Mike Budenholzer has established himself as one of the best coaches in the NBA after successful runs with the San Antonio Spurs, Atlanta Hawks and now with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Here’s a look at 10 things to know about Milwaukee’s coach, his life and his NBA career.
Coaching in his blood: Mike Budenholzer was born in small-town Holbrook, Ariz. The youngest of seven children (five boys and two girls), Budenholzer says he bonded most with his dad, Vince Budenholzer, who is a Hall-of-Fame high school and college basketball coach in Arizona for over 25 years. According to his dad, Budenholzer always had the makings of a coach. “What I noticed right away from Mike,” said Vince in 2015, “is that whatever he did — basketball or golf or soccer — he was always the leader, always the captain. He didn’t let it out then that he wanted to coach someday, but because he was a natural leader, it wasn’t a surprise that he ended up in coaching.”
‘Holbrook royalty’: The Budenholzers became “Holbrook royalty” in 1971 when Vince Budenholzer led Holbrook High School to the Arizona state championship. In 1975, Mike’s mother, Libby, became the first female city council member in Holbrook and in 1981 she became the first female mayor. Holbrook sits on the southern lip of the Navajo Nation, which provided Mike and his siblings with a diverse upbringing. “To have raised seven kids on a teacher’s salary in a great small town and let us interact and form great friendships with Navajos and Mexicans and blacks and Mormons. They were really ahead of their time,” Budenholzer said in 2019. “This is America.”
College dreams: Budenholzer, who was nicknamed “Mikey Bud” and starred on the Roadrunners basketball, football and golf teams at Holbrook High School, wasn’t dreaming about an NBA career. He was focused on playing basketball in college, but that didn’t stop him from learning from the pros. “The dream or the goal was to play in college,” said Budenholzer in 2015. “That was exclusively my focus. I followed the Suns and they were my favorite team, but the NBA just wasn’t what it is today. I literally remember going in my backyard and my dad teaching me Paul Westphal moves. Sweet D, Walter Davis. Double-A, Alvan Adams. Listening to Al McCoy on the calls.”
Pride of Pomona: Despite a strong high school career, Budenholzer didn’t receive much attention from colleges. So he listened to two of his brothers, who played at Pomona College in California and were sure Budenholzer would click with their basketball coach — Gregg Popovich. Budenholzer was convinced, but before he arrived on campus in 1988 (and after his family had pooled together money so Mike could afford tuition without a scholarship), Popovich left Pomona to join Larry Brown with the San Antonio Spurs. Even without Popovich, Budenholzer decided to stay at Pomona to play basketball and golf. He graduated with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics.
International stint: After his collegiate sports career, Budenholzer was focused on breaking into coaching. “I started working basketball camps all up and down the coast,” he said in 2012. “I started networking and trying to establish contacts and relationships with coaches, mostly at the collegiate levels.” This led him to Denmark, where he played one season of professional basketball with the Vejle Basketball Klub. He averaged a team-high 27.5 points during that season and continued to polish his coaching skills by leading two youth teams.
Film room buff: Budenholzer returned to Arizona in 1992 and was encouraged by his father to reach out to Popovich, who had recently taken a new job under coach Don Nelson with the Warriors. The call worked and Budenholzer moved to Oakland to start a temporary role in the Warriors’ film room. “He said he didn’t have anything to do and that if I ever wanted help, he’d be available,” said Popovich in 2015. “I figured he was someone else I’d have to bring in my office and talk to a bit and then get rid of him. I didn’t have time for this stuff, but he did go to Pomona. So he comes in and I immediately liked him. Engaging young man. I talked to him and then said I had work to do and wished him good luck. Tried to get him out of my office. But he wouldn’t leave. He said he’d do anything.”
Pop comes calling: After the short apprenticeship, Budenholzer was back in Arizona the next offseason when Popovich called to ask if he wanted to join him in San Antonio. Popovich had been hired to be the Spurs’ general manager and vice president of basketball operations in 1994. Budenholzer accepted and was quickly promoted to assistant coach — Popovich became Spurs coach on Dec. 10, 1996 — making him the youngest assistant in the NBA at age 26. “When I left the Warriors,” said Popovich in 2015, “I took only two people with me: R.C. Buford (now the Spurs’ GM) to do scouting and Mike to do film work.”
San Antonio staple: Budenholzer remained an assistant coach with San Antonio for the next 17 seasons, winning four NBA championships and helping Popovich establish “Spurs culture”. During his time in San Antonio, the Spurs made the playoffs every season and Budenholzer learned valuable lessons from Popovich. “The thing Pop did for me and did for a lot of coaches is — he let me coach,” Budenholzer said in 2015, choking up. “It seems really simple, and that’s the beauty of being with Pop and being around Pop. Sometimes the things that are most successful are very, very simple.”
Hawks swoop in: Budenholzer was a hot commodity on the coaching market during his time in San Antonio. But he was reluctant to leave the culture he helped create with Popovich. That changed in 2013 when Spurs’ front office executive Danny Ferry left the team to join the Atlanta Hawks. Budenholzer felt comfortable with Ferry and believed he could help bring “Spurs culture” to Atlanta. Budenholzer was hired as coach on May 28, 2013 and quickly made good on his promise to establish a new identity for Atlanta. In 2014-15, he led the Hawks to a franchise-record 60 wins, the East’s best record and collected his first NBA Coach of the Year award. The scrappy Hawks couldn’t get past LeBron James in the postseason, however, and the team lost its spark when Al Horford left in free agency in 2016. Budenholzer and the Hawks mutually agreed to part ways in April 2018. Budenholzer finished with a record of 213-197 during his five seasons in Atlanta.
Welcome to Wisconsin: After his successful run in Atlanta, Budenholzer was in-demand again during the summer of 2018 as multiple teams hoped to hire him. He decided to join the Milwaukee Bucks, who had a promising young star on the rise — Giannis Antetokounmpo. Budenholzer hit it off with the future Kia MVP and the Bucks dominated the 2018-19 season to finish with the best record in the NBA. Budenholzer took home his second NBA Coach of the Year award, but the Bucks fell to the Raptors in the East finals after being up 2-0 in the series. In the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, the Bucks again finished with the best regular-season record. Now the main thing left on Budenholzer’s check list is to win an NBA championship as a coach.