ATLANTA — The last time Mike Budenholzer was a head basketball coach was when he was about 23 or 24 years old — around 20 years ago.
He had just graduated from college and was living in Denmark, where he played professionally. He coached both a women’s professional team and another team that he said was the equivalent of a high school team.
“I had a wide spectrum there, and they were anxious and willing, and I got to do lots of growing as a young coach,” he said. “It was a good first opportunity.”
Needless to say, serving as head coach of an NBA team is a world apart. On Wednesday, the Hawks introduced Budenholzer, who has spent the last 19 seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, as their new coach.
One of Budenholzer’s biggest challenges will be bridging that gap between what assistants do and what head coaches do. He’s up for the job.
“I think I’m as prepared as you can be, having not been in that seat,” said Budenholzer, who was Gregg Popovich’s assistant the last 17 years. “Sitting next to Pop for 19 years, 17 years on the bench, he’s put me in position to coach the team this year, last year, preseason games, practices.
“I’m as prepared as you can be. I think to be demanding of a group and to push them is something I’m looking forward to; and I feel like it’s a natural transition and I’m as prepared as you can be for it.”
To make that transition, Budenholzer, 43, will lean on mentors. He mentioned Popovich — who recruited him to play in college at Pomona College before Popovich moved on — numerous times at his introductory press conference at Philips Arena.
In a prepared statement, Budenholzer said it was impossible to understate how much of an influence that Popovich has had on him. He plans to utilize many of the systems and style of play that has made the Spurs successful over the last two decades.
“I could never put into words how appreciative and how thankful I am for what he’s given to me in the past,” Budenholzer said of Popovich.
Budenholzer also will have someone with a slightly lower profile than Popovich upon whom to fall back — his father, Vince.
Vince Budenholzer coached high school basketball in Arizona for 25 years and is enshrined in that state’s Coaches Hall of Fame. There are plenty of successful professional coaches whose fathers were coaches themselves at lower levels. John and Jim Harbaugh’s father coached at Western Kentucky University for years. Bill Belichick’s father was an assistant coach at Navy.
Mike Budenholzer said he and his father often communicate about coaching ideas.
“Yeah, like we all lean on our fathers,” he said. “I’m fortunate that he’s a basketball coach and he leaves me voicemails and messages and thoughts and ideas, and he’s obviously proud. He’s taught me a lot. I’ve learned a lot from him. I feel fortunate to have him as a resource.”
Budenholzer also will have general manager Danny Ferry to use as a sounding board, although Ferry never coached himself. In many ways, it seems as if the strong personal and working relationship between the two was an important factor in Budenholzer’s hiring.
They see the game the same way philosophically and have the kind of relationship in which they can endure a heated back-and-forth discussion on a player or an issue … and come out unscathed. Such a relationship often is at the core of successful franchises. Budenholzer hinted the relationship transcended the office.
“Yeah, he’s a good friend,” he said of Ferry. “We’ve known each other. We have kids that are similar ages. It’s been a friendship that I’ve valued and is part of what makes this a special opportunity.”
The rapport between the pair also was evident in an off-the-cuff moment when Ferry cut off a question directed at Budenholzer about previous inquiries he might have had with other NBA teams about becoming a head coach. The moment proved the highlight of the press conference.
The questioner, Randy Waters of Atlanta’s 11 Alive News, good-naturedly asked of Ferry’s interjection, “Is that an assist or a rebound?”
Budenholzer responded, “That’s a block-out.”
Then Budenholzer, who was an assistant on the Spurs when Ferry was still playing on the team, took a swipe at Ferry’s playing career.
“It might be his first block-out,” he said. “I don’t remember him doing that.”
Later, Ferry was asked about their relationship.
“Bud is someone that I — his acumen and understanding of the game — I value highly,” he said. “The idea of how he wants to play and clarity and system he wants to bring I value highly. That being said, we laugh together and we argue. We’ll have great arguments and debates with our staffs together.
“In doing so, hopefully, when we walk out of that room we will be unified and, hopefully, we’ll come to the right decision, the right conclusion. After those meetings — we’ve gone after it a few times in staff meetings and so on. Those are healthy. I want that. I want to be challenged and I want to challenge him.
“I think that ultimately puts us in the best position to succeed, puts the Atlanta Hawks in the best position to succeed. We want to be unselfish leaders of this group and what’s best for the Atlanta Hawks, what’s best for that group is fights, arguments, laughing, and all things aside, that’s the direction we want to take this thing.”
Budenholzer will return to San Antonio to continue his preparation for the NBA Finals. The Spurs await the East winners (Heat or Pacers).
He was unsure how much time he would be able to dedicate to his new duties until the Finals conclude.
Once it does, he will have only a short time to prepare for the draft, free agency and all the new challenges with his new roster — which remains a work in progress — that await him for the first time.