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MILWAUKEE — If you’d ever like to embarrass the general manager behind the team with the best record in the NBA, consider asking Jon Horst about the trailer. Don’t worry, he’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. He’ll tell the backstory without hesitation – of 70-plus-hour work weeks at a mobile home park over summers during college. He’ll tell of plumbing and sewage. He has no trouble remembering his boss’ name.
But the trailer itself? The one that housed four or five cost-cutting college kids at a time some 15 years ago? The one where the kitchen initially offered a clear view of the grass and dirt beneath it?
“Oh, so embarrassing,” Horst says with a grin. “It wasn’t good.”
He leans back at his desk, right leg half-crossed over left, a royal blue hoodie agreeing with a sleepy Saturday morning in Milwaukee. A half-hour later, he’ll leave behind his roomy second-floor office and sidle down to practice. He’ll chat courtside, coffee cup in hand, as his Milwaukee Bucks endure another between-rounds playoff wait.
But before he had a hand in building the NBA juggernaut that leads the Toronto Raptors 1-0 in the Eastern Conference finals, Horst had to build a habitable living space. He had been gifted the abandoned trailer. It literally had no kitchen floor. So he went to work, sometimes with power tools, a saw buzzing late into the night or at the crack of dawn. His eventual roommates had their doubts. “Like, ‘Whatcha doin’ here, bud?’” one of them, Tim Johnston, recalls with a laugh. “It was a complete dump.”
Horst, however, came through – and has been coming through ever since. He supported an unpaid internship with the Detroit Pistons by working night shifts at FedEx or shoveling snow from 2-8 a.m. He parlayed it into a part-time job, then full-time employment, and eventually a move to Milwaukee. He rose into his current chair in 2017, at age 34. At 36, he’s still the NBA’s youngest personnel chief. He’s also a favorite for Executive of the Year.
In one sense, it is the unlikeliest of ascents. There were no NBA bloodlines to fuel it. No meaningful playing experience – only mop-up duty from the end of tiny Rochester College’s bench. There were NBA executives who had never heard of Horst when he got the promotion. There still is a Wikipedia page that’s all of three sentences long.
But dig deeper into Horst’s story; talk to folks who know him, or who knew him, and you’ll realize precisely what Johnston recently did:
“This all makes sense.”
Jon Horst grinds his way up
Johnston would never have even been at Rochester College in metro Detroit if not for Horst. He probably wouldn’t be telling this story. “I owe a lot of my professional life to him,” the now-35-year-old business development executive says over the phone.
The two had grown up together in Sandusky, Michigan – population 2,679, stoplight count three. After high school, they’d gone their separate ways. Horst enrolled at Rochester, as part of a class of less than 200. Johnston went elsewhere. But as an underclassman, he says, his wheels were spinning; grades were poor. He was “in college for the sake of being in college,” and “going down a weird path.” Until, that is, Horst reached out, for what turned into a “heart-to-heart” conversation. He sold his childhood friend on coming to Rochester. It was, Johnston says now, a “major turning point in my life.”
It’s one of many examples of one of many qualities that have propelled Horst up through the NBA ranks. Of a “wholesome dude,” as Johnston calls him. The one who recognized that teammate Will Goree’s commute to campus was wearing on him and offered Goree residence in the already-cramped trailer. The one who won two USCAA basketball championships and who was a team captain as a senior, despite the fact he rarely played. After practices, teammates would retreat to the “small,” “dirty” trailer, or off to lunch, or to chapel, flabbergasted by how relentless Horst had been in their elementary school-esque gym that morning.
The work ethic endeared Horst to longtime Rochester coach Garth Pleasant, and plopped his name at the front of Pleasant’s mind when the Pistons called in search of interns in 2005. Pleasant recommended Horst, whose early intern responsibilities were as stereotypical as could be. He’d lick envelopes and answer phones. He’d forge autographs for president of basketball operations Joe Dumars. When it was time for head coach Flip Saunders to get a fresh BMW, Horst would drive the old one to a dealership, familiarize himself with the new one’s gadgets, and return ready to explain all its intricacies to Saunders.
The internship, though, was for college credit, then for nothing. After 15 or 16 months, when the Pistons converted it into part-time employment, it was just $7 per hour for 30 hours a week. Horst, of course, toiled for almost twice as many, doing whatever he possibly could to make himself useful, one of the NBA’s many unseen workaholics. But with student loans looming, he needed money. So he’d ref at a local YMCA; stock shelves at Bed Bath & Beyond; scatter salt for a friend’s brother-in-law’s snow removal company. Around the time he graduated in 2006, he landed a night shift at a FedEx location in nearby Pontiac.
He was effectively manning two full-time jobs – almost “non-existent” at the trailer, Johnston recalls – but only getting paid for one. So when FedEx presented him with a management position and a $40,000-a-year salary, he thought long and hard about it. Talked to friends, family and mentors. He had dreamt of working in basketball since childhood. But sometimes life’s realities impede dreams. Horst had to consider whether they’d unwound his.
As he says now, though: “I’ve been sick for the game since I was like 3 years old.” And not even tens of thousands of dollars could cure him.
Hey Horst, we need ya!
Having turned down 40K, Horst kept grinding, staying at or returning to the Pistons facilities after hours to rebound for fringe rotation players like Lindsey Hunter, Nazr Mohammed and Ronald Dupree. Occasionally, he’d retreat to an assistant coach’s office to dissect film or chat. One night, then-Pistons assistant Igor Koskokov put the question to Horst: What do you want to do in this business?
Horst had no trouble answering. His first goal had been to play professionally. Ever since realizing that was unrealistic, he’d set his sights on coaching. So he told Koskokov: “I want to do what you do.”
Koskokov, though, was aware of Horst’s early work under Dumars and assistant GM John Hammond. And he delivered what Horst now calls an “enlightening” response.
“He basically said, ‘You don’t want to do what I do,’” Horst recounts. “‘You have an unbelievable opportunity with John and Joe. I can tell that they respect you, they trust you, they value you. Go work with those guys. It’s what you’re meant to do.’”
Around that time, Dumars and Hammond had entrusted Horst with mastering RealGM’s software, a nascent tool for toying with trade proposals. Horst dove headlong into it. Whenever Hammond and Dumars would brainstorm potential deals in Dumars’ office, the Pistons legend would summon his 24-year-old newbie with a loud, “Hey, Horst!” Horst would hustle around the corner, then back to his desk, then back to Dumars with a “yay” or “nay” on whether the concocted trade satisfied the CBA’s convoluted conditions. After a while, if the answer was no, Horst would bring suggestions of his own, variations on what Dumars and Hammond had drawn up that were viable.
Pretty soon, he’d be organizing an entire 10-day international scouting trip for Dumars, Hammond and director of basketball ops Tony Ronzone. He was heavily involved in background research and analysis as the Pistons negotiated a new contract with Chauncey Billups in 2007. He studied contract structure, market value, and the money Billups’ other possible suitors had available. His aptitude and dedication earned him a $27,500-per-year gig as a “manager of basketball operations.”
He was invaluable. So invaluable that when Hammond left to become Bucks GM in 2008, he convinced Horst to come with him.
Giannis makes me look good
What Horst now presides over in Milwaukee is a reflection of his experiences. Dumars and Hammond had a mantra: “Always err on the side of the player.” Always protect them. Cherish their families. Care about their off-court personal development. Horst has tried to replicate all that with the Bucks. As a director of basketball ops in 2013-14, he was one of several staffers tasked with teaching Giannis Antetokounmpo how to drive a car. He recently recalled his fright as a teenage Antetokounmpo careened into a left-hand turn at 30 miles per hour.
The (occasionally life-threatening) idea, though, was that the genuine care would cultivate culture. And it – along with winning – has. The culture extends from locker rooms to basketball offices to the business side. Even to the daily pickup games among staffers. Horst is often the ringleader. He’s “highly competitive,” team president Peter Feigin says. Sometimes “too competitive,” he adds, half-joking. The games, assistant GM Milt Newton says, can get “a little heated.” But they invariably end with a group meal, or coffee, or more work, and with bonds strengthened.
When Horst was promoted to GM in 2017 – after Hammond left for Orlando, and after a reportedly messy search for his successor – he made a point to fit into and further a collaborative environment. When a Bucks owner invited Horst to breakfast early during his first season in the big chair, Horst turned to Newton and said: “Milt, we’ve got breakfast tomorrow at 7:30.” Newton responded: “He invited you to breakfast.” Horst, though, was insistent that an invitation to him was also an invitation to his No. 2.
He involves Newton and lower-level employees in almost everything, just like Dumars and Hammond once did for him. He talks to Feigin and head coach Mike Budenholzer daily. Whenever there’s a major decision to be made, the three are required by ownership “to almost create an investment summary of the pros and the cons,” Feigin says. “They want a fact-based recommendation that’s been thought through at all levels of the organization.” And the discussions surrounding them, Feigin adds, “are not guarded, especially at the highest levels, with ownership, with Bud and Jon and myself.”
There’s also a connection between Horst’s CBA expertise and the moves that have helped Budenholzer craft a 60-win contender around Giannis. The Bucks nabbed Brook Lopez – he of 29 clutch points in Wednesday’s Game 1 – for $3.4 million using their bi-annual exception last summer. They dealt for experienced guard George Hill and his low-risk contract in December. At the trade deadline, they unloaded second-round picks and reserves in exchange for Nikola Mirotic. A month later, they got a head start on a tricky summer, tying Eric Bledsoe up to a four-year extension.
Horst is hesitant to take credit for any of this. He raves about his “partnership” with Feigin, Budenholzer and Giannis. As we wrap up our interview, with practice already underway down below, he wants to make sure he won’t be seeing any Jon Horst is the mastermind behind the Milwaukee Bucks headlines in the near future.
“I totally believe in my staff,” he clarifies, and “that we have a role, maybe even some would say a significant role, in what’s happened with the franchise. I don’t want to undersell that. It’s true.” But another truth, he says, is that “Giannis makes me a really good executive right now. And I know that. It’s humbling to say, but it’s true. Giannis is spectacular in every way, as a leader, as a center of our franchise, as a player.”
Horst, on the other hand, was just a small-town Michigan kid with big dreams. He still thinks to himself regularly: “Can you believe how blessed and lucky we are to be able to do this?” Or, “How fun is this?” The answers are often no and very.
He now makes slightly more than minimum wage. But in a lot of ways, he’s still the genuine dude who fixed up that trailer. Still the kind spirit who cared for Goree, his commuting teammate. He’s now a godfather to Goree’s daughter. And in between long Bucks days and family time of his own, Horst still finds time to check in with his old buddies.
“He’s still the same humble guy,” Goree says. “Obviously he’s busy, but he still texts. He’s just Jon.”
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