmidt, who hosted a Lincoln radio show called “Hail Varsity,” invited him on regularly to chat about sports. That led to their broadcasting high school games, with Glissman as color commentator.

And that led to his receiving an offer in 2008, while still in law school, to become the boys basketball head coach (as a volunteer) at College View Academy, a small high school in Lincoln.

Meanwhile, Glissman received another big academic honor in ’08 – the Ted Sorensen Fellowship, named for President John F. Kennedy’s adviser and speechwriter, who was from Lincoln. It is given to a third-year law student who “as voted on by the law school faculty, best represents academic excellence and commitment to public service.” (Glissman had two meetings with Sorensen, who died in 2010.)

After law school graduation in 2009, Glissman accepted an offer from Omaha’s biggest law firm, Kutak Rock, which has hundreds of attorneys in 14 states and Washington, D.C. His practice focused on complex commercial disputes, sometimes representing Fortune 500 companies, as well as on governmental issues.

Bart McLeay, then head of the litigation department and still an attorney with the firm, said Glissman is highly ethical and made an early impact. “He is one of the kindest people I have ever met, and was one of the most well-liked and respected lawyers in the firm in all my decades here. He has a gentle personality but at the same time, he’s ‘in a case to win a case.'”

McLeay and Glissman represented a corporate client in a six-week California jury trial that required weekly travel from Omaha. “Garth was a very capable second-chair lawyer,” McLeay said. “The client loved him, and we prevailed.”

Along the way, Glissman met Katie, a former volleyball setter at Gross Catholic High School and Morningside College and a member of the Abrahams Kaslow & Cassman law firm. They were introduced at a bar meeting – so to speak. Actually, at a bar in Omaha’s Old Market.

Glissman had coached at College View for four years and then four more at Parkview Christian School, leading the latter to its first state tournament appearance in the school’s 36-year history.

In fall of 2015, the NBA contacted him after seeing his resume on LinkedIn, the online professional networking website. Meanwhile, Glissman became a partner at Kutak Rock, a big step in a lawyer’s career. He coached Parkview in 2015-16, quietly continuing talks with the pro league.

After a big win one night, he went home for a two-hour nap before catching an early flight to New York to meet NBA folks. That spring, May of 2016, he resigned at Kutak Rock, leaving a rising career at 34.

“I was stunned,” McLeay said. “He had worked hard and become a partner, and we were all celebrating that. His Nebraska humility came through a lot. It was surprising to me that he was moving to New York, but New York City could use more people like Garth.”

Glissman said it was especially hard to leave all his players. “I loved them like my family.” Among them were juniors Henry Tanksley, who later played for Peru State, and Nosa Iyagbaye, who went on to Wayne State.

He also appreciated mentors and colleagues at the law firm and throughout his life. “I’ve been the beneficiary of a lot of people who have helped me pursue my own intellectual and creative interests.”

Glissman purchased NBA gear for some of his high school players after being hired by the NBA.
Glissman purchased NBA gear for some of his high school players after being hired by the NBA.

His job in the league office focuses on the Board of Governors, general managers, coaches and the Players Association. It also includes overseeing playing rules and officiating, which includes referees’ “points of emphasis” as well as the tweaking of rules. The game evolves, he said, as do rules interpretations.

As he immersed himself in his new job, Garth and Katie found an apartment in Manhattan, where she worked remotely for her Omaha firm. After the pandemic struck widely in March 2020, NBA staffers worked from wherever was convenient. Katie and daughter Grace have lived in Omaha full time since then, and Garth has commuted between New York and Omaha.

He is increasingly involved with college basketball and the NCAA Division I Competition Oversight Committee. He leads the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee, which provides players with confidential feedback as to where they would likely be selected in the annual draft. That helps athletes decide whether to declare for the draft or to stay in college.

“Because of my roots,” Glissman said, “I understand what college athletics means, particularly in certain parts of the country.”

His name was listed in news reports last year as a potential candidate for the athletic director job at Nebraska. Glissman declined to comment on that but said he fully supports the vision of AD Trev Alberts.

His NBA job is apolitical, but he hasn’t forgotten about his political dream in Nebraska. “There’s a time and place in life to assert oneself in politics,” he said, adding that for himself, now is not the time.

He is a registered Republican, and before taking the NBA job he served for three years in Omaha as legal counsel for the Douglas County Republican Party. He says he “kicked the tires” about an early run for Congress. “I hope sometime in life to provide public service in some capacity.”

He still loves football, he said, but its players line up on either offense or defense. In basketball they play both ends of the court.

“In my opinion,” he said, “NBA players are the best athletes in the world. I say that because it’s a game that requires a unique combination of size, explosiveness, agility and skills.”

Garth Glissman didn’t achieve his own athletic dreams but loves his job in a league with some of the greatest athletes. Coaching small-school basketball in Nebraska is hardly a normal stepping stone to the NBA, but there he stands.

Spruell, his boss, said the NBA appreciates Glissman’s passion for his work and for basketball, calling him “a well-rounded and grounded family man and professional who is doing great work at the league office.”

In college, Garth walked on twice. Now he has clearly stepped up – and made the NBA office’s starting lineup.

Mike Kelly retired in 2018 after 48 years at the Omaha World-Herald, including 1981-91 as sports editor and sports columnist.

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