A student project in West Philly and a timely internship helped launch an NBA head coaching career.
As he neared the end of his first job after college, Taylor Jenkins W’07 could see his future paths diverging.
He had spent the summers before and after graduation interning in the front office of the San Antonio Spurs, sitting in on trade talks and draft war rooms with a staff that would spawn nearly a half-dozen NBA general managers.
But after watching legendary head coach Gregg Popovich work practices and lead the Spurs to the 2007 NBA title, Jenkins felt like his calling might be on the bench instead of an executive suite.
“That love of coaching just kept building up inside, and my skin would crawl when I was watching Coach Pop run practices,” Jenkins says. “The hairs would stand up. I was like, Man this is awesome, I want to be on the floor sweating with the guys.”
So when his internship ended, Jenkins approached Spurs general manager R. C. Buford and asked if he could divert from the executive track to follow his heart in coaching—a conversation that landed Jenkins an assistant coaching gig with the club’s developmental league affiliate in Austin, at the hip of Quin Snyder (now the head coach of the Utah Jazz).
It wouldn’t be the last unconventional turn in Jenkins’ road to becoming the second-youngest head coach in the NBA, hired last year by the Memphis Grizzlies after assistant coaching stints with the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks.
Whereas many NBA coaches claim professional playing experience and almost all played at least college basketball, the 35-year-old Jenkins is the only one who lists “Penn Intramural” in that column of his résumé.
Yet his most formative basketball experience came elsewhere at Penn. He and his friends ran a league for kids at Sayre High School, at 58th and Walnut streets, called the Penn-West Philadelphia Basketball League (PWBL).
“When I think back to it and people ask about my college experiences, the friends, the education, the curriculum, the degree, I say that the true No. 1 highlight was working at PWBL,” Jenkins says. “Some of my best friends were there. I didn’t join a fraternity, so my fraternity life and experience were with all the members of the PWBL.”
The idea germinated from a core group of intramural teammates. Matt Impink C’07 GEd’09 ran open gyms at Sayre when he noticed a problem: the kids were always in the gym, but they lacked an organized league. So Impink started one, and Jenkins latched on to help.
From the start, Impink and company decided that the league would be serious. Students from ages nine to 13, boys and girls, were drafted into eight teams. Each squad had one practice per week and played games during a Saturday quadruple-header. They had jerseys and playoffs, scoreboards and uniformed referees. Jenkins and the other coaches wore suits on the sidelines, diagramming plays on whiteboards and taping games for film study.
“We thought, ‘Hey if we’re going to put on a league as a bunch of college kids, we need to make it look as professional and serious as possible, so the kids take it seriously,’” Impink says.
It worked for five years, even after Impink and Jenkins graduated, and Impink remains in contact with players from the league. Some, like Joel Culbreath, who went on to get two degrees in social work from Temple,returned to coach in it. “It was inspiring,” Culbreath says. “They were passionate about every single game. They were passionate about coaching.”
The league went beyond basketball. PWBL offered tutoring and homework help, and Jenkins recalls trips from Sayre to Penn’s campus to show kids college life, from the dining halls to the dorms. The Penn students got to know members of the West Philly community, especially family members who filled the gym on weekends.
“We knew the impact that our experience in the PWBL had on us,” Jenkins says, “so we wanted to return that, not just on the court but show them some life experiences as well.”
The experience unlocked something within Jenkins. Deep down, he felt called to teaching, figuring it would come later in life as a second career. His embrace of the PWBL squares with how NBA colleagues now describe him: someone with boundless enthusiasm who focuses on teaching and relationships.
Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer told USA Today Network he’ll be “forever, ever grateful” to his former assistant coach for his “incredible work ethic, attention to detail, and feel for the game.” In an interview with NBA.com, Popovich, still with the Spurs, praised Jenkins’ “ability to deal with people and create relationships.”
Jenkins’ emphasis on relationships is the through line that tracks from 58th and Walnut to Beale Street. While front-office executives often tend to distill players to measurable characteristics, Jenkins favors a more personal touch, a pillar of Popovich’s philosophy. It showed during the Grizzlies’ February stop in Philly to play the 76ers, not just in a staff outing to Dalessandro’s for cheesesteaks, but in a group singalong of “Happy Birthday” to a member of the traveling staff after morning shootaround.
Jenkins had previously drawn praise as Budenholzer’s assistant in Atlanta for five seasons and then one year in Milwaukee, where he helped Giannis Antetokounmpo become the NBA MVP.
Memphis brought in Jenkins to oversee a multiyear rebuild around No. 2 draft pick Ja Morant, but the young coach has the Grizz ahead of schedule. When the NBA season was suspended on March 11 due to the coronavirus outbreak, Memphis was the surprise occupant of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Jenkins was named the West’s Coach of the Month in January, the youngest to win the award in 15 years.
While the basketball concepts have certainly evolved from when he was a 20-year-old in a suit in West Philly, the PWBL remains an important touchstone in his journey. Snyder, one of his best friends and mentors in the business, has made sure he’ll never forget that.
“I sat down with Coach Snyder and asked him if I could be an assistant with him [in Austin], after my front-office internships,” Jenkins recalls. “He basically said, ‘Don’t ever discount the experience you had coaching 10- to 13-year-olds. The teaching that you did is valuable and makes a difference, and it’s something that’s required of all us coaches.’”
—Matthew De George