David Griffin Sr. would often take his sons David Jr. and Adrian out into the neighborhoods of Wichita, Kansas, to see if anyone needed their lawn cut. They’d pick up cans to recycle, paint houses, carry wood.
The formative life lessons of establishing work ethic and discipline, working with others and instilling self-worth are apparent, the baseline for a professional life in basketball that has spanned nearly three decades. They’re simple anecdotes Adrian Griffin shares often.
Sitting above the courts in the Milwaukee Bucks’ practice facility, Griffin has barely sipped his coffee as he recounts these stories. A smile was never far as he shuffled the cup between his palms or spun it along his fingertips, because the parables from Wichita set him on his way to becoming the 17th head coach in franchise history.
They also give him belief he can walk the path ahead, as the Bucks prepare to open preseason camp Oct. 3.
Only a handful of first-time coaches have taken over a team ready to contend for a title. That is a luxury. Yet the Bucks have advanced out of the second round once in the last four years and all the Bucks’ playoff exits since 2019 have come in stunning fashion. The two-time MVP of the league has placed public pressure on the organization to continue its championship trajectory.
On one hand, Griffin has never done this before. On the other, it’s far from his first try at something that requires a mix of vulnerability and confidence and will test his gumption. Like a child knocking on the doors of strangers. The smile returned.
“You could look at it on both ways as far as you can get embarrassed,” Griffin said, beginning to laugh, “or you can also get the job.”
Griffin brings ‘fearlessness’ to Bucks job
A particular word jumped out in Jon Horst’s opening comments on hiring Griffin, noting how the Bucks newest coach had worked under a bevy of “fearless” tacticians. It’s not an adjective typically ascribed to a basketball coach, but one the Bucks general manager feels is a strong part of Griffin’s coaching profile.
“To be ultimately successful you have to have that ‘go for it’ mentality and I think ‘Griff’ totally has that ‘go for it’ mentality,” Horst said. “That can manifest itself in defensive schemes and offensive play sets, it could manifest itself in leadership styles; of how you use data. And ‘Griff’ did a really good job of articulating that he has that. It’s in his package. It’s in his toolbox, as he would say, when the time is needed.”
Griffin’s road to coaching fearlessness comes from a place of vulnerability, however.
In a job where he is tasked with having the right answers at the exact right times, he has learned to admit that sometimes he doesn’t know them. At least not immediately.
He has a story for this, too.
Early in the 2005-06 season, Dallas Mavericks head coach Avery Johnson admitted in a team huddle he didn’t have the solution for what was plaguing them during a game, but they would figure it out together. Johnson had played 16 years and won a title in San Antonio but was in his first full season as an NBA head coach. His honesty didn’t lose his team. If anything, it engendered more respect as the Mavericks would win 60 games and go to the NBA Finals.
“I remember how it made me feel,” Griffin said. “I always held really tight to that as far as when I get my opportunity as a coach. Sometimes you gotta be vulnerable. I think it builds trust and people, I feel, genuinely want to help you.”
It struck Griffin, too, because he has been a seeker of knowledge his entire life. If he heard or read something that may help him improve, he wasn’t afraid to try it.
Like wearing strength shoes at Seton Hall. Or being an early adopter of weighted vests, training ropes and nutritional shakes in the CBA. Like realizing he exhausted all he knew in trying to coach up Jimmy Butler and Tony Snell in Chicago, so he ordered countless books on coaching and spent days reading. Like applying his coaching points to himself by earning a doctorate in organizational leadership while coaching with the Toronto Raptors.
If he asks his players to be attentive to their own development, how could he not do the same?
“He would never ask you to do something that he hadn’t done himself and I could respect that,” said Ronnie Brewer, University of Arkansas’ recruiting coordinator, who played under Griffin in Chicago. “Being able to see somebody that’s went through the same grind and trying to reach the same pinnacle, I think brings voice of reason of you may be confrontational or not agreeing with that. I think he’s one of the better guys to be able to do it.”
This is why Griffin believes the Bucks can claim the inches that decide playoff games, leading to a deeper postseason march. He’s unafraid to challenge players, try new schemes, adjust on the fly. Like helping to devise a surprise box-and-one against Devin Booker. Planning “the wall” against Giannis Antetokounmpo in the 2019 Eastern Conference finals. Asking Kawhi Leonard to push himself defensively in the NBA Finals.
“Sometimes you gotta try something and if it didn’t work you adjust it, and if that don’t work you just keep on adjusting,” said Charlie Bell, who played with Griffin in Dallas and was coached by him in Milwaukee. “But you can’t be scared to try something. … That’s something ‘Griff’ is going to be great at.”
But for a leader to command the same fearlessness in his charges to buy into and execute a plan, they must have a strong trust to lean on.
Griffin is an authentic relationship builder
The calls rang in from Beverly Hills, California, to Hartford, Connecticut. People who have played with, worked with, or been coached by Griffin had universal feelings when they heard he got the Bucks job: I’m so happy for him. He’s a great person. He earned it.
Griffin’s ability to be uncompromisingly authentic is why they believe he will find success in Milwaukee. Those who have known him best feel Griffin’s core principles are firm and constant, which has allowed him to build connections that keep teams together and ultimately lead to buy-in and performance.
“How to pull a team together, connect a team, that’s the No. 1 ingredient,” said Golden State assistant Ron Adams, who both coached and worked with Griffin in Chicago. “Everyone’s X’s and O’s are pretty sound, some teams better than others, but I think the most connected teams are in that final four category and it’s kind of how it always is. I know Adrian is going to be an expert in this kind of thing. He’s a gentleman. He’s a people-first guy. The players will really get into him, his personality and how he does things. That’s part of being a modern coach.”
But how has Griffin done this?
As a player, it was his selflessness. Players Devin Harris and Jason Terry said Griffin’s ability to accept a benching in the NBA Finals in 2006 for the good of the team kept the squad together. Chicago head coach Scott Skiles noticed Griffin taking young Bulls teammates under his wing as his own minutes diminished.
Luc Mbah a Moute and Brewer noted the hours Griffin spent away from his family to put in extra work with them. Brandon Jennings fondly recalls a dinner during his rookie year with the Bucks when Griffin and Kelvin Sampson spent time visiting with Jennings and his mom, sharing advice. Former Raptors player Pat McCaw still holds dear Griffin’s personal check-ins and encouragement from their days in Toronto.
Such simple acts, but they can help a team move mountains.
“It’s all those little things,” said Bill Peterson, Baylor University’s head coach and Griffin’s mentor in Milwaukee from 2008-10. “If you do the little things really good, it becomes a big thing. I think that’s what ‘Griff,’ what he gets, what he’s done – little things really good.”
To understand how Griffin has been so successful at those little things is to know how rooted he is in his faith. But like most aspects of his leadership style, his spirituality is a quiet asset.
He’s not afraid to say his faith has helped him, but he’s not going to assume it will do the same for others. He knows not everyone shares the same religion or tenets, but it’s another way for him to understand where players might be mentally and emotionally.
“The way you live your life is going to be a testimony to others,” Griffin said of balancing being strong in his faith against proselytizing. “I haven’t always been perfect. Nobody is perfect. But, I do try to stay true to my roots and what my family taught me because I do feel like there’s value in treating people right, kind of putting your ego aside and doing the right thing and putting people first and just making people feel good while they’re with you.”
Now, Griffin will have to take those skills to a new place.
Griffin brings a positive outlook
Griffin interviewed many times for head jobs over the last decade, and each time he was told the team was going in a different direction. There was disappointment, but it never lasted long.
Instead of pouting – or giving up – Griffin looked for the next way to improve himself. He has begun his day with a 15-minute session of watching video, drawing plays and reading up on coaching. He would turn on a news conference from NBA head coaches and take notes. He journaled. He read – and read some more – burning through pages and highlighters.
Other organizations told him he was too reserved in interviews. Horst said the Bucks front office was “blown away” by Griffin’s command. Perhaps Griffin’s greatest strength is his ability to form quick, substantive, connections with players. The Bucks offered him his first chance to speak with players in the interview process.
It’s why when Adrian and his wife, Kathy, prayed in their kitchen before he flew up to Milwaukee – the flight that led to the job offer – she felt at peace. It’s why she wasn’t wholly surprised he called hours later to say an offer finally came.
“You have a different perspective: Things can go right as well,” she said of her husband. “They don’t always have to continue to go wrong. You just try. That’s Adrian’s personality.”
It’s also a pillar of the coaching style he is bringing to the Bucks.
“It hasn’t always been popular to praise the behavior that you want to see,” he said. “A lot of times as coaches we’re looking for mistakes. I’ve learned through my studies a lot of time that there’s different ways to build great habits, and one of those ways is catching them doing it right and just praise ‘em. That reinforces something within them. Because we’re human beings.”
He noted in sports such a thought can be counter-intuitive to the aggressive “break them down to build them up” mentality deemed paramount to success. This isn’t to say Griffin is going to sugarcoat his coaching. In fact, it’s the opposite.
Those who have shared space with Griffin agree his professional pedigree coupled with the consistency by which he carries himself commands respect. If front offices once felt he was too reserved in interviews, no colleague has ever felt Griffin’s voice was anything but resounding.
“He holds guys accountable,” said Philadelphia assistant Rico Hines, who has known Griffin for almost a decade and worked alongside him in Toronto last year. “He tells it like it is, but he does it in a manner that’s not overbearing or disrespectful. People understand he played at a high level. He’s won and he’s paid his dues, so you gotta respect that man.
“He has a great way about him, so it’s never coming off as arrogant or coming off as negative at all. He's very positive, a very positive guy, a very upbeat guy, very spiritual, and you can feel that when you’re around him.”
The unknown of all this, is how this translates as a head coach.
Griffin understands this role is different from any other he’s had. He’s no longer the undrafted grinder. He’s no longer shagging rebounds for hours in player development. He’s no longer emphasizing the directives of the head coach – he is now issuing them.
“You build a relationship so you can coach ‘em hard and you can tell them the hard truths without them taking it personal,” Griffin said. “The truth should sting sometimes, you know? It should sting. As coaches I always say the most important trait that you can have is courage. Because it does take courage to tell people the truth as you see it. Sometimes you’re wrong. You’re not always right as head coaches or coaches, but we watch a lot of film, we spend a lot of time in preparing, so we’re trying to give our best effort, assessment of what’s going on, but it takes courage to do that.”
All his coaching colleagues agree occupying the lead chair, the big office, is different. But the man occupying them isn’t, which is why there is belief Griffin can create equity with a veteran roster under heavy expectation and scrutiny.
“The biggest thing with Adrian that I respected about him is I think he speaks the truth to players,” said Bulls head coach Billy Donovan, who had Griffin on his staff in Oklahoma City from 2016-18. “He’s not afraid to. Listen, when you’re in the NBA, not every conversation is gonna be pleasant, right?
"I think a lot of times people say ‘hold ‘em accountable’ and all that stuff, but to me there’s a different piece to the accountability. The accountability piece has also got to be ‘why.’ Like, when you’re asking a player to do something there’s gotta be a why behind it and why that’s productive and effective and important to do.
“Adrian’s got very good communication skills and I think he can explain why certain things need to be done. I always kind of respected that about him and admired that about him because when something’s not right, you kind of call it out and explain why it needs to be better and I think he was always willing to do those kind of things.”
Griffin wants to leave no regrets for Bucks
When the Bucks cut Griffin on October 2008, it suddenly ended his playing career; but the simultaneous offer to coach was the first answer to Griffin’s true calling.
It also cemented a regret.
Griffin felt he didn’t do all he could in the 2006 NBA Finals with Dallas, that he didn’t seize the opportunities he felt were laid in front of him as the Mavericks surrendered a 2-0 lead to Miami.
He told himself, “If I ever get in that position again man, I’m just going to let it rip.”
That time never came.
“That always haunted me,” he said.
In his first decade as an assistant, the furthest any of his teams reached was the conference finals. Then, in 2019, Griffin’s first year in Toronto, the Raptors reached the Finals.
After Golden State seized home-court advantage by splitting the first two games in Canada, Griffin studied. He prayed. Then an interview came across his social media feed, a baseball player talking about how even with all the preparation you may do as an athlete, it can be for naught if you don’t just “let it rip.”
The emotions from 2006 rushed back. He didn’t want any of the Raptors to have his regret.
In the visitor’s locker room at Oracle Arena, Griffin drew up the defensive assignments on the whiteboard. Underneath, he penned “Let it rip.”
Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry stomped around pregame, invigorated, declaring his intent to do so. In 43 minutes, he hit 5 three-pointers and scored 23 points in a Raptors win in Game 3. Lowry followed it up with a 26-point, 10-assist effort in clinching the title in Game 6.
“That kind of gives you that sense of, man, I’m going to out there and give it my all,” McCaw said. “As serious as the moment is, I have to be who I am regardless and go out there and give everything I have. I think just seeing it at the bottom, in a lot of people’s head, it was like, ‘I’m about to go hoop.’ This is what I do, this is what I’ve been doing my whole life.
"I think it gave an ease to people. As big as the moment was, you were built for it, you’re ready for it, you’ve worked your whole life for this moment, so why wouldn’t you go out there and let it rip?”
It’s an example of how in a critical moment, Griffin knew how to relate and communicate in a meaningful way. So, while his after-timeout and end-of-game plays, rotations and schemes will be scrutinized, Griffin’s presence may prove to be a missing ingredient.
“I feel in today’s coaching and sporting environment, players have just as much influence as coaches – but I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all,” he said. “I think there’s always an opportunity for coaches to keep evolving, keep learning, keep growing. I think leadership is more important than ever – how you connect, how you inspire and motivate players.”
In the last two years the Bucks have been rocked by turbulent postseason waters. Is Griffin ready, and the right person, to captain this next era of Bucks basketball into those seas? He laughs knowingly. He’ll admit the destination is far away, but one thing is certain – he is not navigating uncharted.
“I didn’t skip the steps,” he said, before a smile formed. “So, I may not know the answer, but I know who knows the answer.”
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: New head coach Adrian Griffin brings lessons learned to Bucks job