MILWAUKEE -- We might as well get the intern thing out of the way at the top. In officially opening their stunning downtown practice and training facility Thursday, more than a dozen people were seated on the makeshift stage set up on the shiny courts.
Let’s just say, if you’d ask a casual visitor to pick out the Milwaukee Bucks’ new general manager, you probably would have been waiting a while. If, on the other hand, you asked “Which one is the intern?” your guest almost instantly would have pointed at Jon Horst.
Nope, he’s the Bucks’ new 34-year-old GM.
The NBA franchise that made history 45 years ago, when it tabbed Wayne Embry to be the first black general manager in professional sports now employs the youngest GM in this league.
Horst was hired in June, landing the job as what some saw as a compromise candidate. John Hammond, the Bucks’ GM since 2008, left in May for the same post with Orlando. Justin Zanik, hired by Milwaukee 11 months earlier as Hammond’s presumed successor, didn’t get -- when push came to shove -- unanimous approval from the Bucks tri-owners, Wes Eden, Marc Lasry and Jamie Dinan. Neither did several other subsequent candidates when the search was extended.
When the smoke cleared, the survivor was Horst, the Bucks’ director of basketball operations since 2008, when he moved from Detroit as a Hammond and Joe Dumars protégé.
“Jon’s extremely bright, a high character person who stands for what he believes in, and he has a great knowledge of this business at a young age,” Hammond said last week. “You think about how young Jon is, but he’s never done anything else in this workaday world except the NBA. He’s very deserving of the opportunity and I expect him to do extremely well.”
Horst already has fleshed out the basketball department to his liking -- with the exception of hiring an experienced hand as assistant GM -- and set up photos of his wife Mia and kids Sophie and Zeke on a corner table of his office. He’s been with the team for a while but not in this capacity, so everything seemed fresh as he talked with NBA.com at the spanking new facility, overlooking the spanking new (one year from now) arena:
NBA.com: So much newness here in Milwaukee. And that includes you. How ready are you for this position?
Jon Horst: The basketball stuff, the team-building, the daily interactions with teams, agents and players, all of that stuff, is things I’ve done for over a decade now. So, that’s easy to get my arms around. The media piece, just the other pieces of the job that people don’t realize -- managing staff, the meetings -- that’s a learning process. But I’m moving along.
NBA.com: Has your background familiarized you with the many things you’ll have to do in this job?
JH: I feel extremely prepared. This is something I thought about and have been planning for a long time. I was blessed to have the opportunity for the better part of a decade with this franchise, and in my time in Detroit, to be involved in high-level decision-making and roster building every step of the way: coaching staff hires, player transactions, trades, free agents, draft, scouting opportunities, being involved with the analytics staff. John [Hammond] was tremendous in allowing me to do that and have real input and say into those areas.
NBA.com: I’ve seen people in this league surround themselves with staffers, none of whom ever could be seen as a threat to the person who hired them. But Joe Dumars and Hammond essentially were generous enough to train a next-generation replacement. What do you make of that?
JH: That comes from treating people the right way and respecting their abilities. And also, having confidence and self-awareness, trusting people around you. The best way to success that I learned from John and Joe and others is to surround yourself with great people, experts in different areas. Experts in scouting, experts in cap management. And not being afraid that any of those people are threats to your job but instead looking at them as assets to your organization in building toward what we all want, and that’s to win championships. If we do that, we’ll all have success at some level.
NBA.com: Where would you say this Bucks team is at, as far as the next step from last season’s 42-40 finish and then the step after that?
JH: Short term, I would say energy and longer term I would say urgency. We still have one of the youngest core group of players in this league. We’ve had success over a three-year period since this ownership group has taken over. ... Even though we had a really tough [first-round] playoff series, you saw our team grow from the previous two years.
There’s energy around that, because of how talented some of our individuals are. There’s energy around it because of some of the things you’re seeing happening in the Eastern Conference this year. That opens up a window of opportunity for us that we want to take advantage of. But we’re not going to skip steps.
NBA.com: It has been well-documented and long-bemoaned that smaller-revenue markets face extra challenges in being competitive. Why do you think the Bucks can navigate those?
JH: There also are well-documented examples of small-market teams having sustained success in this league. We can talk about San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Cleveland. They all have something in common -- great players. So, if you can get great players who buy into a culture, buy into an organization and a city, that gives you a chance to find success and sustain it. We believe we’ve got some great players.
Beyond that, our ownership group from Day 1 has never viewed itself as small-market owners and don’t want this organization to be viewed that way. There’s no better example of that than what you see going around you right now. This practice facility is second to none in professional sports. That arena will be second to none. These are not small-market facilities.
NBA.com: A recent story on ESPN.com concluded with a reminder about Giannis Antetokounmpo’s four-year, $100 million extension that kicks in this season. Some might have seen that as a shot across Milwaukee’s bow about the teams that might line up to lure him away. How do you fend off the vultures?
JH: First of all, he’s our player. He’s under contract with us. And what did Giannis say: “I’ve got loyalty in my DNA?" That was his retort on his own. He said, “This is my team.” So, we by and large ignore that.
NBA.com: Giannis recently took a shot across his own bow, offering that “maybe he could be MVP this season.” Are you glad he’s embracing his potential like that or would you prefer to keep things under the radar?
Although I’m 34 years old, this is my 13th season working with an NBA team, from starting as an intern all the way to being general manager of a franchise.
JH: After you are an NBA All-Star, the Most Improved Player in the league and a second team all-NBA selection, the days of sneaking up are gone. So, for him to talk about that as a goal is more than fair. I’m happy that Giannis is that confident.
NBA.com: Last season, you had all your pieces together for a total of eight minutes -- the game in which Khris Middleton returned from his hamstring surgery was the game in which Jabari Parker tore his ACL again. How is Parker progressing?
JH: Physically, mentally, he is doing tremendous. His body looks fantastic. In terms of what we think Jabari will come back as, and I think Jabari believes, he will come back better, faster, stronger. If you saw him now, you would believe that.
How does that impact our season? We know going in we won’t have Jabari for a significant part. But like we did without Khris at the beginning of the season, we were able to weather that storm. There’s a storm. Jabari is a huge piece. But we think we can weather it.
NBA.com: Parker went down in early February. Do you have an estimate for when he’ll be back?
JH: For Jabari and the Bucks, this is not about this year. This is about a 22-year-old kid who is one of the best young talents in the league, and making sure he comes back physically in the right way.
NBA.com: On the subject of young, you’re 34. So, are you ahead of schedule, are you right on schedule or did you even have a schedule for this career opportunity?
JH: I never had a schedule in mind. But since I started working in the NBA, I had a dream of ending up on top of a basketball operations and had a goal to run a franchise. My approach has always been to be the best at what you do, in your current role. Excel at it, embrace it, and then when other opportunities present themselves, people will look to you. I’ve done that every step of the way, and I’ve gotten opportunities to advance.
Although I’m 34 years old, this is my 13th season working with an NBA team, from starting as an intern all the way to being general manager of a franchise. So, I do have quite a bit of experience in the league.
NBA.com: Right, so how was it that you could afford to work for the Detroit Pistons for two years without getting paid?
JH: I had been an intern for about a year with the Pistons during my senior year at Rochester [Mich.] College [where Horst played four years on the school’s USCAA team, with national titles in 2004 and 2005]. I was just getting college credits. [After graduation] I got a job at FedEx Ground and loaded trucks from about 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. every morning. Then I went home, showered and showed up at the Pistons’ practice facility about 9 a.m. and worked till about 2 p.m. That’s what I did for another 12 to 14 months till I was basically dead.
That’s when John Hammond said “Hey, we’re going to pay you $7 an hour for 30 hours a week, even though you’re going to work way more than 30 hours.” I was like, ‘Yes!’ That was all I needed. But about three or four days before John approached me, my manager at FedEx told me he was moving on to manage the daytime shift. So, I got offered a $45,000 job to manage the night shift on the dock. I thought about it for a couple days.
NBA.com: While you worked with the Pistons (2005-08) and the Bucks, how did you not get psyched out by the odds against your career path?
JH: I never even thought of it. I had an opportunity to work every day next to Joe Dumars, John Hammond and Flip Saunders at the time. I thought “When would I ever get to do this again?”
NBA.com: Do you feel a lot of eyes on you now. C’mon, we’ve got former NBA All-Stars aspiring to this type of job, career basketball folks 10 and 20 years older than you. Is it daunting to feel you’ve got to prove yourself?
JH: I think you’ll learn about me, I don’t stress out too often. I’m very even-keeled. I don’t worry about things I can’t control. I’m realistic, so I understand with the ebb and flow of a season, I’ll probably feel those pressures more. But at this moment, I’m not thinking at all about it.
NBA.com: Do you see any advantages of having this job at your age?
JH: Maybe a level of energy, though I’ve seen people in this type of position who have more years to their name than I do. But the NBA is ever-changing. For instance, when I first started, cap guys were not a thing; everyone had an outside counsel that worked on the CBA and basketball offices were not that in tune with the cap. That’s why I got an opportunity. Shortly after that, analytics became a big thing in our sport and that’s why those people got opportunities.
My point is, with my youth, I think I’m really an open-minded, collaborative person. Not that older people aren’t, but I think it’s a strength of mine. I think that will help us find “the next thing” – what’s “the next thing” that NBA teams are going to find to have competitive advantages? Just like Jason has a young staff and they’re constantly trying to figure out, what’s “the next way” to play basketball? What’s “the next way” to get a competitive advantage on the floor?
NBA.com: There are people in your position who go back 35 years, for instance, Pat Riley in Miami dealing with Danny Ainge in Boston. Coming in as a new guy, without those old relationships, how do you break in?
JH: You do see deals get made between people who have connections, but at the end of the day, if someone wants to discuss a player on our team, they still have to call me. The players are what drive the conversations. If a free agent wants to land on your team, the agent has to call you, whether he knows you or not. They have to call you because you’re in that position. So I don’t see it as a huge barrier.
NBA.com: Is it helpful that you aren’t the only new kid on the block? We’ve got Koby Altman taking over for David Griffin in Cleveland and Scott Perry moving into a whole new world in New York in Phil Jackson’s void.
JH: Whether they’ve been in their current positions for 10 or 12 years, at one point they were the young person who got hired. So I’ve had [Thunder GM] Sam Presti reach out to offer words of wisdom. Or [Portland’s] Neil Olshey or [Phoenix’s] Ryan McDonough or [Denver’s] Tim Connelly, guys who at one point were doing this job for the first time. So there is some safety in the fraternity that you’re part of.
NBA.com: With all due respect, people will be watching to see if you have the heft to say “no” to Jason Kidd or to the owners who are signing your paycheck. How you address those concerns?
JH: Obviously, ownership is ownership. Jason Kidd is our coach. They’re going to be involved in everything we do. But in taking this job, we talked about these things. Ultimately, I’ve been hired to run the basketball operations for the Milwaukee Bucks, to have the final say and to make the final decisions. I’m going to operate as such, and I have their support in doing that. The only way you can really set aside those concerns is by living it every day and watching the transactions unfold.
NBA.com: Any sense of feeling intimidated or awed by this moment?
JH: It’s not intimidating to me. It’s humbling that you get to have that type of authority and decision-making. It’s also energizing. And then – intimidating is not the right word for me, maybe it’s angst – there is that piece that says, “OK, I’ve made that decision, let’s see how it works.” Like a Tony Snell contract [four years, $46 million]. You sign him, you say “Here we go. We believe in this guy, it’s the right thing for this organization.” That happens with trades, that happens with draft picks. Now my name is associated with those things. That’s something I’ve never experienced. So today, not a whole lot of angst. As the season unfolds, we’ll see how that goes.
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