From Rochester College to the summit of the NBA: Jon Horst feature

By Nicklas Grifhorst
Online Content Editor

On a late January night in eastern Michigan, Rochester College’s team bus was quickly filling up with the men’s basketball team, who were preparing to leave for a much anticipated road trip to Florida. But as the clock fast approached the scheduled departure time of midnight, one person was noticeably missing—the Warriors’ star player. 

“Coach was getting madder and madder as the minutes ticked away toward midnight,” said George Evjen, then an assistant coach, “and I remember Coach Pleasant saying when it is midnight, we are leaving and I don’t care who is missing.”

At that moment, Jon Horst jumped up from his seat in the back of the bus. With no warning to his coaches, Horst hopped in his car and headed to his teammate’s house. Horst banged on the player’s door, waking him up. Then Horst proceeded to go through the star player’s house, helping him throw gear and necessities into a bag, before arriving back at the bus just before midnight.

 Photo via Milwaukee Journal Sentinal

Photo via Milwaukee Journal Sentinal

The same initiative that propelled Horst to leadership roles in college would go on to help him make it to the top of his profession. On June 16, 2017, at 34 years old, Horst became the youngest GM in the NBA, when he was promoted from within the Milwaukee Bucks franchise to lead it into the future.

While Horst’s rise to the top of the NBA may seem like that of a bullet train compared to his fellow counterparts, his journey was far from easy and even farther from ordinary.

A small town dreamer

Horst grew up in Sandusky, a small town in Michigan’s thumb. The second of four children to Randall and Kathleen Horst, he dreamed of becoming a pro athlete, with a specific desire to play in the NBA.

“At some point, I realized that [playing as a pro] wasn’t going to be the case, but I wanted to play at the highest level I could in college,” he said.  He also decided he wanted to work his way into the NBA in a different way—as a front office member.

In an article published in the “Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,” Horst’s mother talked about her son’s dream to be a part of the NBA: "He always said, 'I will be involved with the NBA some day, Mom,' " Kathy Horst said. "It's always been his dream."

While Horst’s high school team didn’t garner much success or publicity, Horst played well enough to earn interest from colleges, including Rochester College after he caught the eye of Evjen.

The recruitment

Horst soon made his first visit that summer to meet Head Coach Garth Pleasant and some of the players. “One of the biggest things that sold me was Garth and the longevity that he had at the college and the success that they had,” he said.

RC’s location near the Palace of Auburn Hills, then the home of the Detroit Pistons, may have served as the biggest recruitment tool for RC.  Horst said he thought it “would be great to have a professional team that close, within 10 minutes of the school, and that was a big piece for me in choosing the college.”

Horst’s impact on the RC men’s basketball program was felt immediately. During the first junior varsity team meeting, Evjen said he knew Horst was different from the rest. Evjen had each player schedule out what their weeks would look like—including time for eating, basketball, homework and other things.

While the majority of the players didn’t put much effort into the project, Horst, just like everything else, took the exercise to the next level. “Jon’s was very detailed and I specifically remember holding his up,” Evjen said. “Jon had goals written down, Jon had a plan written down, Jon had everything, every minute of what he was going to do and how he was going to do it.”

As Horst entered his junior year at RC, he was called up to play on the varsity basketball team. “He wasn’t going to be on our varsity and play 40 minutes a game. He wasn’t going to play 30 minutes a game. Jon was going to be our 12th man,” Evjen said.

But the impact that Horst would have on the Warriors helped propel them to back-to-back USCAA national championships during the 2004 and 2005 seasons.

“No one has played so little, yet given so much to our program than Jon,” Pleasant said.

Evjen agreed, saying, “He came with that lunch box mentality of wanting to work and get better. He was very much a coach’s dream.”

The classroom

Horst’s impact on those around him was also felt in the classroom. A sports management major, Horst constantly focused on making his dream of working in the NBA come true.

Dave Hutson, associate professor of sports management, remembers: “Jon was an extremely hard working student. He was always on time to class and while there was very attentive, like every word you said had some importance and value to him.”

And Horst’s focus didn’t end in the classroom. “I can remember there were multiple occasions when Jon, a group of other sports management majors, and myself would all go to the cafeteria right after class to have lunch together, which allowed us to have conversations about what was happening in the sports industry at that time,” Huston said.

Horst also searched for any opportunity to break into the NBA.  “One thing that set Jon apart from many other students was his desire to do internships within professional sports,” Hutson said. “This allowed him to begin building a network of contacts in the sports industry early on in his academic career, which opened many doors for him.”

The first shot

During Horst’s senior year at RC, he was given the opportunity to enter such a role. Joe Dumars, a star player for the Pistons who at that time was president of basketball operations for the Pistons, was looking for an intern. On a whim he contacted Pleasant, who directed him toward Horst.

Pleasant told Horst that an important phone call would be coming for him soon and that it would be his choice as to how he handled it.

Obviously Horst made a good impression because in August 2005, Horst started an internship with the Pistons, and he soon would have a bigger role than any other intern in the organization. He worked long, unpaid days, working hand-in-hand with Dumars, as he worked to learn all that he could. 

In 2006 Horst graduated from RC with a BBA in sports management, and he then spent the next two years working tirelessly in an unpaid internship with the Pistons. Pleasant’s advice to Horst at this time was to put yourself into a position where the Pistons can’t afford to lose you.

His expertise

 Photo via NBA.com

Photo via NBA.com

During the second year of his internship, Horst found his niche in the league as an expert in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, which are the rules that teams and players must follow regarding trades, contracts, the draft, salary caps and much more.

“In my second year of my internship with the Pistons, I got exposure to the CBA, and shortly after, I was told to learn it and apply it for the benefit of the Pistons’ organization,” Horst said.

This was Horst’s way of making sure that the Pistons could not afford to lose him. “Capologists or CBA experts or cap guys or whatever kind of cliché term you want to use that are in sports, specifically the NBA, was not a common thing at the time,” he said.

Horst was one of the first of a new wave of front offices members in the NBA and this made him an important piece in the Pistons’ front office.

“There was an early push and I was very early in it, of teams trying to get someone on their basketball side, that could do those types of things and think strategically and creatively by looking for competitive advantages utilizing the CBA,” Horst said.

After nearly two full years as an intern in Detroit, Horst was promoted to manager of basketball operations. Just nine months later, John Hammond, who at the time was Joe Dumars right-hand man in Detroit, was offered the GM position in Milwaukee, and Hammond wanted to bring Horst with him.

Scott Samuels, an RC vice president and an assistant basketball coach, said,  “I'll never forget the night we sat up late talking about his career opportunities when he had a chance to go to Milwaukee.”  Horst lived with Samuels and his family while interning for the Pistons.

A bidding war of sorts had begun between Hammond and Dumars to try to keep Horst on their respective staffs, but in the end, Horst chose to move to Milwaukee.

The move west

During his time in Milwaukee, Horst served as director of basketball operations where he worked as Hammond's right-hand man, being a part of trades, draft picks and free agent signings. This nine-year period gave Horst the opportunity to settle in and make connections within the Bucks organization that would eventually launch him as its next leader.

A quick return to RC

Last year Horst returned to Rochester College for the first basketball game played at the new Garth Pleasant Arena. Horst, who at the time was still in his role as director of basketball operations, was able to sit down with his former coach and discuss his future in the NBA.

“When I talked to Jon last February and he was in the office here, we were chatting and I said, ‘What is your next move?’ He said either an assistant GM or a GM. I don’t even think Jon thought it was going to happen that quick,” Pleasant said.

The promotion

 Photo via NBA.com

Photo via NBA.com

On May 23, Hammond stepped down as GM of the Bucks to take the same position with the Orlando Magic. After a long and complicated search, the Bucks decided to promote Horst to the position of GM. He was now at the top of his profession.

“I’ve always felt like there would be an opportunity for me to be a general manager some day, and because I’ve kind of progressed quickly at each stage throughout my career, I felt like there’d be a chance for me to be a general manager at a younger age than a lot of people get that opportunity,” Horst said. “I didn’t expect it to happen when I was 34 years old. I wasn’t expecting it to happen as quick as it has, but I absolutely feel prepared for it.”

A supportive family

Horst said one of the best aspects of his time at RC was meeting his wife, Mia, who played on RC’s women’s basketball team. A Lapeer, Michigan, native, Mia Horst graduated with a degree in psychology.

Jon Horst had success on the court and in the classroom, but he says his favorite moment was meeting Mia on move-in day his freshman year. “It was instant attraction and instant interest from me, and short after, love,” Jon said.

Mia came to RC for the same reason that Jon did, a basketball scholarship. “When they recruited me to play basketball it was an easy decision,” Mia said.

Jon and Mia have two children, Sophia and Zeke, who both came back to RC with their parents for the opening of the arena. The couple said they enjoyed showing their kids the school and where they first met.

“Mia and I are both extremely blessed, proud and thankful of our time at Rochester College,” Horst said.

Whenever professionals make it as far into their careers as Jon has, both the individual and the family are forced to make sacrifices to keep life on track. The Horsts have been no exception to this.

“The biggest sacrifice is time,” Mia said. “We support him in that and we’ve known that was what life was going to be like. He does a really good job at balancing work and family.”

Jon talked about the sacrifices that someone in his profession has to make saying: “We work a ‘9 to 5 job’ like most people in America work. When everyone else goes home from their job and they want to go with their kids to a ball game, we go home take a shower or workout. Then we go over to the arena and work again.”

The next step

While Horst may already be at the top of his profession, he isn’t done climbing yet. The Milwaukee Bucks are one of the premier young teams in the league. Led by 22- year-old MVP favorite, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks are in a strong position to compete in the Eastern Conference and the NBA for many more years to come.

 Photo via ClutchPoints.com

Photo via ClutchPoints.com

On NBA MVP and perennial all-star Kevin Durant’s YouTube channel, he talked about the potential of Antetokounmpo. “I've never seen anything like him," Durant said. "His ceiling is probably — he could end up being the best player to ever play if he really wanted to. That's pretty scary to think about."

Antetokounmpo is joined by young talents such as former second overall pick Jabari Parker and 2016 lottery pick, Thon Maker, who has a similar build and raw style to the lengthy Antetokounmpo.

While the future of this team may lie in the hands of the young talent on the floor, the man pulling the strings behind the scenes will be Horst.

Early on in his first season as GM, Horst has shown that he’s not afraid to pull these strings. Trading center Greg Monroe and two draft picks to the Phoenix Suns for point guard Eric Bledsoe, giving the Bucks their point guard of the future and opening up space for Maker to grow. Horst’s first big move showed his faith in his young team, as he doubled down on the youth movement he helped start in Milwaukee.

From humble beginnings in Sandusky to the classrooms of Rochester College, Horst’s hard work has culminated in the opportunity he always dreamed about: a shot in the NBA.

“I am completely humbled, honored and blessed that it has happened and now we’re going to make the most out of it,” Horst said.