From Thumb to the NBA, Bucks general manager Jon Horst stays rooted

By Matt Schoch
Special to The Detroit News
Milwaukee Bucks general manager Jon Horst.

With trade deadline season here and a compelling postseason ahead, a fair amount of the NBA’s drama revolves around a Midwesterner with an unlikely backstory.

And while Jon Horst isn’t a “kid from Akron” and hasn’t reached the global icon status of a LeBron James, just getting to Horst’s NBA heights is about as unlikely for a small-college role player from Michigan’s Thumb.

A Sandusky native, Horst, 35, is the general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks, in charge of personnel for one of the league’s top franchises.

He admits being among the youngest general managers in professional sports is something he thinks about, and is thankful for, often.

“All the time,” he said. “Working in the NBA, it’s something that I feel blessed with every day.

“To do what I do on a daily basis and challenge myself, I think is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I try every day to be thankful and grateful for, and maximize it while I have it.”

With the NBA’s best young star, a Coach of the Year candidate that he hired and the league’s best record heading into Tuesday’s game in Detroit, Horst is making the most of it.

Bucks boom

Horst, a former Rochester College reserve, is tasked with finding the right mix around megastar Giannis Antetokounmpo to win a championship.

Antetokounmpo, the 24-year-old “Greek Freak," could be the next great NBA player after James fades out of the spotlight this coming decade.

Antetokounmpo said he has a close relationship with Horst, who helped surprise the basketball world by drafting the intriguing unknown talent with the 15th pick in the 2013 draft.

“I don’t know who that guy is,” Antetokounmpo joked, when asked recently about Horst’s role with Milwaukee’s success. “I think he’s a great guy, and he wants the team to be successful. Personally, I think he stays out of players’ lanes. I’ve proved to him multiple times that I’m going to work hard and I’m going to play that way for the team. I think he trusts me with that, and I think it’s just great working with him.”

Over the weekend, the Bucks were in the news as ESPN reported Thon Maker was seeking a trade away from Milwaukee by the Feb. 7 deadline. It’s the type of decision that puts Horst in the hot seat: Give up on a third-year player with potential? And if so, help the team for this year or try to restock a depleted stock of future draft picks?

Horst already made a difficult call last year, as the team boldly fired coach Jason Kidd in the middle of a playoff campaign, which was Horst’s first year as GM.

The Bucks hired coach Mike Budenholzer last summer after he left Atlanta, hoping to replicate the culture Budenholzer was part of in San Antonio — with a modern twist.

It’s worked, as the Bucks shoot the second-most 3-pointers in the league and lead the NBA in net rating, which measures overall offensive and defensive productivity.

Horst has helped meld a new-school analytical approach to the game, along with the old tenants of culture and hard work into a championship contender.

Milwaukee Bucks general manager Jon Horst, right, hired new head coach Mike Budenholzer, left, in May.

Sandusky son

After the Bucks played a Friday game last month in Cleveland before a Monday night game in Detroit, Horst rented a car and drove home to Sandusky to get a full weekend with his parents, Randy and Kathy.

In his 11th year with the Bucks, his first time living outside of southeast Michigan, Horst drove up M-19 and got that familiar, comfortable feeling.

“Sandusky is home,” Horst said of the Sanilac County city, which boasts a population of about 2,700. “So for me, you get 15 minutes out on M-19 or 46 whichever way you come in, it’s just a relaxing, comfortable feeling. I loved growing up there.”

Milwaukee Bucks general manager Jon Horst was a classic player that coaches loved to coach, according to his former high school basketball coach at Sandusky High School.

The second of four Horst children, Jon gravitated to basketball at an early age, learning to shoot at age 3 or 4, he said, while his dad played in rec league games. Jon later played constantly at a park across the street from the family’s house.

“I was, like, addicted,” he said.

Last month, while attending Milwaukee’s win at Little Caesars Arena with a group of about 25 of Horst’s friends and family members, Kathy remembered that it was in third grade when Jon told her he wanted to play in the NBA.

“We didn’t tell him no, so I guess we’re glad we didn’t,” said Randy, a vice president of a small local bank.

“We’re pretty amazed when we go to a game now or meet players or their families,” said Kathy, a middle school language arts teacher in Sandusky. “Sometimes it’s like, ‘Wow, can you believe we’re doing this?’”

John Guttowsky coached varsity basketball at Sandusky High School during Horst’s first season on varsity and said he was a classic player that coaches love to coach.

“He’d dive for all the loose balls and want to guard the best player on the other team,” Guttowsky said. “He does all the little things well. If he was having a bad night on the floor, or wasn’t scoring well, he could do all the other things for you.”

Horst said he was a better college prospect in football, where he played running back, than in basketball.

With the help of athletic director Al DeMott, though, Horst identified a list of college basketball programs who expressed interest in having him.

It was all part of the nurturing atmosphere that Sandusky provided Horst, he said.

“For me, that’s my foundation, starting with my family, my grandparents and my parents, growing up on a farm and doing the things I did there,” Horst said. “And the education I got at Sandusky, at a public school in a small community, I think was tremendous. There was a lot of successful students in a lot of different areas, really around the world, who graduated from Sandusky.”

Rochester ringleader

In the end, Horst settled on Rochester College, where he would eventually meet his wife, Mia. It also was where basketball coach Garth Pleasant built a small college powerhouse in Rochester Hills.

Pleasant retired after the 2010-11 season with 720 wins and four national championships in 38 seasons, two United States Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1 titles coming with Horst in the program.

Horst was a reserve who never logged major minutes for the Warriors. But a leader and team captain at Rochester, Horst certainly left his mark.

“I never has anyone played so little but given so much to the program,” Pleasant said Sunday from his winter home in Kissimmee, Fla. “He came to practice every day, I think that he worked to make other people better around him, and he was a delight to have.”

When the minutes didn’t come, Horst impressed his parents with his resiliency.

“We go to the games and sometimes he didn’t play,” Randy said. “We were disappointed. You drive 2½ hours and then he plays 5 minutes or does not play at all.

“But still, Garth would say, ‘This guy is the hardest-working guy I’ve ever coached, so because of that, he gave him the big opportunity.”

In part because of the school’s proximity to The Palace of Auburn Hills, Pleasant had a relationship with the Pistons front office and coaching staff, sitting in on Larry Brown’s practices and letting the pros use their practice facility occasionally over the years.

Pleasant thought so much of Horst that when John Hammond, then the Pistons vice president of basketball operations, called looking for an intern, the coach told Horst that an important phone call would be coming soon.

“We had a saying with the team: And Then Some,” Pleasant said. “Do what’s expected of you and then do some more.

“I told him to go down there and work so they can’t afford to let you go.”

Jon Horst (middle, in warm-up jersey) helped Rochester College win United States Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1 national titles in 2003-04 and 2004-05.

Pistons producer

Horst took the call from Pistons president Joe Dumars and ran with it.

Though the Pistons did eventually decide they couldn’t let the intern go, at first they couldn’t afford to pay him.

So after rubbing shoulders with people like coach Flip Saunders and trying to catch the eyes of Dumars and Hammond during his day job, Horst did even more work at night.

He worked at FedEx, did maintenance work at the trailer park where he owned a mobile home, and stocked shelves at Bed, Bath & Beyond.

With the Pistons, he originally thought he’d eventually coach, and Saunders had allowed him to break down film for the coaching staff in addition to his front office duties.

With the team’s decision makers, Horst specialized in his detail-oriented approach with projects, working with Pistons executives like Tony Ronzone, George David, Jeff Weltman and Scott Perry, now the general manager of the New York Knicks.

“I love spending long hours on research and analysis and putting something from start to finish, really kind of coming out with a recommendation based on the data,” Horst said.

Impressed, Hammond then challenged Horst to become well-versed in salary cap minutiae and the emerging field of basketball analytics.

“John challenged me to learn those things and study them and put me on as an opportunity and gave me a niche that I could find with a organization,” Horst said.

One day, he came home to Sandusky and told his mom he had decided the front office was where he’d build a career.

“I said, ‘What’s a front office?’ I didn’t even know what it was,” Kathy said. “To me, before Jon, the Pistons were those men on the floor. I didn’t even know that this existed.

“So we have learned, too.”

After a year-plus of little to no pay, Horst was eventually hired by Dumars full time as manager of basketball operations.

Jon Horst of Sandusky, Mich., is in his 11th year with the Milwaukee Bucks organization, and second as its general manager.

Milwaukee man

Those were boom times for the Pistons, who won at least 53 games and made the conference finals in each of Horst’s three full seasons with the team.

The 2007-08 season was Detroit’s sixth straight conference finals appearance, and Horst was newly married and working a dream job. The Bucks came calling for Hammond, tabbing him as their general manager.

Hammond made an offer to Horst to join him in Wisconsin.

“And then, there’s Joe Dumars, a tremendous mentor and still a very close friend, someone I rely on a lot,” Horst said. “He opened up his organization to me and gave me a lot of freedom and autonomy to learn and do things that not everyone else would get a chance to do.

“It was a tough decision, but I felt like an opportunity to grow, to challenge myself, something different.

“I had never been to Milwaukee in my life, never been in the state of Wisconsin in my life, but it’s not that far. But for me, it was a whole different organization, a whole different opportunity to grow.”

While the Pistons have not won a playoff game since Horst left in 2008, Milwaukee drafted Antetokounmpo, turning the franchise around under new ownership,

Back at Rochester in February 2017 for the opening of Garth Pleasant Arena on campus, his now-retired college coach asked Horst about his next move.

“He said either an assistant GM or GM,” Pleasant said. “I was thinking when he told me, boy, in my mind, that’s pretty young.”

A few months later, Hammond was again poached, this time by Weltman and the Orlando Magic.

Now with two kids — Sophie and Zeke, named after Isiah Thomas, of course — Jon and Mia thought a move to Florida with Hammond was possible.

However, the Bucks eventually offered the general manager job to Horst, then still largely an unknown to even the most ardent basketball fans.

In Horst’s second year as GM, the Bucks are 35-13 and rolling toward the postseason.

As unassuming and accessible as ever, Horst has not forgotten his roots, said friend Klint Pleasant, who replaced his father as Rochester’s coach. Horst has talked to Rochester athletes about sports management and recently sent a package of Bucks gear to Klint's kids.

“He didn’t have much going for him: He didn’t play in the NBA. or he was not related to a GM,” Klint Pleasant said. “That’s what I love about Jon’s story, is it shows that you really can kind of grind and work hard and make your own way.”

Horst said he’s taking the lessons from Sandusky, Rochester and the Pistons with him along the way.

“You never know how long you’re going to have these opportunities,” Horst said. “I try to live in the moment every day and be great every day.

“And try to surround myself with great people. I learned this from Joe and John, we used to always say: The goal is to win as much as you can and be around great people.

“That’s what we’re trying to do in Milwaukee.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.