Matt Houston worked his way up with stints in Florida, Colorado, Hawai’i, South Dakota and China before joining the Miami Heat in its pursuit of a NBA Championship
Childhood chums Matt Houston and Julyan Stone pledged to be teammates for life even after they pursued different sports at Dos Pueblos High School.
“We used to always say, ‘As long as one of us makes it, we’re good,’” Houston recalled.
His misfortune, however, wound up steering him onto the same path taken by his old friend.
Houston is now an assistant strength and conditioning coach for basketball’s Miami Heat, pledged to defeat Stone’s former team in the NBA Finals.
“It’s pretty cool that he played in the NBA and now I’m coaching in it,” Houston said. “We’re two guys from Goleta, and it happened for us.”
He’s still earning a living in basketball at age 34 as the leading assist man for Givova Scafati in Italy’s top professional league.
“I’m so proud of him,” Houston said. “I love him. We’re pretty much brothers.
“Let me put it this way, we are brothers … and he’s done a great job for himself.”
Jumping Through Hoops
Houston’s circuitous route to the NBA, however, was much more arduous.
It all began when then-Washington football coach Tyrone Willingham moved him to the punishing position of linebacker.
He’d never played the spot at Dos Pueblos, earning first-team All-Channel League honors as a defensive safety and offensive tailback.
Willingham said Houston’s size at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, speed, athleticism and “open-field skills” made him a natural for the position.
“He was extremely physical,” he said after scouting some of Houston’s high school games. “He just had some great hits in the games we were able to watch.”
Houston admitted that changing positions was a major “adjustment,” but he approached it with his usual zeal.
“He is part of that attitudinal foundation we are delighted about,” Willingham said. “He just has that refreshing quality in a person who wants excellence in everything he touches.”
Bruising touches on the football field, however, took their toll. Houston had to sit out the entire 2009 season, and he played hurt in many of the 22 games in which he appeared.
“I even had some nerve damage that I had to deal with,” he said.
Those black and blue marks, however, did come with a silver lining.
“I became curious about the body and why these things were happening,” Houston said. “I developed a great relationship with our athletic trainer, and also with our strength and conditioning coach, Ivan Lewis, who’s now with the Seattle Seahawks.
“He played a big part in my wanting to become a strength and conditioning coach.”
Houston, now 34, worked his way up from the bottom. He started with a five-month internship at IMG Academy, a preparatory boarding school and sports training institute for elite athletes in Bradenton, Florida.
It Began at the Boys Club
“I grew up playing basketball as well as football,” Houston said. “I’m very thankful for the guys at the Goleta Boys Club — guys like Sal Rodriguez and Bernard Hicks — who are great basketball minds in our community.
“I was also fortunate to be around George Albanez (of the 805 Basketball Club), and Mwei Banks and Rob Allen from the Eastside Boys Club, when I was a young kid.”
Houston’s desire to learn more about strengthening and conditioning athletes brought him back to Santa Barbara in 2016 to serve a one-year internship with the Peak Performance Project.
Founded and directed by Dr. Marcus Elliott, P3 assesses athletes by using computer technology and data to “decode human movement and solve performance needs.”
Its clientele has included more than 63% of the NBA and 800 players with NBA experience.
“Marcus has been a real mentor of mine,” Houston said.
The internship put Houston into the fast lane of basketball.
“Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally were two of the first guys to work out with me,” he said, referring to the stars of UC Santa Barbara’s 2010 and 2011 NCAA Tournament teams. “I worked with Orlando after he was with the (Indiana) Pacers, and with James before he made it to the NBA (with the Atlanta Hawks in 2014).
“They gave me a shot before anybody else. I’ve got a great relationship with both those guys.”
Johnson, who’s still playing in Uruguay, even asked Houston for advice about becoming a strength coach or personal trainer.
Houston’s training with P3 set him up to work four seasons in China.
A Real Orientation
He first served as the strength and conditioning coach for the Chinese men’s national basketball team.
“It was really hard on me and my family — my fiancé, Ashley, and my daughter, Marley — to be away from home so long,” he said. “But regardless of that, I knew it was the best scenario for all of us.
“First and foremost, I believe in the Man Upstairs. I believe in the Lord. I have a strong spiritual base and a strong belief in myself, and I had a goal to make it work for us.”
He also worked the NBA Draft Combine as well as with the Heat during last year’s NBA Summer League.
It’s where he connected with another former Gaucho. Gabe Vincent, a 2018 graduate of UCSB, has helped lead Miami to this week’s NBA Finals as its starting point guard.
“It’s crazy because Gabe and I have a lot of the same contacts but didn’t meet until last summer,” Houston said. “We’re close to a lot of the same people, like Donnell Dixon (public events manager at the Thunderdome), who would open UCSB’s gym for Gabe every day.
“Donnell was the guy who trained me in football when I was growing up, from the time I was 14 until I was 17. We’d get together at Harder Stadium day in and day out, talking about the game of football and working out.
“Donnell is a big influence in our community. He was big in Orlando’s life, big in Gabe’s life, and he was big in my life, too.”
Turning Up the Heat
Houston and Vincent have become close during their own near-daily workouts.
“He’s like my long-lost brother, you know?” Houston said. “He’s a workhorse, man. The results are showing because he’s never taken a short cut. He’s never been given anything so you can really appreciate everything he’s doing.
“We’re a lot alike … Both very passionate guys … Enthusiastic guys.”
Houston is also proud to be a “Goleta guy.”
“Let everybody know that I was born at Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital, that I went to Brandon School — the Brandon Bobcats — and to Goleta Valley Junior High,” he told Noozhawk. “I’ve stayed close to all my friends from Dos Pueblos.
“Kellen Moriarty was my quarterback and he’s going to be in my wedding (on Aug. 25). I probably talk to Kellen and my fraternity brother, Mason Foster, more than anybody.
“Dennis Aguirre was my fullback, and he’ll be in my wedding, too. And Isaac Alvarado and Jelani Hicks are two other guys from DP that I grew up with and still talk with a lot.”
But Houston also feels at home in the culture of the Miami Heat.
“Growing up in Goleta, we’re not a big city like L.A.,” he said. “We don’t get that exposure, so I always thought I had to outwork people … Outwork the competition.
Houston said the Heat prides itself on being the “hardest-working, best-conditioned, most professional, unselfish, toughest, meanest, nastiest team in the NBA.”
“It’s our motto,” he said. “We like to say, ‘We’re all we’ve got, and we’re all we need.’”
And now they’ve got an old linebacker to keep them strong.