Sunday, April 14, 2024 Apr 14, 2024
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Don’t Call It a Homecoming: Grizzlies Coach Taylor Jenkins is Never Far From His St. Mark’s Roots

The 39-year-old leads Memphis into the American Airlines Center tomorrow night, but his alma mater is never far from his mind—even if it means organizing a high school reunion during the NBA season.
Jenkins may have the least conventional path of any head coach in the NBA. Gary A. Vasquez, USA Today Sports

Months before the St. Mark’s School of Texas class of 2003 celebrated its 20-year reunion last spring, four of its 85 grads began a series of Zoom calls to plan the weekend event, to be headlined by a golf tournament, cookout, dinner, and personal donations.

The group included Arif Mahmood, a local physician who specializes in geriatric care; Edward Wesneski, director of corporate finance for an international logistics company; and Trip Neil, an executive in a major real estate lending firm. They all took their cues from someone who already knew he’d be unable to attend the festivities. After all, Taylor Jenkins would be busy trying to coach the Memphis Grizzlies to the top of the NBA’s Western Conference standings. That didn’t stop Jenkins from spearheading the effort from afar: organizing the agenda, making spreadsheets of everyone the group needed to contact, and making sure it all got done efficiently. 

Only six NBA head coaches led their teams to a 50-win season during the 2022-23 NBA campaign. It’s a safe bet that Jenkins—whose Grizzlies ultimately finished the season second in the West, at 51-32—was the only one immersed in his high school reunion along the way. “I wanted to take on that challenge and that opportunity because that place has meant so much to me,” Jenkins told D Magazine last week before the Grizzlies’ game in Houston against the Rockets. “It’s home, and I want to continue to make sure our class, our special class of 2003, gives back and helps the next generation of St. Mark’s Marksmen to do great things in their lives.”

In that sense, it’s a continuation of a mission that predates the NBA, one that began in the third grade and which he commemorated in his senior yearbook: “I hope that I can come back someday and give something to the students like you did for me.”

Jenkins considered last spring’s event his 30-year reunion (“The friendships that I’ve developed once I started in third grade, they’re going to last a lifetime,” he said), so to compensate for missing it, Jenkins also organized a follow-up summer weekend that he was able to attend, a get-together of a dozen of those grads at a picturesque Airbnb on Lake Travis. The guys brought in a chef and never left the property.

“Kind of a brothers retreat,” Jenkins says. “COVID really brought a small group of our graduating class together. The advent of Zoom, having Zoom sessions, playing games, and just checking in with each other—we actually got even tighter as a class.”

That Jenkins might be the only head coach of his stature to devote this much time, effort, and emotional energy to getting together with high school classmates fits with his atypical profile for the position.

For starters, basketball wasn’t even his first love—baseball was. That changed when he attended a summer basketball camp at Jesuit College Prep before entering the fourth grade. The camp was operated by Jesuit’s coach, Scott Jolly, who moved over to St. Mark’s following Jenkins’ freshman year. Over the next three years, Jolly would be introduced to the meticulousness that would help define Jenkins in everything from his own coaching career to serving as St. Mark’s reunion czar. 

“If he’s given a task, it’s not just to be completed—it’s to be completed really well, with all of the details and jump[ing] through all of the hoops,” says Jolly, now the school’s assistant headmaster for external affairs. “All of the information that needs to be put together, assimilated.”

Jenkins continued to play both sports through the duration of high school. On the basketball court, his former St. Mark’s teammate, the late Jonathan Tjarks remembered Jenkins in 2019 as the guy who engendered plenty of respect among his teammates—he served as captain of the basketball team for two seasons, and captained the baseball team as a senior.

And he certainly was well-rounded as a student: a member of the honor roll all four years, co-chair of the junior class’ elaborate annual fundraiser, three-time winner of a community service award, sports editor of the school newspaper as a senior. One of his opinion columns chastised some faculty members, unidentified in print, who applauded when told at the beginning of fall orientation that the section on athletics would be held until last. (Life often comes full circle: the school’s orientation session last fall included a surprise pep talk from Jenkins via Zoom.)

But when it came time to choose a college, his athletic exploits figured to be over. He chose Penn, where he first majored in political science, then psychology, before transferring into the Wharton School of Business and settling on economics. (Not that Jenkins put his basketball shoes in storage. Fellow ’03 St. Mark’s grad Paul Trejo roomed with Jenkins at Penn and proudly notes their freshman intramural team won the championship.)

Still, there was also an inner desire to teach. That morphed into a yearning to coach after he and some classmates, including Trejo, organized a youth basketball league at a low-income Philadelphia high school. The Penn students not only coached hoops but also helped the kids with their schoolwork. To show the players how seriously they took the endeavor, the volunteer coaches wore suits to the games.

Trejo, now an investment analyst for Latin American equities in New York City, says he wasn’t surprised by Jenkins’ change in career paths.

“People from the outside think it’s a big shift,” says Trejo, who often hosts Jenkins when Memphis comes in to play the Knicks or Nets. “Taylor’s really good with people, and I think a lot of the coaching, especially at the higher levels, it’s more like people management. It was a perfect fit for him.”

His real break in basketball came in 2006 prior to his senior year at Penn, when he somehow landed an internship with the San Antonio Spurs. (Maybe it helped that his maternal grandmother had a connection to team owner Peter Holt.) Goodbye, Wall Street. Hello, hardwood.

Jenkins worked in the team’s front office in a low-level position. But the more he watched Gregg Popovich provide a graduate-level education in coaching an NBA team, the more he decided front-office work wasn’t his future. 

“That love of coaching just kept building up inside, Jenkins told The Pennsylvania Gazette in 2020, “and my skin would crawl when I was watching Coach Pop run practices. The hairs would stand up. I was like, ‘Man, this is awesome. I want to be on the floor sweating with the guys.’ ”

He acquitted himself well enough to get hired on after graduation as an assistant coach with the Austin Toros, the Spurs’ G-League team, under current Atlanta Hawks coach Quin Snyder. For the next four years he honed his craft, learning the nuances of how to run a team, until he succeeded Snyder as the team’s head coach in 2012. One season later, he was off to the NBA, when Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer landed the head job with the Hawks and took him to Atlanta. When Budenholzer moved on to Milwaukee after five seasons and four playoff appearances, Jenkins followed him there in 2018.

After one season with the Bucks, Jenkins was handed the reins in Memphis in 2019. At age 34, he was the league’s second-youngest head coach, and until this season, the only current NBA coach not to play college basketball. (The Toronto Raptors’ Darko Rajakovic, who came up through the ranks of European amateur basketball, now joins him in that club.)

True to form, Jenkins didn’t forget his Dallas roots. He texted Jolly soon after the hire to thank the coach for playing an important role in his basketball journey, then invited Jolly to attend the introductory media gathering. Jenkins later presented his old coach with a Grizzlies jersey in a framed display that included the medal that young Taylor was given after participating in Jolly’s Jesuit basketball camp 25 years earlier.

Wasting no time, Jenkins coached the Grizz’s summer league squad—and won the championship. That fall, he inherited a team that had finished 33-49, tied for 12th in the West—with the Mavericks, featuring Dirk Nowitzki in his final NBA season and rookie-year Luka Doncic—and 15 wins short of qualifying for the playoffs. The most important addition to Memphis’ roster was guard Ja Morant, chosen with the second pick in that summer’s draft after dazzling scouts in his two collegiate seasons at Murray State.

Jenkins’ St. Mark’s classmates closely followed his new challenge. He earned his first technical foul 20 games in, a 13-point loss to the Indiana Pacers during which the Grizzlies played without four of their regulars. Mahmood was inspired to commemorate the event: “I had a plaque made for him, sent to him,” he says. “We all laughed about it so much. He put it in his office.”

The Grizzlies were on the upswing, and Morant was the runaway choice for NBA Rookie of the Year. In Jenkins’ third season—2021-22, the first full schedule following the pandemic—Memphis matched a franchise record with 56 wins, finishing second in the conference. Jenkins was runner-up in Coach of the Year balloting, quite the auspicious finish for a coach who was supposed to be in business management. 

“I don’t think anyone here is surprised by his success,” Jolly says. “I don’t think any of his teammates are, either. He’s highly regarded, well-liked, and very talented.”

It’s been tougher sledding this year: Memphis is 4-13 and second from the bottom in the West while beset by injuries and playing without Morant, who is serving a 25-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the league. Perhaps a trip home will do Jenkins good: Memphis will make the first of two scheduled trips to American Airlines Center to play the Mavericks on Friday. During such visits, Jenkins has typically spent time either at St. Mark’s or with some students as his schedule allows. That will be challenging this week given the team’s itinerary before and after the game, but Jenkins says he’ll “try to see the basketball team, try to go on campus right after [morning] shootaround.” He’s also hoping to catch up with Jolly and Mahmood (a Mavericks season-ticket holder), as well as other classmates who can make the game.

“It’s been really fun to watch his journey,” Jolly says.

Especially when it always leads him back home.

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