How Taylor Jenkins rose from Ivy League intramural player to Memphis Grizzlies head coach

by David Cobb

Taylor Jenkins showed up at the first day of his internship with the San Antonio Spurs and immediately faced a question of loyalty.

A University of Pennsylvania economics major at the time, Jenkins had grown up in Dallas attending Mavericks games as the franchise morphed into a perennial contender in the early 2000s.

So when a member of the Spurs front office asked Jenkins to name his favorite NBA team, he tailored his answer to fit the audience.

"That was a tough question to answer," Jenkins said. "I had to go with — I don’t want to say — a cop-out. The Mavericks were my hometown team, but I had mad respect for Tim Duncan and the Spurs at the same time.”

The San Antonio Spurs did not hold Jenkins' Dallas roots against him. He rose through the organization to become head coach of their G-League affiliate before the age of 30 on a rise through the coaching ranks that reached new heights this week when Jenkins, 34, accepted the head coaching position with the Memphis Grizzlies.

Taylor Jenkins loved baseball first

Jenkins liked Duncan because the 15-time All-Star and two-time MVP reminded him of his favorite baseball player.

"Cal Ripken was my guy in baseball growing up — the Ironman and Mr. Fundamental — do it the right way," Jenkins said. "So when I saw Tim Duncan play, I was like, 'Mr. Fundamental, a guy that plays the right way, plays team basketball. It’s not about him, it’s about the team and about winning.’ That just stuck with me."

Baseball drew Jenkins in first. He spent summers playing the sport while growing up and played it through high school as an infielder and pitcher.

But when Jenkins attended a basketball camp at a rival school in sixth grade, it resonated in a different way.

"The easiest way to describe it is that I kind of just fell in love with the sport," Jenkins said.

The coach at those camps, Scott Jolly, became Jenkins' coach on the varsity team at St. Mark's, a private school for boys about eight miles north of downtown Dallas.

Jolly, who attended Jenkins' introductory press conference at FedExForum on Wednesday, made an impact on him.

So did many others at St. Mark's, which counts a list of notable of academic minds, television producers, sports figures and businessmen among its alumni.

"It’s not just inside the classroom that stimulates you, but the athletics, the community service programs, student leadership, the arts," Jenkins said.

Before Jenkins picked up basketball, he picked up the clarinet, starting with "a little plastic thing that kind of looked like a clarinet" — and stuck with it into his junior year of high school.

"One day I want to learn how to play the bass guitar," Jenkins said.

Academics first at Penn

Jenkins played intramural basketball at Penn and watched the Texas Longhorns games and occasional NBA games on TV.

But academics became his focus at the Ivy League institution in Philadelphia with just over 10,000 undergraduate students.

"I wanted to be a political science major, wanted to be a psychology major," Jenkins said. "I was diving in to those academics as much as possible thinking that was going to be my career. Then I took a step back into getting a business degree, and ‘OK, what am I going to do with this business degree?’ Sports kept coming up and I started thinking that would maybe be my trajectory."

Jenkins looked into getting an internship with the Philadelphia 76ers as a junior and thought of pursuing student manager opportunities with the university's basketball programs.

"But there really weren’t opportunities because it was so late in my college career," he said.

First coaching experience

Jenkins did not realize it at the time, but he had already found his calling.

His sophomore year at Penn, Jenkins and a group of friends launched a youth basketball league in West Philadelphia as a community service project.

The league evolved into a focus of Jenkins' college experience.

"That was kind of my attachment to the game," Jenkins said. "When I made that decision my junior year to pursue this career in basketball, having that experience even coaching kids ages 10 to 13, I had something to fall back on and say this is what I’m passionate about and this is what I want to go for come graduation time.”

Jenkins and his friends who orchestrated the league knew each other from playing basketball at the university rec center. They all had a passion for the game, and it showed on Saturdays when they wore suits while coaching their youth teams.

"All eight teams and all the kids would come in," Jenkins said. "It was like a weekly celebration. I have always told people close to me that the highlight of my college career was coaching people in that basketball league with my friends and then impacting those kids’ lives."

Jenkins said a friend from college still sends him news clippings about some of the kids who played in the league.

"That brings me great joy," Jenkins said.

Working for the San Antonio Spurs

Jenkins started his first internship with the Spurs the summer between his junior and senior years through a family connection. The guy from Dallas did well enough to earn a full-year internship with the franchise's front office following graduation with the idea of combining his business degree and love for basketball.

"The mentality was to just keep my head down, grind and just soak up as much information as I could," Jenkins told "The Chris Vernon Show" about his internship with the team's front office.

Jenkins spent enough time around the team during his internship to realize he wanted to give coaching a try.

The Spurs saw his potential and hired Jenkins as an assistant coach for the Austin Toros (now the Austin Spurs) of G-League.

Jenkins spent four seasons in that role, working under current Jazz coach Quin Snyder and current Memphis Hustle coach Brad Jones.

Then it was Jenkins' turn. He spent the 2012-13 season as head coach of the Toros, leading the team to the G-League semifinals.

"It’s your time to make your voice, make a mark," Jenkins said. "Experimentation was huge. Even at the NBA level, we’re going to be innovative, not just at the G-League. So having that exposure to be able to go and try new things, X's and O's, and obviously working with the Spurs doing a lot of what they wanted me to instill."

Assistant for Mike Budenholzer

Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer comments on his plans for watching the 2019 NBA Finals between the Toronto Raptors and the Golden State Warriors. (Photo: Olivia Reiner)

After six years with the Spurs organization, Jenkins joined former Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, who accepted the Atlanta Hawks head coaching job before the 2013-14 season.

Jenkins stayed with Budenholzer for all five of his seasons there, which included four playoff appearances, before joining his staff in Milwaukee this past season.

"He brings an incredible work ethic, the attention to detail, the feel for the game, the understanding of what’s important in building relationships," Budenholzer told the USA Today Network this week. "Just making a train keep moving, he’s been incredible for me and I’m forever, ever grateful to him.”

At his introductory news conference on Wednesday, Jenkins choked back tears as he thanked the other assistants in Milwaukee and Budenholzer for their role in his journey.

"To coach Bud, you took a chance on me, gave me great responsibility, you challenged me to get better every single day and you prepared me to have the confidence to take the next step and be a head coach," Jenkins said. "I thank you and I love you."

Jenkins' emotion on the podium illustrated two points he's made clear since accepting the Memphis job: he loves basketball and the relationships the sport has brought into his life.

It all started when a summer camp brought the game into his life as a kid.

"When I stepped onto the court, a different competitor in me (came out), where I wanted to run through the wall, I wanted to dive on the floor," Jenkins said. "I wanted to take charges. That just kind of fit my mentality. It’s a sport that just kind of embodied who I was as a person. That’s kind of where it started.

"Luckily, I’ve been able to be on that journey for a number of years since then.”


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