The grandson of a legendary men’s college basketball coach follows in his footsteps as he now works for one of the most successful franchises in the NBA following a stop in the RGV.
Matt Brase, former Rio Grande Valley Vipers coach, was a player for his grandfather, then-Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson, from 2003-2005. In the forward’s final season, the Wildcats earned a berth in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. The now-36-year-old previously competed at Central Arizona from 2001-2003.
“Growing up in Tucson we went to practices, Arizona games plus my sister and I worked as ball boys/ball girls for his games or camps in the summer,” Brase said. “We just always knew basketball and being on the court, so it was an easy transition for us.”
The Vipers named Brase head coach in 2015 and he stayed in that position until being promoted to the Rockets following a loss to the eventual champions, Austin Spurs, in the semifinal round of the 2017-2018 G-League playoffs.
“I think you learn a lot about yourself when you get a new role or opportunity, because my whole life I had been an assistant coach or in player development,” Brase said. “The head coach is a whole different thing and you don’t know what to expect until you get it. You can’t teach someone to be a head coach, so you must learn what your style is and how you communicate with different individuals and their egos.”
A goal of Brase is to become a NBA head coach, but he knows those jobs are limited. He’s focusing on doing his best at his current job. He helps Rockets assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, on the defensive side, with game planning, works on post game video, has individual film sessions with players and oversees 33 scouts. It’s a switch for Brase, since he developed the offensive game plan for the Vipers.
Brase worked as Director of Player Development for the Rockets (2013-2015) following his tenure as an assistant under Nick Nurse, current Toronto Raptors head coach, when the Vipers won the G-League Championship during the 2012-13 season. He was originally hired by the Rockets in 2011 as part of the team’s basketball operations staff. His duties involved player personnel and scouting competitors in college, internationally and the NBA.
“Nick (Nurse) was probably one of my biggest influences, and when I became a head coach I kind of followed everything I learned from him, like his demeanor and personality,” Brase said. “On the college side and growing up, I followed a lot what my grandfather did, but on the professional side Nurse was one of the best to learn from in the game. I think of things he says and I find myself saying some of the same things when I am talking to a team or player.”
College coaching experience for Brase included being an assistant on the Arizona staff when the team reached the Sweet 16 in 2009 and working as an assistant at Grand Canyon University (2009-11) while studying for his master’s degree in business administration with a focus on leadership.
Vipers head coach Joseph Blair spent three years as an assistant on Brase’s staff and was promoted to lead the team when Brase left for the Rockets. Blair also is an Arizona native who played his college basketball with the Wildcats.
“JB (Blair) is meant to be a head coach and has always been a natural leader,” Brase said. “He is as phenomenal of a person as you could be around. I have known him since I was a little kid and for him to be my assistant coach was a blessing.”
Brase feels the Rockets organization is the model of what the G-League should be about with players being assigned up and down from the NBA club. Several Vipers have spent time in Houston this season including Danuel House who recently inked a contract with the Rockets.
“Gary Clark has had great games with us up here and so has Isaiah Hartenstein while destroying the G-League this year with the numbers he is putting up,” Brase said. “It’s a good success story seeing our guys being able to contribute both in the Valley and in Houston when opportunities are given to them.”
Hartenstein has averaged close to 20 points and 15 rebounds per game for the Vipers this season, including multiple contests of more than 20 points and 20 boards. He credits Brase with contributing to his development as a pro player.
“Knowing him from last year and knowing someone coming into this year that I can really talk with probably helped the most,” Hartenstein said. “I watch a lot of video with him and him helping me on the court as much as possible. He just knows how to talk to us especially last year’s G-League team that had a lot of personalities, he could still communicate with everyone.”
The Haitian national team is also coached by Brase and he considers it one of the most rewarding things he’s done in basketball. Last year, Haiti played international FIBA competition for the first time in 37 years and went 5-0 before being disqualified due to an ineligible player on the roster at the International Basketball Federation AmeriCup Caribbean 2021 Pre-Qualifiers. .
“You know, it’s a third-world country and to lead that group is something special,” Brase said. “It’s something we are going to keep growing and building and it’s not just the senior national team but the youth development with camps or clinics in Haiti. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go over during the NBA All-Star break because of the political protests going on there.”
Brase’s sister Julie Brase Hairgrove has been an assistant coach with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury since 2005 after being a four-year starter for the University of Arizona’s basketball team and later assisting with the women’s hoops program at Loyola Marymount University. Last season, she was picked to be an assistant for the WNBA All-Star game.
“We haven’t played in a while because of our schedules, but my sister always beat me in basketball growing up,” Brase said. “Then when I got to high school I was taller than her so I could start beating her. She got smart and stopped playing me.”
Now as Brase’s professional coaching experience continues to grow to new heights, at both the NBA and international level, expect his teams to beat a majority of their opponents, whom unlike his sister, won’t have the option of not playing them.