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Atlanta Hawks had Pop inform Budenholzer of his Coach of the Year

Though the award will end up in the Atlanta Hawks' trophy case, it was forged in San Antonio and under the tutelage of "Pop."

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

As successful as the San Antonio Spurs have been over the past two decades, the organization doesn't make a habit of celebrating fifth place. The elation about the NBA's recently announced Coach of the Year voting might seem surprising if you simply scan and see Gregg Popovich came in behind three sophomores and a freshman.

Coach Team 1st Place (5 pts) 2nd Place (3 pts) 3rd Place (1 pt) Total
Mike Budenholzer Atlanta 67 58 4 513
Steve Kerr Golden State 56 61 8 471
Jason Kidd Milwaukee 1 5 37 57
Brad Stevens Boston 2 4 28 50
Gregg Popovich San Antonio 3 -- 23 38
Kevin McHale Houston -- -- 13 13
Tom Thibodeau Chicago 1 1 2 10
Quin Snyder Utah -- 1 4 7
David Blatt Cleveland -- -- 3 3
Doc Rivers L.A. Clippers -- -- 2 2
Terry Stotts Portland -- -- 2 2

(Of the coaches receiving at least two votes, 5 of 11 had Spurs ties)

But more than championships or wins, the Spurs pride themselves on the family that they've cultivated. And "Coach Bud" will always be family. In one of the most heartwarming stories of the season, the Atlanta Hawks organization allowed Popovich to be the one to break the news to Mike Budenholzer.

In his acceptance speech Tuesday afternoon, Budenholzer thanked the requisite agents who have enabled him to win the award, but the two most touching moments were for his two "Pops." He emotionally thanked his own father--an Arizona Hall-of-Fame high school basketball coach in his own right-- but saved his final, most effusive praise for his mentor.


(Starting at 8:35)

"It seems appropriate to finish with the real Coach of the Year, Gregg Popovich. This award has a permanent spot on his desk in San Antonio. He just shares it around every couple years and lets us take a picture of it. I might be able to sneak back into his office and put it back down. I was very, very fortunate to be so close to a coach who’s done so much for the league, done so much for so many coaches, and has shared so much with me. And I can’t even begin to articulate how thankful I am and all the things I’ve learned."

"I thought the thing that Pop did for me and did for a lot of coaches, is he let me coach. It seems really simple. That’s part of the beauty about being with Pop and being around Pop, is that sometimes the things that are the most successful are very very simple. He let us coach. He let us coach with him. And he always talks about how his players have allowed themselves to be coached by Pop."

"I think I speak for myself and a ton of my colleagues -- it's a long list -- that I get to speak publicly and thank Pop for letting us coach with him. It prepared me for my opportunity. And I think that's ultimately what the role of a coach is -- to prepare his team, to prepare a player, or to prepare a person for their opportunity. And I just want to thank Pop for preparing me for this opportunity."


Before he was "Coach Bud," Budenholzer lettered for the Pimona-Pitzer basketball and golf teams, missing Popovich as coach by a few months. After graduating, he spent a few seasons playing professionally in Denmark and coaching youth teams. Upon returning to the U.S., Budenholzer hoped to continue to be around basketball, and reached out to Popovich, then a Golden State Warriors assistant coach.

When Popovich came to the San Antonio Spurs a year later to serve as VP of Basketball Operations and General Manager, he brought two people with him from California: R.C. Buford and Budenholzer. Though Buford and Popovich have both been awarded to recognize their efforts in building the most prolific basketball franchise of the past two decades, Budenholzer was something of a silent partner who had been there since the beginning. When he left after 17 years in San Antonio, fans were as proud as they were sad that Pop's heir apparent was no longer in the organization.

More than anyone else in the coaching tree family, Spurs fans were sad to see him go.

His first season in charge of the Hawks saw a slight regression, falling to a 38-44 record after a 44-38 record in 2012-13. But as Al Horford returned from a 50+ game injury, the team got comfortable in the Spurs-esque system Budenholzer had implemented and saw a late season surge to capture the No. 8 seed. In a sign of things to come, the Hawks took the No. 1 seed Indiana Pacers to seven games, showing they were on a drastic upswing.

Budenholzer led Atlanta to a franchise best 60-22 record this season, with the Hawks earning the No. 1 seed and winning the Southeast Division title for the first time since the 1993-94 season.

The 22-win improvement is remarkable considering that 20+ win increases almost always coincide with drafting a Hall-of-Famer (Tim Duncan in 1998, David Robinson in 1990, Larry Bird in 1980, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1970) or acquiring one in the off-season (Celtics/Kevin Garnett, Suns/Steve NashNets/Jason Kidd). With roster continuity second only to the Spurs, Budenholzer and the skills he'd learned from his future Hall-of-Fame mentor were enough to galvanize the Hawks.

Congratulations, Coach Bud. We'll always consider you family.