After a long day at the NFC Scouting Combine let loose at an Indianapolis nightspot in March, Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur found himself in conversation about what was next on his offseason schedule.
Free agency was coming quickly. The offseason workout was due to begin in a little over a month, and the NFL Draft was shortly thereafter.
In the midst of all this, LaFleur revealed something else: He was going on a road trip with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.
When suggested 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 his coaching career — hasn’t won the Super Bowl, or even won one. Not for either. If he had found a small lead, he would have done so – even if it meant going down the road with a team from a completely different sport.
“I think he had a good time and enjoyed himself,” Bucks general manager John Horst said. “But there’s no doubt it was a professional growth opportunity.”
‘Are you serious?’
The backstory for the trip was this: A month earlier, LaFleur and his wife, Bray, were at a Phoenician resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, to attend a fundraiser for ChildHelp, an organization run by a friend of LaFleur’s who dealt with abuse. Helps and low-risk kids, and who he bumped into but Bucks star Chris Middleton.
“I’ve been around those guys a little bit, and I’ve just introduced myself, and I’m like, ‘What are you guys doing here?'” Lafleur said.
It turns out, the Bucks stayed there while they were in town to play the Phoenix Suns. LaFleur then texted Horst, who was introduced to him by a mutual friend shortly after getting the Packers job in 2019, and they met at the hotel bar.
This quickly turned into talking shop with Horst and his staff, with coach Mike Budenholzer and assistant coach Darwin Haim (who would soon be hired as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers) and Charles Lee.
“We were talking with John and some of those guys, talking philosophy, and they just threw it in there,” Lafleur said. “He’s like, ‘Hey, you should come with us on a road trip.’ And I said, ‘Are you serious? I’d love to, just see how they work. So that’s how it started, just a random chance. We talked about it, he dated me a lot’ And we made it work.”
They settled on a trip to the West Coast. LaFleur will drive from Green Bay to Milwaukee to fly to San Francisco with the Bucks for a game against the Warriors on March 12 and then to Utah to play the Jazz on March 14. While the team will travel to Sacramento to complete the journey. , will fly home on his own to return to Lambeau Field before the game against the Lafleur Kings for his free agency debut on March 16.
‘Meet high school friends, college friends’
LaFleur went into it with an open mind, not sure if there was anything strategic that would transfer from basketball to football. After all, what’s the NFL’s equivalent of deciding whether or not to foul when three points go up with less than 10 seconds? (“Oh, he wants to,” said Budenholzer, laughing. “He wants to talk about that.”)
“One of the things that stood out to me about Matt is the thirst to keep growing and to be better and to learn and be the best,” Budenholzer said. “To take that time and maybe go outside the box a little bit and see if there’s anything he can take to improve his team, that’s a huge statement that he’s making as a coach and as a person. Who is there.”
He and Budenholzer quickly found that they shared much in common in their professional and personal lives. Both were the sons of the coach. Both the coach teams are expected to compete for the title. And both are in a specific profession that requires them to deal with many different entities, from the media to fans to team owners and general managers.
“It’s nice to have someone you can open up to a little bit, who has the same point of view, the same experience,” Budenholzer said. “You develop friendship and trust very quickly with Matt. It is rare and it is nice to be with someone who walks in similar shoes.”
They both coach superstars in their games, LaFleur with quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Budenholzer with Giannis Antetokounmpo, and understand the blessings and challenges that come with such assignments.
Rodgers, who has a minority share of ownership in the Bucks, said that he is a big Budenholzer fan and liked the idea of spending time with his coach, especially given that the Bucks had just finished last season. Won the NBA Championship.
“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 clearly doing something right. Just a fun week for him to be around a different group of people to see how they travel, to see how they work together and if there is anything he can choose from that stuff Which is what Bud says to people on a daily basis or some of the cordial stuff of leadership and team, I think it was really beneficial to him. ,
Relations with the Bucks and Packers have strengthened in recent years, in part due to Rodgers’ ownership stake and partly because of the mutual relationship between LaFleur and Horst: Justin Sherlock. LaFleur played high school basketball (he says he was “okay—an 8- or 9-points-a-game guy) with Sherlock in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, and Sherlock played on the team with Horst at the University of Rochester in Michigan. became friends.
“The day Matt was hired, Justin put Matt and I on a group lesson and was basically like: ‘Hey high school dude, meet college dude,'” Horst said.
‘More comfortable to let go’
Late last month, Horst and several members of his staff spent two days with the Packers during training camp. Horst stood beside Packers general manager Brian Gutkunst during most of the practice, and he also sat at some of Lafleur’s team meetings.
It differs, however, from spending time with a team during a more scheduled period of the season, such as training camp, compared to March in the NBA when there is less than a month left in the regular season.
So LaFleur didn’t want to get in the way during an important trip to the Bucks. During the games, he sat in the stands with Horst in several rows behind the Bucks bench. He used to sit on the side of the court during the firing. In the hotel he used to sit quietly in meetings.
“The biggest takeaway I had was, from top to bottom, how aligned everyone is, how they communicate, and a genuine care for each other,” LaFleur said. “I see it with Bud and his staff. I see it with the players, with the staff. I see it from player to player. Watching these guys on the plane see how they interact with each other. Their They have really good people and obviously you have better talented players, that’s kind of a bet and that’s exactly what they have. But when their best players are also their best people, it becomes a lot easier.
“Giannis is an incredible friend and, but you see it with everyone – Middleton and Jrue” [Holiday] and Brooke Lopez. All those people are just legitimate friends. ,
Hit some more LaFleur.
“They did a really good job where postgame they had dinner with all the players, the coaches, their wives, the players’ wives if they were traveling or the player family if they were traveling where they were basically a Restaurants shut down and just get everyone together,” LaFleur said. “Those are special times when you’re out of work to help you build that team chemistry that’s essential to help you weather the slightest adversity.”
There is a significant difference in the way NBA and NFL teams travel. On that trip, the Bucks were gone for over a week and players have a lot of freedom. In the NFL, teams take off the day before the game and return just after. Still, Rodgers has said that he’s seen LaFleur loosen up more since he went on that trip.
“Maybe it’s related to that journey and maybe it’s not, but with every year, he feels more comfortable giving up some control and trusting the football team, its assistant coaches and the older guys and kind of leadership . Just a little more hands off,” Rodgers said. “In basketball, they are on such different schedules. they have nights [on the road] And all you have to say is, ‘Hey, whatever happens happens at the 11 o’clock shootaround.’ They cannot control what is happening. I think there is something to be said for this as it allows accountability. Are you opting in or are you going to f—-around?”
‘There’s a lot of pressure going on in Utah’
With LaFleur’s appearance, the Bucks lost 122–109 to the Golden State Warriors. They lost the same night to DeAndre’Bembri with a season-ending knee injury.
“Golden State one in particular, he got to see a lot,” Horst said. “I’ve sat with him during the game, we had a pretty impressive injury during the game, so Matt got to see the in-game chaos that went along with all that and then experienced a loss. Road. Up to his everything. There was complete access.
“He is very curious. Seeing him around me in that environment, I think curiosity is an incredible quality of a leader.”
He was also very frightened to hear Budenholzer say this.
“He felt a lot of pressure to move to Utah,” Budenholzer said. “He knew that if we lost, he would be the reason. … We were giving it to him—when we lost to Golden State because I think we were probably on a good run, and that day We lost very badly.
“I think for him to just watch that game and then watch the locker before and after, just the routine of people on a game day, I think he really works into that.”
To Lafleur’s relief, the Bucks came back to beat the Utah Jazz 117–111. Shortly after, LaFleur was headed back to Green Bay.
“They stayed there and they finished their road trip [with a win over the Sacramento Kings]But it was nice because you get to experience and see how they do everything,” LaFleur said. “It’s not every day that they let someone on a journey like this.”