ATLANTA — You can solve most of the world’s major problems with a good meal, some fine wine and great company. Well, almost all of them if you are San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, colleagues for nearly two decades in San Antonio but opposing coaches and just damn good friends at dinner Wednesday night.
Hawks general manager Danny Ferry, who also played for and worked under Popovich in San Antonio, attended the Wednesday night reunion dinner that Budenholzer said focused on everything from politics, current events, family and a very little bit about basketball.
A 19-year collaboration between Popovich and Budenholzer, with Pop as the master and Bud as the astute pupil, comes to an official end tonight at Philips Arena in the Hawks’ preseason home opener. Looking down the scorer’s table at one another instead of huddling in front of the Spurs’ bench will mark the first time they have been apart in game situations since Budenholzer began his coaching career.
“Surreal is probably one word you could use,” Budenholzer said. “Seeing him on the opposite bench and all those players that I spent so much time with. But I’m excited and focused on our players and our group and getting us going in the right direction.”
Budenholzer was still on the hook for dinner Wednesday night, though.
“We had dinner, it was good to break bread with him,” Budenholzer said. “He tends to prefer conversations about things other than basketball. Government shut downs and debt ceiling and all of those different things. Occasionally, [the conversation] comes back to basketball. But in his ideal dinner it’s probably not a whole lot of basketball.”
Popovich has seen a number of his former pupils depart for head coaching and front office positions elsewhere. In fact, the Popovich family tree spreads from coast to coast and includes his former aides filling all sorts of positions, from general managers like Sam Presti in Oklahoma City to head coaches like Jacque Vaughn in Orlando.
But no one spent the kind of time under his wing and was afforded the sort of responsibilities that Budenholzer did as his right-hand man for so many years. That’s why it’ll be a strange new journey for Popovich all season without “Bud” by his side.
“When you’ve been with someone that long, to see him on the other side is a little bit strange for sure,” Popovich said. “We’ve said for several years if I could depart tomorrow and go live on some island and have lobster and good white wine somewhere, he could take over and no one would know the difference. He knows our system better than I do probably. I’m sure he’ll use part of it. But he has his own ideas about how things should be done. He’ll do a good job of putting that culture in and it’ll just take time for everybody to understand the benefits of it, because it doesn’t happen immediately.”
It helps when the players have what Popovich called “corporate knowledge” of the system being run. The Hawks turned over their roster two years in a row, leaving Budenholzer with plenty of brand new faces to work with. He had to win over everyone, though, even the familiar faces who had never heard of him.
“Nothing, not at all. Not at all,” Hawks center Al Horford said when asked what he knew about Budenholzer before the Hawks hired him in the midst of the Spurs’ run to The Finals and if he’d ever heard of him at all. “He’s a very passionate guy and I feel like he puts a lot of trust in us players. He gives us the freedom to play and he’s pretty straight forward with his concepts, offensively and defensively. There is no gray area when you are out there doing what you are supposed to do. ”
It helps to have four championship rings and those nearly two decades worth of winning at the highest level under your belt when you are transitioning into your first head coaching gig.
“Of course, everybody acknowledges that here,” Horford said. “We respect him. We’re happy with him and we want to learn from him and keep getting better.”
The Spurs will have to find a way to replace what Budenholzer brought to their franchise, on and off the court. Popovich, however, will feel the impact of his departure more than anyone.
“I miss him more than anyone else does because I depended on him a lot,” Popovich said. “In games, he would make suggestions or do things and I wouldn’t know what the hell was going on. He substituted somebody or he changed the defense. I’d say ‘Why did we do that?’ He would tell me and I would say ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense. That sounds good. I wish I had thought of it.’ You sort of miss all that. You have to start all over. I’ll have to actually coach more.”
He’ll coach more and likely argue less. Those heated private debates he, Budenholzer and Ferry have all mentioned that were a part of the Spurs’ creative process when they worked together, are no more.
“When you’ve discussed and argued things that many years, you realize that’s what it’s all about,” Popovich said. “People who feel comfortable in their own skins do best when they hire good people around them who have as good or better ideas than they do. A lot of people can’t figure that out. I’m at least that smart, to surround myself with people who are smarter than me to help me do well.”
It helps when they can pick up the occasional dinner bill as well.
“We had good food, good conversation,” Popovich said, “and it was great to see [Bud] and Danny.”