Finding what you love can take some time.
For Luke Brennan, that career aspiration came at an early age.
Since finding his love for basketball, the experienced assistant has accomplished several career experiences.
His lengthy basketball resume has seen him work as an assistant coach for the Australian men’s wheelchair basketball team (The Rollers), the Perth Wildcats, and he is currently working as an assistant at the South East Melbourne Phoenix.
Forging a career path in coaching was Brennan’s gateway to keeping himself in the basketball world. With dreams of playing in the NBA in the rearview mirror, the path into coaching began with him taking part as an assistant coach in the Western Australian Basketball League (WABL) for one of his dad’s friends.
Once he got his foot in the door, his commitment to perfecting his basketball coaching craft caught the attention of one of Western Australia’s brilliant basketball minds: Ben Ettridge.
After graduating from Edith Cowan University in 2002, Ettridge’s astute knowledge of the game landed him a galore of coaching opportunities. One of his major accomplishments was taking charge of the Rollers for a decade from 2007 to 2017, leading the team to their second gold medal at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing and silver in the 2012 London Paralympics.
In 2011, a seasonal change was taking place with one of the NBL1 West clubs: the Joondalup Wolves.
The team was undergoing a coaching swap, with Ettridge joining the helm. For Brennan, who was only 25, the idea of gaining valuable coaching experience at the Wolves under Ettridge was vital in better understanding the coaching tactics and strategies.
Brennan positively reflects on his time working with Ettridge, praising him for his ability to build a team-first culture, leading the Joondalup Wolves men’s team to two championships (2011 and 2015) and seven Grand Final appearances.
“Look it’s pretty phenomenal for the body of work he’s done,” Brennan told The Inner Sanctum.
Behind the Wolves’ ongoing success is the successful partnership of Van and Mary Kailis, who were synonymous with Joondalup Wolves Basketball for 29 years before passing on ownership in August 2015. Brennan saw them as a “second mother and father growing up.”
“When we were kids in primary school and then moving on into high school, we would spend every second we had at the Joondalup Stadium. Van and Mary were always there, keeping an eye on us, making sure that we were looked after and would always lend us a basketball as well,” Brennan said.
“And they were more than happy just to have us in the stadium for as long as possible, shooting and playing basketball as much as possible.”
Having made an impression on Ettridge at the Wolves, opportunities started coming Brennan’s way, including working under him for the Australian Men’s wheelchair basketball at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“I was like hell yeah. Anytime you get to go and represent your country is a pretty special moment. And I saw the Rollers program as another great learning experience for me,” Brennan said despite not knowing anything about wheelchair basketball.
The departure of one of Ettridge’s main assistants opened the opportunity for Brennan.
Taking on the reins as assistant for the Rollers is a responsibility he credits as a launching pad for his basketball coaching, taking off as the team won the World Championship in 2014.
He fondly reflects on the jubilation of achieving a lofty goal.
“That gave me the task of what can be achieved through coaching. With the hard work and the sacrifice and a bunch of guys getting it right at the tight end of a tournament or a season and seeing the joy on everyone’s faces,” Brennan said.
“When you know at the end of the day that you’re the best in the world, you win a world championship, and all the hard work has been worth it.
“I attribute that time to when I caught the bug of competing and coaching. And so, from there we were feeling really good heading into the Paralympics in Rio. Unfortunately, that didn’t go the way that it had planned.”
After serving as Rollers’ assistant and then coaching the Australian men’s Under 23s Spinners team, a position for WA’s Basketball talent ID manager in October 2018 came calling. At the same time, the Joondalup Wolves were creating a developmental officer spot, a position they never had before, which Brennan led for one year.
During his short tenure with the Wolves, he and the current High-Performance Manager at Basketball WA, Dave Naylor, held a basketball clinic at Joondalup. After the clinic, the pair went to a place to purchase some food and talk about the role.
A conversation that led him to accept the role.
“It was a pretty quick decision for me. To be able to have more resources around you at Basketball WA and moving into the coaching education space was something that I was pretty passionate about at the time,” Brennan said.
“I would love to say that it was the plan, but it wasn’t the plan. It kind of happened organically and the stars aligned that allowed me to go and work for Basketball WA.”
As Brennan worked on enhancing his diverse skillset, the Perth Wildcats put out a video intern and development coach position. It’s the path former Wildcats assistants Adam Forde and Jacob Chance undertook before getting a permanent role.
Joining the Wildcats organisation – the most successful basketball club with a record 10 NBL championships and a playoff-record 35 consecutive appearances, was a dream come true.
Growing up a diehard Wildcats fan, with his first-ever jersey being Andrew Vlahov, Brennan reminisces on the iconic players in the 1990s, which includes club legends Ricky Grace, Scott Fisher, Mike Ellis, James Crawford and Vlahov.
He credits the studious and meticulous Adam Forde, who relentlessly honed his basketball coaching before getting his opportunity as an assistant under five-time championship coach Trevor Gleeson in 2013. Forde is the one who played an instrumental part in helping him secure the position.
“I think you should apply for it and go through and see what happens,” Brennan said.
“And so I was lucky enough to apply for that. When I met with Fordy, Nellie (Matt Nielsen) and Jacob Chance and sat down and kind of spoke through my experiences, they thought it would be a good fit to be able to come in and help out in a positive way with them.”
Without hesitation, Brennan sunk himself into the fast-paced, disciplinarian environment of the Wildcats, working with another highly-respected basketball mind Andrew Cooper, helping the team organise rebounding drills.
With Basketball WA accommodating the flexibility for him to work with the Wildcats in the mornings, he is thankful to them for allowing him to pursue his dream.
In his four years at the Wildcats, Brennan worked under three coaches: Trevor Gleeson, Scott Morrison, and John Rillie.
Regarded as one of the greatest ever coaches in the NBL, Glesson was stringent about his coaching values, preaching tough love, discipline, and team unity.
Despite playing at one of the league’s slowest paces, Glesson’s teams finished top three in defensive rating in his seven seasons and first in three of those campaigns (2015, 2017, and 2019).
“That thing was a well-oiled machine. I learned from him that if you’re not ahead of the game, then you’re going to be losing the game,” Brennan said on Glesson’s continuous ever-learning on new basketball trends.
“His attention to detail was phenomenal, and his ability to keep everyone on point and hold everyone accountable to doing their job was pretty awesome to see.”
Morrison, known for implementing creative offensive schemes having worked closely for Brad Stevens at the Boston Celtics.
And Rillie, an NBL great, 1995 Rookie of the Year, and 1998 champion, is about pushing the tempo to generate easy baskets in transition.
Brennan remembers the transitions being “challenging at times”. But at the same time, as a great learning experience to acquire the trio’s basketball wisdom.
As with the assistants such as Scott Roth, Jacob Chance, Mike Kelly, Adam Forde, and Matt Nielsen, he saw them as further extensions of coaches.
“For me, I’d hit the jackpot with being able to be around all these different coaches and just trying to learn different bits and pieces from them,” Brennan said.
In October 2021, Brennan accepted the Warwick Senators Men’s Head Coaching job in the NBL1 West competition after the departure of Wildcats icon and club captain Mike Ellis after six seasons at the helm.
Immediately, he imprinted his coaching philosophy, something he believes he gained from his other basketball experiences. That season (NBL1 West 22), the Senators reached the preliminary finals, only to fall two steps short of a championship, losing to the Rockingham Flames and scoring machine Devondrick Walker, who would go on to win the Grand Final MVP.
Reflecting on an incredible campaign, Brennan said it was about continuing to build positive habits in making sure the club maintained a strong identity.
After NBL23, with the Wildcats eliminated in the league’s inaugural play-in tournament to the Cairns Taipans, Brennan was at a crossroads, whether to possibly move overseas for more opportunities.
Whilst contemplating his next move, he received a phone call from former Wildcats Associate Head Coach Mike Kelly, who had been appointed South East Melbourne Phoenix coach on March 30, after the departure of inaugural coach Simon Mitchell on February 21.
Kelly saw Brennan’s exquisite coaching potential, telling him to cancel his plans because “I want you to come to Melbourne.”
A short time later, the two convened for a coffee at Scarborough Beach to discuss the next steps.
Amongst Kelly’s coaching staff is a wealth of experience, including 2007 MVP and two-time NBL Champion Sam McKinnon and 2009 NBL Defensive Player of the Year Adam Gibson.
“I’ve always been the sort of coach that wants to surround himself with people that are smarter than me and people that I can learn from,” Brennan said.
Having climbed the basketball ranks for 12 years, the well-spoken Brennan articulately thinks about the basketball future question before delivering a succinct response.
A future head coaching position in the eyes of many, is on the horizon.
“So that’s going to be the next big thing for me is what’s the environment that continues to challenge me and continues to allow me to grow,” Brennan said.
“Whether that’s trying to follow in the footsteps of what Adam Forde’s doing and trying to continue to go through and hopefully one day be a head coach in the NBL or whether it’s trying to go and carve out a career overseas.
“I don’t know if the guys will laugh because the answer is just about every question for me is it depends. And I think my focus right now is to try and be a positive influence here at the Phoenix and hopefully help us go on and achieve some great things.
“But when my time’s up at the Phoenix, whenever that may be, I’d like to think that I’m overseas or continuing my coaching career here in the NBL.”