ATLANTA (AP) — Mike Budenholzer may coach one of the best teams in the NBA.
He can still get around Atlanta without being recognized.
That suits him just fine.
“I’m very fortunate that I can blend into the woodwork pretty easily,” said Budenholzer, whose Hawks have soared to the top of the Eastern Conference.
If this keeps up, of course, the 45-year-old known to most as “Coach Bud” won’t be able to go anywhere without drawing a crowd. He’s already pulled off what many figured was an impossible feat: turning the Hawks into a relevant franchise within both the NBA and, more impressively, their own city.
This guy with the receding hairline and boyish face, who few people outside of San Antonio had even heard of a couple of years ago, is suddenly the hottest coach in the NBA.
The Hawks are 43-10, comfortably ahead in the East and going back-and-forth with Golden State for the league’s best record.
Budenholzer earned the honor of coaching in Sunday night’s All-Star game at Madison Square Garden, a prime-time stage that will surely make it more difficult to remain just another face in the crowd.
He’s clearly uncomfortable sitting down for an interview or standing in front of a pack of cameras.
He’d much rather be in the practice gym, decked out in sweat pants, T-shirt and sneakers, teaching the finer points of a system that has transformed the Hawks into the epitome of a team.
After Atlanta became the first squad in NBA history to go 17-0 in a calendar month, the entire starting five was named players of the month for January.
One of them, Kyle Korver, played under Jerry Sloan in Utah and Tom Thibodeau in Chicago.
In Korver’s eyes, Budenholzer tops them both — and not because he was the one who finally recognized the 33-year-old’s potential as a starter and not just as a 3-point specialist.
“Guys love playing here, love playing for him,'” Korver said. “We believe in what he preaches, and we really enjoy him as a person. It’s very rare to find a basketball coach that gets both, that gets the Xs and Os and also gets life.”
Jeff Teague, who has blossomed into one of the league’s top point guards under Budenholzer’s tutelage, spotted that other side last summer when he ran into the coach and his family at a Drake concert.
“Just to see him out of coaching, enjoying his time with his family, it was a different vibe,” Teague said.
The intensely private Budenholzer was caught off guard when that little nugget got out.
“Some family secrets are supposed to stay in the family,” the coach said. “But it’s true. I thoroughly enjoyed the concert. I have a lot of respect for artists, especially Drake, that bring it every night.”
His favorite song?
“That,” Budenholzer said, with a nervous chuckle, “would be pushing it.”
It figures he’d be more at ease in smaller groups, considering where he came from. He attended tiny Pomona College in California, spent some time playing in Denmark, and started his career away from the court as little more than a gofer to Gregg Popovich, who was doing a brief stint as Don Nelson’s assistant in Golden State.
“I brought him in as a video guy for no pay and no tickets,” Popovich recalled. “Just go in the backroom there and when I ask you for something, give it to me. Don’t talk to me, don’t do anything.”
When Popovich took over in San Antonio, he brought Budenholzer along as the video coordinator. What followed were plenty of long, lonely hours in the darkened film room, all alone with his thoughts and dreams as he stared at the flickering screen.
He was often the last one to leave each night, largely subsisting on Bill Miller Bar-B-Q, a restaurant right across the street from the Alamodome where the team played.
That solitary existence helped mold Budenholzer into the coach he is today.
“You’re trained to see all 10 guys,” he said. “Where’s the spacing? What are they supposed to be doing? You learn to see the whole court, not to just follow the ball, to really appreciate what all 10 guys are doing offensively and defensively.”
Budenholzer helped the Spurs win four NBA championships while working his way up to be Popovich’s lead assistant.
Not a bad mentor, to be sure, a coach who’s always done things his own way, takes no nonsense from anyone, and showed the star-driven NBA that it is possible to win titles with more of a team concept.
“It’s obvious that the influence Pop had on him has been great,” Korver said. “They still talk all the time. Just being in that locker room, being in that culture for a long time, it shaped a lot of who he is and how he coaches.”
The gruff Spurs coach is clearly proud of his protege.
“It was obvious he was a basketball guy and was going to be a fine coach,” Popovich said. “He’s a great basketball mind.”
Budenholzer’s success with the Hawks has prompted some to label his team San Antonio East. That’s really not fair, said Minnesota coach Flip Saunders, though he certainly gets the comparison.
“They play their own way,” Saunders said. “But I would say you call them Spurs East because they play the way every coach wants to play: team basketball, move the ball, ball movement, player movement, play very unselfishly.”
While there are still plenty of skeptics away from the court, those who go against Budenholzer and his team on a nightly basis see them as a legitimate title contender.
“I don’t think coaches or players downgrade what Atlanta’s done,” Portland’s Terry Stotts said. “They’ve made believers out of everybody.”
AP freelance writers Amy Jinkner-Lloyd in Atlanta and Raul Dominguez in San Antonio contributed to this report.
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