Once a “coach on the floor” as a player for the Sagehens, Mike Budenholzer ’92 is now coach of the NBA champions.
His Milwaukee Bucks claimed the 2021 title Tuesday night behind a spectacular 50-point, 14-rebound, five-block performance by Giannis Antetokounmpo in a 105-98 Game 6 win over the Phoenix Suns that clinched the best-of-seven NBA Finals. That set an estimated crowd of 65,000 outside the Milwaukee arena if not all of Wisconsin rocking as the Bucks celebrated their first NBA title in 50 years.
“I love the players, I love the roster, I love the team,” Budenholzer said in post-game interviews. “I'm incredibly fortunate to be where I am and just to be a small part of what's happening tonight.”
Budenholzer isn’t the first coach with Pomona ties to win an NBA title: San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, who coached at Pomona for eight seasons ending in 1988 after playing at the Air Force Academy, has won five titles with the San Antonio Spurs. And it was Popovich—who briefly recruited Budenholzer as a high school player before leaving Pomona-Pitzer to become a Spurs assistant—who gave Budenholzer his first NBA break when he hired him to be the Spurs’ video coordinator and then made him an assistant coach in San Antonio for 19 years.
Sagehens Men’s Basketball Coach Charlie Katsiaficas, who took the reins at Pomona-Pitzer from Popovich before Budenholzer’s first season, rejoiced for his former player as he watched the Bucks come from five points behind at halftime to win the NBA title in a series they once trailed 0-2.
“I am so excited and happy for Coach Bud!” Katsiaficas emailed after the game. “You often hear people say that teams take on the personality of their coach. That has never been more evident than in the way his team grinded their way to the NBA championship. The discipline, toughness, competitive spirit, and never-give-in attitude the Bucks showed through their amazing playoff run are all part of Coach Bud’s DNA. Those are the same qualities Mike brought to the gym and to our squad every day as a student-athlete here at Pomona-Pitzer, and what made him such a great teammate.”
During the pandemic that halted the 2020 season before it resumed in a “bubble” in Florida and the Los Angeles Lakers won the 2020 NBA title, Budenholzer talked about his decision to become a Sagehen in an episode of Sagecast, the podcast of Pomona College.
“I had a couple of different options or places to go play basketball,” Budenholzer recalled. “And the reason I chose Pomona was I could get the best education while still playing basketball.
“I wasn't a great high school player, but I was okay. I had a couple other places and really none of them were probably even in the same realm academically as Pomona.”
Though he yearned to play at the University of Arizona in his home state and even considered community college as a possible route to get there, Budenholzer chose Pomona-Pitzer, an NCAA Division III program.
“I don't know how, or why, or exactly what the process was, but I decided still playing was really important to me but maybe getting a really good education and going to a really good school should move up my list of priorities,” he said. “I'm so grateful I did, and I loved playing basketball at Pomona. It was a huge part of my experience.
Katsiaficas, a first-year head coach when Budenholzer arrived, has since won more than 500 games with the Sagehens and has never left.
“I'm amazed that he's still the coach at Pomona and he still does an amazing job, and I have a great appreciation and feel really fortunate that I played for Coach Kats,” Budenholzer said. “Actually, my first year, that was probably the most fun, and we won the SCIAC and played in the NCAA Division III tournament.
“And the legend of Coach Pop at Pomona, certainly. He recruited me a little bit my senior year. So I came to campus for a visit and spent some time. It was in the middle of the summer when it unfolded that he left. So I had gotten to know him and learn about how much he had changed and what a big impact he'd had on Pomona-Pitzer basketball. And then you listen to the upperclassmen as you're a freshman and hear more stories and then little do you know you're going to work for coach Pop for 20 years.”
Budenholzer’s career hasn’t been all celebration. Postseason disappointments plagued his first NBA coaching job with the Atlanta Hawks, and his future in Milwaukee was under speculation after early exits with the Bucks. But not this season, despite trailing 0-2 in two playoff series Milwaukee came back to win.
Now Coach Bud, Coach Pop and Coach Kats, still good friends who occasionally send young coaches or players with Sagehen ties each other’s way, will have a few more stories—and six NBA titles among them—when they get together next.