Letting loose at a downtown Indianapolis nightspot 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 on his offseason schedule.
Free agency was quickly approaching. Offseason workouts were scheduled to begin in a little more than a month, and shortly after that was the NFL draft.
In the midst of all that, LaFleur mentioned something else: He was going on a road trip with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.
When it was suggested that 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 — has not won a Super Bowl, or even been to one. If he could find any little edge, he would do it — even if it meant going on the road with a team from an entire differently sport.
“I think he had a good time and enjoyed himself,” Bucks general manager Jon Horst said. “But there’s no question this was a professional development opportunity.”
‘Are you serious?’
The backstory to the trip was this: 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’s that helps abused and at-risk kids, and who did he bump into but Bucks star Khris Middleton.
“I had been around those guys a little bit, and I just introduced myself, and I’m like, ‘What are you guys doing here?’” LaFleur said.
It turned out, the Bucks stayed there while they were in town to play the Phoenix Suns. LaFleur then texted Horst, whom he had been introduced to by a mutual friend shortly after he got the Packers job in 2019, and they met up in the hotel bar.
It quickly turned into an evening of talking shop with Horst and his staff along with coach Mike Budenholzer and assistant coaches Darvin Ham (who would get hired as the Los Angeles Lakers head coach shortly thereafter) and Charles Lee.
“We were just kind of like chopping up with Jon and some of those 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 operate. So that’s kinda how it started, just a random chance. We talked about it, he shot me a bunch of dates and we made it work.”
They settled on a West Coast trip. 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 and then on to Utah to play the Jazz on March 14. While the team would go on to Sacramento to complete the trip, LaFleur would fly home on his own before the game against the Kings to be back at Lambeau Field for the start of free agency on March 16.
‘High school buddy, meet college buddy’
LaFleur went into it with an open mind, not sure if there was anything strategical that would transfer from basketball to football. After all, what’s the NFL equivalent to deciding whether or not to foul when up three points with under 10 seconds to go? (“Oh, he wants to,” Budenholzer said laughing. “He wants to talk about that.”)
“One of the things that stood out to me about Matt, it feels like there’s a thirst for continuing to grow and be better and learn and be his best,” Budenholzer said. “To take that time and maybe go outside the box a little bit and just see if there’s anything that he could take to better his team, that’s a huge statement on who he is as a coach and a person.”
He and Budenholzer quickly found they shared much in common in their professional and personal lives. Both were sons of coaches. Both coach teams that are expected to compete for titles. And both are in a niche profession that requires them to deal with so many different entities, from the media to fans to team owners and general managers.
“It’s nice to have somebody that you can open to a little bit that has that similar perspective, similar experiences,” Budenholzer said. “You develop a friendship and a trust pretty quickly with Matt. It’s rare and it’s kind of nice with somebody 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 has a minority share of ownership in the Bucks, said he’s a big Budenholzer fan and liked the idea of his coach spending time with him, especially considering the Bucks had just won the NBA championship the previous season.
“I love it for Matt that he’s always trying to grow in the process of what he’s doing,” Rodgers. “Bud and his staff 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 pick from the stuff that Bud says to the guys on a daily basis or some of the leadership and team camaraderie stuff, I think it was really beneficial for him.”
The connection with the Bucks and Packers has grown stronger in recent years, in part because of Rodgers’ ownership stake and in part because of LaFleur and Horst’s mutual connection: Justin Sherlock. LaFleur played high school basketball (He says he was “OK — an 8- or 9-points-a-game guy) with Sherlock in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, and Sherlock became teammates with Horst at Rochester University 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.
‘More comfortable letting go’
Late last month, Horst and several members of his staff spent two days with the Packers during training camp. Horst stood with Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst during much of the practices, and he even sat in on some of LaFleur’s team meetings.
It’s different, however, spending time with a team during a more laid-back period of the season like training camp compared to March in the NBA when there’s less than a month remaining in the regular season.
So LaFleur didn’t want to get in the way during what was an important trip for the Bucks. During games, he sat in the stands with Horst, several rows behind the Bucks’ bench. At shootarounds, he would sit courtside. At the hotel, he would sit in quietly on meetings.
“The biggest takeaway that I had was just from top to bottom, how aligned everybody is, how they communicate, and there’s a genuine care for one another,” LaFleur said. “I see it with Bud and his staff. I see it with the staff to the players. I see it from player to player. Watching these guys on the plane how they interact with one another. They’ve got really good people and obviously you better have talented players, that is like a prerequisite and that’s exactly what they have. But when their best players are their best people as well, it makes it a lot easier.
“Giannis is an unbelievable dude and, but you see it with everybody — Middleton and Jrue [Holiday] and Brook Lopez. All those guys are just legit dudes.”
Something else struck LaFleur.
“They did a really cool thing where postgame they had a dinner with all the players, the coaches, their wives, players’ wives if they were traveling or players families if they were traveling where they basically close down a restaurant and just get everybody together,” LaFleur said. “Those are those special times that when you’re outside of work that you can help build that team chemistry that is imperative to help when you face a little bit of adversity.”
There’s a significant difference between how NBA and NFL teams travel. On that trip, the Bucks were gone for more than a week and players have much more freedom. In the NFL, teams fly out the day before the game and return right after. Even so, Rodgers has said he has seen LaFleur let loose more since going on that trip.
“Maybe this is related to that trip and maybe it’s not, but with every year, he seems to be more comfortable letting go of some of the control and trusting the leadership of the football team, his assistant coaches and the older guys and kind of just be a little more hands off,” Rodgers said. “In basketball, they’re on such different schedules. They have nights off [on the road] and you’ve just got to say, ‘Hey, whatever happens be at shootaround at 11.’ They can’t control everything that’s going on. I think there’s something to be said for that because that allows for accountability. Are you opting in or are you going to f— around?”
‘A lot of pressure going into Utah’
With LaFleur in attendance, the Bucks lost to the Golden State Warriors 122-109. They also lost forward DeAndre’ Bembry to a season-ending knee injury on 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 impactful massive injury that happened during the course of the game, so Matt got to kinda see the in-game chaos that happened with all that and then experience a loss on the road. He had full access to everything.
“He’s super curious. Watching him in that setting being around us, I think curiosity is an incredible trait of a leader.”
He also got super nervous, to hear Budenholzer tell it.
“He felt a lot of pressure going into Utah,” Budenholzer said. “He knew if we lost, he’d be the reason. … We were giving him s— when we lost to Golden State because I think we were maybe on a decent run, and we got beat pretty bad that day.
“I think for him just to see that game and then the locker before and after, just the routines that the 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 out there and they finished their road trip [with a win over the Sacramento Kings], but it was cool because you get to experience and see how they do everything,” LaFleur said. “It’s not every day they let somebody come on a trip like that.”