HOLBROOK, Ariz. — A wind that would not stop tugged at flags and sent sand devils spinning into this desert town as I walked past Mr. Maestas Restaurant and the Arizona Pawnman and the Empty Pockets Saloon and came to a rise and looked across an emptiness of plain that stretched the limits of vision.
I recalled my talk a few days earlier with Mike Budenholzer at the Ritz-Carlton in New York City. He coaches the Milwaukee Bucks, who finished the regular season with 60 wins and the best record in the NBA. His team features a brilliant Greek forward-guard-center named Giannis Antetokounmpo, Montenegrin and Turkish forwards, a Spanish center, and black and white players from corners rural and urban.
He is known for his deft handling of diverse pro players. Where, I asked, did you pick up that skill?
Let me tell you about my hometown, Holbrook, he said.
Budenholzer, blue-eyed and middle-age, was once a skinny, blond, teenage shooting guard in this old cattle and railway town. He starred on the Roadrunners basketball team at Holbrook High School alongside his boyhood friend B.J. Little, an African-American; a few Anglos; and half a dozen Navajo boys who could run and pass all day and all night.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that my background there has helped me navigate life in the NBA,” Budenholzer said. “Growing up, you knew Navajo culture and black culture from Louisiana and Mexicans. I learned to foster the same sort of culture.”
Holbrook comprises its own world, an isolated high desert city of 5,053 that sits on the southern lip of the Navajo Nation, which is the size of the Republic of Ireland.
To the south lies the small Mormon town of Snowflake, and beyond that the forests and canyons of the White Mountain Apache Reservation, which is bigger than Delaware.
Holbrook’s population is roughly 50 percent white and 50 percent Navajo, Hopi, Mexican and black. The city has long kept a dormitory for Navajo children whose parents want them to attend the well-regarded Holbrook High School. Founded in the 1880s, Holbrook was an outlaw-friendly habitat, and a sign on the south side tends to underline this point: Bucket of Blood Street. Terrill’s Cottage Saloon once stood on this street, and more than a few cowpokes breathed their last breath there.
Quite a few youngsters leave in search of better prospects. The city is tattered at the edges, a few buildings lie gap-toothed and abandoned, a motel stands vacant, and a single movie theater shows a single movie. But it is a hospitable place, and the main drag, Navajo Boulevard, has Mexican restaurants and motels and Native American jewelry stores and a herd of giant plastic dinosaurs that signal proximity to Petrified Forest National Park.
Budenholzer’s father, Vince, coached the basketball team and won a state championship in 1971 and was inducted into the state coaching hall of fame. At the time, Mike was an assistant to Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs. During a team visit to Phoenix, he told Popovich of his father’s ascent. When Vince showed up later that day, Popovich got down on a knee in the hotel and said, “Here is a real coach.”
Father and son were two hoops tramps who traveled in school buses hundreds of miles across the empty quarter of northern Arizona in search of games and wins.
Vince’s Holbrook teams played a variation on the Native American hoops style known as Rez Ball: A quicksilver, sneaker-squeaking, run-pass-pass-shoot style, perfect for the Navajo and the Apache, for whom distance running is a millenniums-old tradition.
“We pressed from the minute we stepped off the bus,” Vince said. ”I had one Navajo who was taller than 6 foot, and so what?”
Vince is 89 and still lean in that way of an old athlete, and he and his wife, Libby, moved nine years ago to Queen Valley, in the cactus foothills of the Superstition Mountains, east of Phoenix. They miss Holbrook; it remains the home of their hearts, but the winters on that mile-high plateau ran them off. “The winds never stop blowing,” Libby said.
The couple raised seven children, five boys and two girls, in a small house across Florida Street from Hunt Park. Libby became a councilwoman and served a term as mayor, and Vince moonlighted as Holbrook’s parks and recreation director during the summer. He built a hoop in his backyard and put up a floodlight so the teenagers could play into the evening.
Little, Mike’s old teammate who is now a judge in nearby Winslow, drove me by that house, which was sold years back. The hoop still stood.
“Oh man, we’d play there the whole night, and Vince would never stop coaching,” Little said. “My grandparents said I had to get home before the streetlights came on. But if I was playing ball with Mikey at the Budenholzers, that was my pass.”
Father and son Budenholzer flashed hauntingly similar smiles when they recalled those days. Mike was the leading scorer on the Roadrunners, a kid who could shoot from near and far and almost as well with his left hand as his right. Little, whose grandparents came from Louisiana to work in the McNary Saw Mill, ripped rebounds, and the Navajo kids dribbled and ran and pressed.
The day before the tournament, two of the best players got drunk. They were suspended, and that left the Roadrunners with one star: Mike Budenholzer. That was not enough horsepower, and the team lost. “It boggled my mind that they would get caught,” Mike said.
“I think I would give up an NBA championship to get that one back,” he said.
I looked at him: You’re kidding, right? He shrugged. “I mean, winning a state championship in Arizona, that’s a big deal.”
Navajo and Mexican and Anglo kids still play baseball, basketball and football and live more or less shoulder to shoulder. “It was a town where you played everything and with everyone else,” Mike said. “The only social rule you recognized in high school was that Mormon girls don’t date non-Mormons.”
He shrugged. “So you adjust.”
Budenholzer was a good student and got into Pomona College, a fine liberal arts institution in California. He was not yet sold. He was a jock and he wanted to play basketball and he already had a scholarship offer in hand.
He visited Pomona and sat around with other students and listened as they talked of their choices. There was the kid who was weighing Williams College or Pomona, and another who was wait-listed at Stanford. They looked at Budenholzer and asked, What about you?
“I tell them I’m trying to choose between Pomona and Yavapai Community College, where I could get a free ride,” Budenholzer said. “And they were, like, ‘Whaaaat?’ And I’m thinking, ‘What am I doing here, I’m in the wrong place.’”
His brothers and sisters decided Mikey, the youngest, was going to Pomona. They pooled money as best they could so he could afford it. He graduated with a degree in philosophy and economics.
Before he left Holbrook and set out on his life journey, Budenholzer did what he did every summer, which is to say he rounded up B.J. Little and other buddies and piled into a car and headed north to play in the informal spring tournaments that are a staple of life on the Navajo reservation. They drove across washes and around canyons and past red-ribbed buttes. They pulled into Navajo towns: Dilkon and Window Rock, Tuba City and Ganado, anywhere there was a tournament.
They got caught up in endless Rez Ball games, running and shooting and banging one another from morning till late at night. As hoops is civic religion on the rez, crowds of hundreds watched and cheered, not least for the bilagaanas (Navajo for “whites”).
“Those spring tournaments got rough, the referees were terrible and man, it was just the best,” Budenholzer said.
During the season when reservation teams arrived to play Holbrook, a long line of cars would follow. The rule was straightforward for Holbrook’s fans, Vince said. Make it to the gym by 4 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game, or you could forget about finding a seat.
It is not so different when Mike’s teams pull into Phoenix. After working as an assistant with the Spurs, he coached the Atlanta Hawks before coming to Milwaukee. Whenever his team plays the Phoenix Suns, Little’s sister sets to work organizing a Holbrook caravan. Dozens of cars wend their way down through ponderosa forests and jagged mountains to the game — whites, Mexicans, blacks and Navajos, sometimes 100 strong. After the game, Budenholzer talks with them.
“It always moves me,” Mike says.
It has been a long time since he left home. This summer, after the NBA playoffs and before the pro summer leagues begin, he and Vince and Libby plan to drive up through the Tonto National Forest and across the Salt River Canyon to Holbrook. And when they reach their old high school gym, they will find teammates and students and teachers and townspeople gathered to listen as Robert Koerperich, the superintendent, dedicates the Vince Budenholzer gym floor.
“To let our kids know that you can come out of Holbrook and coach a pro team, how amazing is that?” Koerperich says.
Mike Budenholzer looks forward to walking Navajo Boulevard and maybe seeing the family house again. Then he wants to stand behind Vince and Libby and clap so hard.
“To have raised seven kids on a teacher’s salary in a great small town and let us interact and form great friendships with Navajos and Mexicans and blacks and Mormons. They were really ahead of their time,” Budenholzer said. “This is America.”