Three texts stuck in Mike Budenholzer’s mind all summer, and his voice cracked and his eyes grew red and moist when he mentioned them.
It wasn’t just the who, or the why, but how those congratulatory messages made the Bucks’ “Coach Bud” feel about himself.
“The funnest ones for me is like, when you get a text from a Tim Duncan, a Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker,” Budenholzer told me earlier this month, when I asked for his favorite texts in the aftermath of coaching Milwaukee to the 2021 NBA championship.
“Those are guys that you’re not sure you’re ever going to … it’s like, ‘I have to have those guys to win,’” Bud said, getting emotional. “Those guys were really, really huge as a young assistant growing up and everything. To hear from those guys is really cool.”
The context of what Budenholzer was saying was that he was an assistant coach on four champion Spurs teams, and Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker were pillars of some or all of those title-winning groups in San Antonio. Bigger picture? Budenholzer finally won one on his own, as the head coach, without Gregg Popovich guiding him… when maybe he was beginning to wonder if he ever would, or could, do it.
Winning can change self-perception, or how others look at you, or how easy it can be to breathe. In the days and weeks and months since the Bucks did it — in six, you may have heard, over the Phoenix Suns — depending on which specific member of the organization we’re talking about, they’ve found those axioms to be true.
“I’m happy,” said Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning Finals MVP. “And I’m not happy because I’m happy — I’m happy because people around me are happy. I don’t feel like people are stressed out, I feel like people have been taken care of and we’re going to do this for a long time. Because you’ve seen it a lot of times now, an organization that maybe isn’t able to go over that hump, they break up. That did not happen to us.” And then Giannis said, the Bucks will be able to try to do what they did last season “for the next four, five, 10 years.”
The rest of the Bucks’ lives began in earnest Tuesday night, opening night in the NBA, with a resounding 127-104 thumping of the Brooklyn Nets — the team that’s supposed to win the ’chip this season. Milwaukee’s holdovers from its title team received those fancy, coveted rings and watched, with moist eyes, as the slipcover over the green 2021 championship banner was lifted. And then the new team went out and dismantled the Nets behind 32 points from Giannis, 20 from Khris Middleton and 20 more from…Pat Connaughton!?!?