Just over a decade before the Milwaukee Bucks made him one of the youngest general managers in the NBA in 2017, Jon Horst worked as a superintendent at a trailer park in Rochester, Mich., putting up scaffolding, pouring concrete and one summer painting the entire clubhouse.
“They get evicted, and you’ve got to go, like, clean out their place,” Horst recalled in a recent phone interview. “[I’ve] seen stuff that you can’t imagine … just cleaning out someone’s trailer.”
Though Horst, 36, no longer has to get his hands dirty in his job, his fingerprints are all over the Bucks’ stellar season. On Wednesday, Milwaukee opens its Eastern Conference finals series against the Toronto Raptors at Fiserv Forum with a roster led by MVP front-runner Giannis Antetokounmpo but fortified by the general manager’s deliberate moves.
Horst, a strong candidate for executive of the year, vividly remembers his path to the top of basketball operations for the league’s best regular season team.
“Excuse my language, but I’ve literally shoveled s--- to get here,” said Horst, one of the NBA’s few millennial general managers (only Toronto’s Bobby Webster, at 34, is younger; the average known age of current NBA GMs is 47). “Not many people have done that, but I literally have.”
Horst played basketball at Rochester College, a small liberal arts school about 70 miles south from his family’s farm in Sandusky, Mich. After his freshman year, he knew if he wanted to commit to improving as a player, he needed to stay on campus. So Horst accepted the trailer park job for $10 an hour — big money for a broke college kid — to finance his summers.
By the start of his senior year in 2005, Horst, living in a mobile home with three roommates, needed an internship to complete his sports management degree. His college coach had a connection with the Detroit Pistons.
“He was a young guy who just kind of showed up,” said John Hammond, who worked in Detroit’s front office at the time and is now the Orlando Magic’s general manager. “I just thought, here’s an intern. Another intern.”
Over time, Hammond and then-Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars noticed something about this intern. Horst did everything: handling administrative office minutiae, working out players on game days and even helping Dumars and Hammond workshop trade scenarios. He had cleaned out sewage lines in his other job, so becoming the tech-savvy kid who could interpret analytics websites for a room of middle-aged men was a breeze.
“Joe would yell out his door: ‘Yo Horst!’ and Jon would come scurrying in,” said Hammond, who recalled how Horst would even present his own trade ideas to Dumars. “I’m sitting here looking at this young guy, thinking: ‘Wow, this guy’s got a lot of potential and he’s a really, really sharp guy.’ ”
The only problem: working at a trailer park was more lucrative than working for the Pistons, where he was often paid in restaurant gift cards and free team gear.
Horst graduated and was promoted to the title of basketball assistant but was paid only $6 or $7 an hour. He had student debt and a girlfriend he wanted to marry, so Horst took a job working the night shift at a FedEx shipping location. A manager offered a full-time position. The $40,000-plus salary with benefits was tempting. He nearly took the job.
“I would say pretty close,” Horst said.
Horst sought counsel from his family, his girlfriend Mia, who would eventually become his wife, and his mentor, Hammond. Although Hammond could not guarantee a higher position with the Pistons, he echoed others urging Horst to stick with his basketball dreams.
“I kind of saw it out and just continued on with it,” Horst said, adding without sarcasm: “It worked out.”
In 2008, Hammond was named the Bucks’ general manager and brought Horst to Milwaukee with him. With the franchise’s small staff, Horst, continuing his handyman role, had to take on everything — even helping a young Antetokounmpo learn to drive a car.
Although the team hired a driver’s education teacher to properly instruct Antetokounmpo, who was selected by Milwaukee with the 15th pick in the 2013 draft, he needed practice. So he would borrow Horst’s car.
Antetokounmpo would squeeze his 6-foot-11 frame into Horst’s Jeep Grand Cherokee or the boss’s Ford Edge, his knees cartoonishly gripping the steering wheel and frightening his passengers by plowing through stop signs for right-hand turns.
“It was one of the most exhilarating, scary, fun experiences of my life,” said Dave Dean, a longtime Bucks employee and current vice president of basketball operations who refused to ride shotgun with Antetokounmpo. “He would take us, and we would have some laughs."
When Hammond left for Orlando, Horst landed the top job at just 34. Since taking over, Horst has created a collaborative environment in which random group texts for pickup games arrive almost daily — “The only vice I know that Jon has,” Dean said, “is playing hoops” — and everyone in his department has a say in early discussions about trades, free agency and the draft. Yes, even the lowly interns.
“He’s very inclusive and asks opinions of everyone,” said Milt Newton, the Bucks’ assistant general manager who has worked in basketball since 1993. “The one thing I know about Jon and seen about Jon: The guy is very secure. He doesn’t have to be the one who came up with the solution. . . . His main concern is ‘Let’s get it right, and when we get it right everyone gets a little shine.’ ”
Around the Bucks’ basketball operations office, an open workspace called the “bullpen” that houses every department, they have a nickname for Horst: Red Pen.
“He uses it quite a bit,” Dean said, laughing at the way Horst turns every report into a bloody mess with his editing pen. “If you can walk out of there without red all over the place, you know you’re advancing.”
Horst’s attention to detail has become legendary in Milwaukee. Last summer, Horst hired Mike Budenholzer as coach then added players — Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova and Pat Connaughton — to thrive in Budenholzer’s system and complement both Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. He brought in sharpshooter Nikola Mirotic at the trade deadline and quietly extended point guard Eric Bledsoe’s contract.
Milwaukee won 60 games, and no other team, not even the two-time reigning champion Golden State Warriors, dominated opponents like the Bucks, winning a league-best 45 games by 10 or more points. The franchise has its sights set on its first conference title since 1974 and its first NBA championship since 1971.
Horst’s days of working at a trailer park are behind him, but that same work ethic continues as a rising NBA executive.
“If I have to someday, I’ll go back to shovel s--- again,” he said. “Until then I love what I do every day.”