OKLAHOMA CITY — Rob Hennigan made one of the most important decisions of his life here, just a short walk from where the Orlando Magic will play the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night.
He made that decision with Sam Presti, a friend and mentor, by his side.
It was 2008, and Presti, the Thunder's general manager, offered Hennigan a job in the Thunder front office. They walked through downtown, discussing the type of team Presti wanted to build, talking about the meaningful connection Presti wanted to create between the franchise and the city. They eventually reached the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the site where, 13 years earlier, Timothy McVeigh detonated explosives in front the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
"At the end of the day," Hennigan remembers now, "I had so much trust and faith in Sam that I wanted to join him and join the organization to try and build something special."
That belief and confidence in Presti helped lead Hennigan to where he is today, the general manager of the Magic. Presti gave Hennigan two of his big breaks: a coveted internship with the San Antonio Spurs in 2004 and a position as director of college/international player personnel with the Thunder four years later.
As Hennigan worked his way up the NBA ladder, he and Presti developed a close friendship that still endures.
"In these jobs, in front offices and coaching staffs across the NBA, you spend an incredible amount of time together," Presti says. "More importantly, you go through a lot of ups and downs as a group, and through that you build a personal respect and appreciation for each other as individuals. With Rob, that was a pretty easy thing."
They met briefly in 2000, when Hennigan was about to start his freshman year at Emerson College in Boston and Presti had just graduated from the school after four seasons on the basketball team.
Hank Smith, the coach at Emerson at the time, thought so highly of Presti that Presti served as the team's captain as a junior and as a senior.
Smith quickly grew to respect Hennigan, and when Presti visited the school on trips back to Boston, Smith often raved about Hennigan.
"I think the world of both of them," Smith says now. "These two guys are as close to me as my family. These are very special people, very honest hard-working people. I admire the type of people they are, and I think if you put those two types of people together, they're going to be friends."
Presti, then the Spurs' assistant general manager, offered Hennigan an internship after Hennigan graduated.
For the next year, Hennigan did what interns typically do: He took notes at meetings, entered data into computers and fetched lunch and coffee.
Presti also gave him challenging assignments. He dispatched Hennigan on his first scouting trip: a junior college and NAIA tournament in Dallas.
"To me, I was scouting Game 7 of the NBA Finals," Hennigan remembers. "I came back with a notebook of notes, and I'm sure Sam had no interest in reading them."
But Presti did read them. He called Hennigan into his office and critiqued his work.
Presti kept Hennigan on staff with the Spurs after the internship ended, and their bond grew as they worked together on the Spurs' draft preparations. Hundreds of scouting assignments followed for Hennigan, sometimes with Presti.
Hennigan marveled at Presti's work ethic, his exacting attention to detail and his systematic, disciplined approach to decision-making.
In 2007, the Seattle SuperSonics hired Presti to be their general manager.
A year later, the franchise moved to Oklahoma City, and that's when Presti chose to hire Hennigan.
It wasn't an easy choice for Hennigan — at least not at first. He had done well with the Spurs.
Hennigan and Presti talked things over on that walk through Oklahoma City, and they wound up at the memorial — a site that every new Thunder player and new Thunder employee visits.
They looked out onto the site's reflecting pool and its 168 chairs spread throughout a field of grass, each chair honoring one of the 168 Oklahomans who died in McVeigh's attack.
"It was important that I walked Rob through the memorial, I think, for context as to what it was that we were trying to embark on in Oklahoma City," Presti says.
"We were given the privilege of establishing an organizational identity, and in order to really understand the mission at large, I think you have to understand the community and the history that exists. That history is what makes working in Oklahoma City a tremendously special opportunity and, really, a gift."
In 2010, Presti promoted Hennigan to assistant general manager for player personnel.
Then, late last May or in early June, Hennigan and his wife, Marissa, were sitting in a restaurant when his phone rang. It was Presti on the other line, telling Hennigan that Magic CEO Alex Martins had just called. Martins wanted to interview Hennigan for the Magic's GM job.
Hennigan couldn't believe it.
But it was true.
In the days that followed, Presti helped Hennigan organize his thoughts for the job interviews.
In June, the Magic hired Hennigan.
Hennigan, 30, and Presti, 36, still talk and text all the time, more about life in general than their jobs.
After seven years working together, Hennigan already has learned lessons from him.
"I think the most important thing I learned from Sam is to always put the best interests of the organization above everything else," Hennigan says. "It takes great discipline, conviction and patience to do that, but Sam has showcased an ability to do that as well as anyone."
firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/magicblog and follow him on Twitter at @JoshuaBRobbins.