The pillars of Aztec basketball culture

A feature on the men’s team assistant coaches, JayDee Luster, Chris Acker and Dave Velasquez
Assistant coaches Dave Velasquez, Chris Acker, JayDee Luster and head coach Brian Dutcher at practice with the Aztecs mens basketball team on Oct. 2, 2023.
Assistant coaches Dave Velasquez, Chris Acker, JayDee Luster and head coach Brian Dutcher at practice with the Aztecs men’s basketball team on Oct. 2, 2023.
Sumaia Wegner

The heart, mind and soul are key components of what makes a person human. Chris Acker, David Velasquez and JayDee Luster are the key components of what makes San Diego State men’s basketball a team.

The Heart

Imagine being a kid playing tag during an Aztec game in a nearly empty Viejas Arena. Then imagine the sound of applause from a sold-out crowd echoing in your ear years later because the Aztecs just clinched the Mountain West Championship.

For Luster, this was a reality.

“There was nobody in the seats. We would jump from seat to seat while the game was going on, and now every game is sold out,” Luster said. “I have seen the transformation.”

Luster graduated from Herbert Hoover High School (just a few miles down the road from SDSU) in 2007. Last October, he was inducted into Hoover High’s Athletic “Legends” Hall of Fame for his astounding prep career titles and records.

The San Diego native has a sense of relatability with the guys he coaches both on and off the court. This strengthens the connection between them, which helps Luster serve as a liaison between the coaches and players.

“I have been in their shoes,” Luster said. “I think one of the things I have always been good at — or that I’ve been blessed to have by the grace of God — is the ability to communicate and relate to people.”

His gift serves a great purpose as it helps him in building interpersonal relationships within recruitment, coaching and skill development. Luster instills these values into his players as he does with his kids.

“I am always a guy that is going to go with my heart, go with my gut, (and) not go with the crowd,” he said. “Be a leader, not a follower. When you believe in something strongly, then stand on it and live with the results.”

The Mind

Resilience is a game-changer in Aztec basketball.

With an educational background in human services management, assistant coach Chris Acker can recognize the Aztecs’ fundamental needs, as well as know that their defensive strengths sprout from the intelligence in their decisionmaking.

“The mentality won’t change, no matter what conference we play in,” Acker said in a podcast interview after last year’s NCAA championships.

The tremendous work ethic within San Diego State men’s basketball has led them to their recent, historic season. With this tenacity and 25 years’ worth of commitment from previous staff, the success of the program speaks for itself.

“I feel honored and blessed to be in the position I am in,” Acker said.

The Los Angeles native and former Citrus College head coach can understand what Aztecs head coach Brian Dutcher goes through at times. This experience allows him to have balance on the coaching staff by looking at things from a different perspective.

“I understand sometimes our opinions as assistants are valid, but also that head coaches have to make decisions based on how they feel,” Acker said. “It gives a nice mixture.”

During an Aztecs practice, Dutcher can be seen coaching from the sidelines, overseeing what the rest of his staff does. He steps in when needed. This is how former coach Steve Fisher worked with his staff.

“I think that’s what makes you a great head coach is when you allow your staff to work and focus on their strengths,” Acker said. “We all have a healthy blend and balance here and it makes for an unbelievable culture.”

The transition Acker made from player to coach came naturally because of the skills he learned firsthand, including playing professionally in Europe.

“I have always had a passion and energy for basketball. I just love the sport,” Acker said. “When I was able to dive into coaching, I was given that opportunity, I dove straight in and here we are today.”

The Soul

For coaches Fisher and Dutcher, off court activities have included hosting Thanksgiving dinners and giving speeches at Dave Velasquez’s wedding. Considering Velasquez has spent 22 years of his life around Aztec basketball, it was bound to be.

The Bay Area native was a student assistant and then a walk-on player who earned a scholarship spot on the roster. Velasquez also worked in player development, management and eventually became assistant coach. With all these roles under his belt, the perspective he has greatly influences his interactions with everyone who is part of the program.

“You will appreciate it when you are older,” he said. “When you come back to San Diego State, you don’t have to reintroduce yourself. We will be at (the players’) weddings and they are going to be at our children’s birthday parties. Work is something that is part of your life. You become family.”

The culture that Fisher and Dutcher created is built on the genuineness they carry themselves with not only as coaches, but who they are as people. Their levelheaded influence has shaped Velasquez into the person he is now.

“(Aztec basketball culture) is really good people who work really hard, who love what they do and love the people they do it with,” he said. “And at the end of the day, if we win that’s even better. We are going to do everything we can, and we are gonna do it the right way. That is what (Fisher and Dutcher) stand for as our leaders.”

Velasquez’s multifaceted experiences influence his appreciation for how much the program has grown.

“We travel a bit differently; we are sponsored by Jordan. I remember a time having to buy our own Jordans to be able to wear them,” he said. “The main value is the relationships with the fans, community, donors, administration… it’s special to say you have been here more than half your life.”

All Pillars

The Aztec players understand that all of the coaching staff is connected. They each have a voice in everything they do on a day-to-day basis.

A level of trust and understanding is where the accountability and discipline develops from. It is not one way the program runs — it is about the different leadership skills that have been developed and incorporated to the many years of Aztec basketball.

The Scarlet and Black are built differently. They are part of the Mountain West Conference, but they compete like a power-five conference team. The Aztecs have a staff who have put in decades worth of their time because of the resources that they have acquired over the years.

This current assistant coaching staff has built a solid foundation because of the responsibilities they have on a collaborative level.

Between working with the players through on-court coaching, guiding them academically and socially through off court mentorship, and simply knowing what it is like to walk a mile in their college-basketball-sized shoes, Luster, Acker and Velasquez are pillars holding up the culture of the team.

About the Contributor
Sumaia Wegner
Sumaia Wegner, '23-24 Managing Editor
Originally from Santa Clarita, California, Sumaia Wegner is a is a double major, studying Journalism and Communication.  She started as a staff writer for The Daily Aztec, then became Arts and Culture Editor, and is now the current Managing Editor. Aside from her leadership role, Sumaia is also a reporter for the men's basketball team. Last year she covered the Mountain West Championship as well as the NCAA Championship. Sumaia is the president of the Asian American Journalists Association (SDSU Chapter) as well as the vice president of Culture and Diversity for SDSU's College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts. She started her career as a journalist while she was traveling abroad in Bangladesh, where she was a writer for The Independent newspaper. She wrote for the “Youth and Independent” section focusing on narratives that evaluated eastern and western cultures. Sumaia has received the following awards for The Daily Aztec: "The Inspirer," "Quest for Excellence," and "Best Section."