Dropped into a downtown Indianapolis nightclub after a long day at the NFC scouting combine in March, Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur found himself in a conversation about what was next. follow in its off-season program.
Free agency was fast approaching. Offseason practices were scheduled to begin in just over a month, and shortly after that was the NFL Draft.
In the midst of it all, LaFleur mentioned something else: He was going on a road trip with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.
When it was suggested it would be fun, LaFleur quickly clarified, “Actually, it’s a business trip.”
LaFleur is a coach who — despite winning 13 games in each of his first three NFL seasons, the most in NFL history in the first three years of a coaching career — hasn’t won a Super Bowl, or even been to one. If he could find a small edge, he would – even if it meant hitting the road with a team from an entirely different sport.
“I think he had a great time and had a great time,” Bucks general manager Jon Horst said. “But there’s no doubt that it was a professional development opportunity.
‘Are you serious?’
The backstory of the trip was as follows: A month earlier, LaFleur and his wife, Bre, were at The Phoenician resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, to attend a fundraiser for Childhelp, an organization run by a friend of LaFleur who helps abused people and at-risk children, and who has he met but Bucks star Khris Middleton.
“I had been around these guys a bit, and I just showed up, and I was like, ‘What are you doing here? “said LaFleur.
Turns out the Bucks stayed there while they were in town to take on the Phoenix Suns. LaFleur then texted Horst, who he was introduced to by a mutual friend shortly after he got the Packers job in 2019, and they met at the hotel bar.
It quickly turned into an evening of talks with Horst and his team as well as coach Mike Budenholzer and assistant coaches Darvin Ham (who would be hired as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers soon after) and Charles Lee.
“We were kind of like cutting with Jon and some of these guys, talking philosophy, and he threw it out there,” LaFleur said. “He’s like, ‘Hey, you should come on a road trip with us.’ And I said, ‘Are you serious? I’d love to, just to see how they work. That’s kind of how it started, just random luck. We talked about it, he turned me on. a bunch of dates and we made it work.
They settled on a trip to the west coast. LaFleur would drive from Green Bay to Milwaukee to fly with the Bucks to San Francisco for a game against the Warriors on March 12, then to Utah to play the Jazz on March 14. While the team would travel to Sacramento to complete the trip, LaFleur would fly home alone before the game against the Kings to be back at Lambeau Field for the start of free agency on March 16.
‘High school boyfriend, meet college boyfriend’
LaFleur went into it with an open mind, not knowing if there was anything strategic going from basketball to football. After all, what is the NFL like deciding whether or not to foul when there are three points left with less than 10 seconds left? (“Oh, he wants,” Budenholzer said with a laugh. “He wants to talk about it.”)
“One of the things that stood out to me the most about Matt is that there’s a hunger to keep growing, to be better, to learn and to do your best,” Budenholzer said. “To take this time and maybe think outside the box a bit and see if there’s anything he could do to improve his team, that’s a huge statement about who he is as a coach and a person. .”
He and Budenholzer quickly discovered that they shared a lot in common in their professional and personal lives. Both were sons of coaches. The two coaching teams that should compete for the titles. And both have a niche profession that requires them to deal with so many different entities, from media and fans to team owners and general managers.
“It’s nice to have someone you can open up to a little bit who has that similar perspective, similar experiences,” Budenholzer said. “You develop a friendship and trust quite quickly with Matt. It’s rare and it’s quite nice with someone who walks in similar shoes.
They also both coach superstars in their sport, LaFleur with quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Budenholzer with Giannis Antetokounmpo, and understand the blessings and challenges that come with such an assignment.
Rodgers, who owns a minority stake in the Bucks, said he was a big fan of Budenholzer and liked the idea of his coach spending time with him, especially since the Bucks had just won the NBA championship the previous season.
“I love that Matt always tries to grow in the process of what he does,” Rodgers said. “Bud and his team are obviously doing something right. Just a fun week for him to be around a different group of guys to see how they travel, to see how they work together and if there’s anything he can choose from the stuff Bud says to the guys daily or some of the leadership and team camaraderie stuff, I think that was really beneficial for him.
The bond with the Bucks and Packers has grown stronger in recent years, partly because of Rodgers’ involvement and partly because of LaFleur’s mutual bond with Horst: Justin Sherlock. LaFleur played high school basketball (he says he was “OK – an 8 or 9 ppg guy) with Sherlock in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, and Sherlock became teammates with Horst at the University of Rochester in Michigan. .
“The day Matt got hired, Justin put Matt and I on a group text and was basically like, ‘Hey high school buddy, meet college buddy,'” Horst said.
“A more comfortable letting go”
Late last month, Horst and several members of his team spent two days with the Packers during training camp. Horst was alongside Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst during most practices, and he even attended some of LaFleur’s team meetings.
It’s different, though, to hang out with a team during a more casual time of the season like training camp versus March in the NBA when there’s less than a month left in the regular season.
So LaFleur didn’t want to get in the way of what was an important trip for the Bucks. During games, he sat in the stands with Horst, several rows behind the Bucks bench. During shootings, he sat at the edge of the field. In the hotel, he sat quietly at meetings.
“The biggest takeaway I had was just top to bottom, how aligned everyone is, how they communicate, and there’s genuine care for each other,” LaFleur said. “I see it with Bud and his team. I see it with the staff to the players. I see it from player to player. Watch these guys on the plane how they interact with each other. They have very good people and obviously it’s better to have talented players, it’s like a prerequisite and that’s exactly what they have. But when their best players are also their best, it makes things much easier.
“Giannis is an amazing guy and, but you see that with everyone — Middleton and Jrue [Holiday] and Brook Lopez. All of these guys are just legit dudes.
Something else hit LaFleur.
“They did a really cool thing where after the game they had dinner with all the players, the coaches, their wives, the players’ wives if they were traveling or the players’ families if they were traveling where they close a restaurant and bring everyone together. “, LaFleur said. “It’s those special times when, when you’re off work, you can help build that team chemistry that’s imperative to help you out when you’re going through a bit of adversity.”
There is a significant difference between how NBA and NFL teams travel. On this trip, the Bucks are gone for more than a week and the players have a lot more freedom. In the NFL, teams leave the day before the game and return right after. Even so, Rodgers said he’s seen LaFleur let loose more since that trip.
“Maybe it’s related to this trip and maybe it’s not, but every year he seems to be more comfortable letting go of some control and trusting the leadership. from the football team, to his assistant coaches and the older guys and kind of just be a little bit more indifferent,” Rodgers said. “In basketball, they have such different schedules. They have nights off [on the road] and you just have to say, “Hey, whatever happens, be on set at 11 o’clock.” They can’t control everything that happens. I think there’s something to be said for that because it allows for accountability. Are you okay or are you going f— around?
“A lot of pressure in Utah”
With LaFleur present, the Bucks lost to the Golden State Warriors 122-109. They also lost forward DeAndre ‘Bembry to a season-ending knee injury the same night.
“The Golden State one in particular, he got to see a lot,” Horst said. “I’m sitting with him during the game, we had a pretty hard-hitting massive injury that happened during the game, so Matt got to see a bit of the chaos in the game that happened with all of that, and then suffered a loss on the road. He had full access to everything.
“He’s super curious. Looking at it in this frame around us, I think curiosity is an amazing trait of a leader.
He also got super nervous to hear Budenholzer say it.
“He felt a lot of pressure in Utah,” Budenholzer said. “He knew that if we lost, he would be the cause. … We were giving him shit when we lost to Golden State because I think maybe we were on a good run, and we were beaten pretty badly that day.
“I think for him, just to see that game and then the locker before and after, just the routines that guys have on a game day, I think he really dove into that.”
Much to LaFleur’s relief, the Bucks bounced back to beat the Utah Jazz 117-111. Shortly after, LaFleur was on his way back to Green Bay.
“They stayed there and they finished their road trip [with a win over the Sacramento Kings], but it was cool because you get to experience it and see how they do everything,” LaFleur said. “It’s not every day that they let someone take a trip like this.”