As the 2018-19 NBA G League season tipped off, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Houston Rockets NBA G League single-affiliation partner, found themselves playing in the brand-new Bert Ogden Arena. They were also relying on a first-year head coach in Joseph Blair. In a season of firsts, the Vipers would finish the year in first place, the 2018-19 NBA G League champions.
“I think I have set the bar extremely high for myself, but it also is good for my own growth. It lets me know what can be achieved,” explained the first-year head coach. “And also, to be able to bring a title back to an organization that has been so amazing all year, is super special. Bert Ogden Arena is a championship level arena, and I’m thrilled that I could now add to the splendor of the arena with a championship banner!”
Working as a Vipers assistant from 2015-18, Joseph Blair took over the top position when his fellow University of Arizona alum Matt Brase vacated the Vipers’ post to take an assistant role with the NBA’s Houston Rockets. Blair shared, “(Coach) Brase has constantly been one of our biggest fans. He is a really close and great friend, and I learned quite a bit working with him the last few years.”
Back in his playing days, the nearly 7-foot Blair was selected by the Seattle Supersonics before playing professional all over the world in countries like France, Italy, and Russia, while also spending time with the Harlem Globetrotters. Does he feel like that unique professional experience helped connect with his players? “Absolutely! Being a former player always assists in a coach’s ability to relate and empathize with what the players are going through, or might be thinking,” Blair answered. “I try my best to never say “when I played”, but I do make it a point to let them know I understand the road they are traveling in their careers and don’t hide the fact that I know they all want to get to the next level and use this opportunity as a stepping stone.”
Like Coach Blair mentioned, the G League is a path to the NBA. It is also a spot where a player in the top league can go down to and refine his game. Because of this frequent player movement, teams have to adjust and mesh together on the fly. “We had 27 different players on our roster this year. Each one as different as the next. It was an honor to work alongside of them, but even a greater honor to get to know them as individuals,” Blair said. “We found a way to constantly bond, despite any differences, and constantly work towards a goal we all knew we could never achieve individually.”
Was there a moment or a game in the season where he thought everything just clicked? He answered, “My mentality all year has been game by game. I just wanted to constantly find room for growth and improvement.”
“So, I don’t think there was a particular moment, or game, when it all clicked. But I think the months of January and February were crucial to our success. We seemed to become more of a team during those months.”
What a team they became. The Vipers closed out the Long Island Nets away from home with a 129-112 victory and brought the G League trophy back to Texas, the state Blair moved to from Akron, Ohio as a six-year-old.
In the heat of the moment, it’s difficult to give everyone credit that deserves it and even after some time to reflect, you can’t thank everyone. But, catching up with Coach Blair about a week after the decisive Game 3 win, I gave him a chance to shoutout everyone he could think of that played a part in the title.
“Way too many people to mention here. The ownership, Mr. Cantu. The organization, Rene Borrego and Hondo Candelaria. My general manager, Jim Paulis, for his faith and confidence in me. My lead assistant, Mahmoud Abdelfattah. I don’t know how I would have done this, or kept my sanity, without him. All of my staff! Amazing workers and humans! The players!! Their ability to be coachable and listen is what made us who we were! The Vipers Sports department! The in-game entertainment! The facility coordinators and staff at Bert Ogden Arena and our practice facility! Many, many more!! But, a huge thank you to our fans and supporters!! They are the true difference makers for us!”
Coach Blair certainly made his mark on the winningest team in G League/D-League history. At only 44 years old, he is a rising star in the game and will make sure his Vipers are always contending for trophies.