Culture / Sporting Life

For Reggie — Kelvin Sampson’s Houston Program Will Honor the Forever Teammate Who Died Much Too Soon All Season, Opens With a Chaney Worthy Teamwork Flex

A Game That The Warrior Who Never Sought Credit For Himself Would Have Loved

BY // 11.07.23

Loss hits people in different ways, sometimes comes back when you expect it, sometimes rushes back in when you don’t see it coming. Real loss. Nothing that happens on a basketball court or any other playing field remotely qualifies. Real loss is about the people who are suddenly gone from your life. There is no getting over some voids. Instead it’s more about finding a way to live with the loss, to find a way to honor the special person who’d you give anything to share another moment with as best you can. University of Houston basketball coach Kelvin Sampson seems to understand this.

Sampson knows that a big chunk of his roster, the guys who played with Reggie Chaney, are still hurting in many ways. Still grieving in all its unpredictable ways. Chaney’s sudden, unexpected death at age 23 in August, just five months after he played the last of his 104 games for Sampson, continues to impact his former teammates and this Houston program every single day.

“There’s not a day goes by that we don’t mention Reggie,” Sampson says.

Sampson knew he needed to do something for Reggie and his forever teammates this season. Something that would be with them every day. Like Reggie. When UH’s 68-year-old basketball lifer of a coach told his players that they would wear a No. 32 patch on their uniforms, Chaney’s number, for every game this season, it felt right. And brought all those Reggie feelings back.

“Our kids were just emotional,” Sampson says, recalling the scene. “An emotional mess. . . Emanuel (Sharp). Jamal (Shead). J’Wan (Roberts). Those guys were highly, highly emotional. I asked a grief counselor to come in and talk to our kids.

“. . . I told them Reggie’s always going to be in our hearts. That’s why we have memories. While someone near and dear to our hearts left us, we have his memories. And we’re also going to put No. 32 on our jerseys this year so he’ll be close to us.”

The first game this UH team plays with those black and red No. 32 patches on their jerseys — Monday night’s season opener vs. the University of Louisiana Monroe (ULM) — turns into a 84-31 lesson in unrelenting Sampson basketball intensity. The first game with Reggie on all their uniforms, Shead and Co. hold an opponent to an almost unfathomable 31 points, one less than Chaney’s jersey number. The fewest Houston has given up in a basketball game since 1951, long before the shot clock even existed.

It is a runaway win marked by all the things Reggie Chaney personified for this elite national program  — pure selflessness, mental toughness, a real togetherness that goes beyond any numbers on a stat sheet.

“Our kids were connected tonight,” Sampson says. “Second half when you’re up 30 (points). . . nobody would have said a word if (Louisiana Monroe) would have had 35 points in the second half. Because that’s what most teams do. You get up by 30 or 40 and coach subs and everybody takes their foot off the gas, right?

“Every kid I put in that game tonight did his job. And they did it to the top of their effort-ability.”

In many ways, this is the perfect Reggie game. Everyone contributes. Ten guys play at least 16 minutes. Only one player takes double figure shots. UH misses 35 shots and gets 20 of them back on offensive rebounds. Chaney, the warrior who never looked for his own, the teammate who used to urge Kelvin Sampson to play younger guys more than him in runaway games like this, the believer who went from Final Four starter to coming off the bench without complaint, would have loved this kind of show.

Because it would have left everyone in his locker room happy.

“I told them Reggie’s always going to be in our hearts. That’s why we have memories. While someone near and dear to our hearts left us, we have his memories. And we’re also going to put No. 32 on our jerseys this year so he’ll be close to us.” — Houston coach Kelvin Sampson

Don’t get the wrong idea. No one in Kelvin Sampson’s program would ever be misguided enough to suggest that winning basketball games or even a national championship in honor of Reggie Chaney would ever be enough to fill that loss. Or make anything better. Every guy on this roster who knew him would give up their national title dreams if it meant they could bring Reggie Chaney back. And Kelvin Sampson, the coach who so many want a national championship for, would be the very first in line for that.

There’s basketball and there’s real life. Real loss.

In many ways, the holdovers on this Houston basketball team will be playing through grief this season. That’s real life.

“A couple of them still have their days,” Sampson says. “Especially J’Wan. J’Wan’s like that. . . We watch film every day. Reggie was probably our best pick and roll defender. Our smartest pick and roll defender. We use clips of just his edits on side pick and roll, middle pick and roll, slot pick and roll, angle pick and roll, whatever.

“To show them this is how Reggie learned how to do this. And then he created his way of doing it. Reggie’s still special. Always will be.”

Reggie Chaney and Contagious Teamwork

Reggie Chaney didn’t teach Jamal Shead how to pass. Chaney was always a willing passer in the post, but Manor Mal — UH’s All-American point guard candidate from the town of 19,000 in Austin’s shadow — brings his own unique gifts there. But the play that Shead makes in the second half — the play of the game, really — would have sure delighted Reggie for its bold gutty unselfishness.

There is Shead picking up the basketball — after both sophomore wing Terrance Arceneaux and true freshman power forward JoJo Tugler both hit the floor to force a turnover — about 90 feet from his hoop. Shead races up the court, shakes one defender with a crossover dribble, splits two more with a hesitation dribble, slices into the lane and throws a no look pass to a cutting Arceneaux for a slam.

“It’s fun,” Damian Dunn, the Temple transfer, says when I ask him about the play. “It’s fun. I told Ramon (Walker Jr.) on the bench, ‘Bro, I like playing with y’all.’ We cause so much confusion, disruption, stuff like that. So when we do stuff like that, we’re getting out in a transition, it’s fun.

“We’re playing Cougar basketball.”

It is a runaway win marked by all the things Reggie Chaney personified for this elite national program  — pure selflessness, mental toughness, a real togetherness that goes beyond any numbers on a stat sheet.

University of Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson coached the Cougars’ opening night game over the University of Louisiana, Monroe
UH basketball players will wear a No. 32 patch for Reggie Chaney on their jersey all season. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Dunn does not know about Reggie Ball. He’s a newcomer to Kelvin Sampson’s program. But he quickly got a lesson in the demanding system Chaney thrived in. For Sampson kicked Dunn out of his very first official day of practice with UH, told the talented transfer to go ahead and hit the locker room.

“He just told me to get out,” Dunn remembers. “Told me I wasn’t playing hard enough, I wasn’t being tough enough. So yeah. . .”

Dunn flashes a grin. He knows he signed up this. Effort and intensity are non-negotiables for Kelvin Sampson. You’d better bring them or you can go ahead and leave his gym. You have a better chance of talking an alligator out of devouring a turtle than convincing Kelvin Sampson to relent on his standards. This is a huge part of what makes Houston Houston.

UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson calls his dad “The Weather” for good reason. The weather always wins in the end.

Dunn will end up scoring 18 points in his first real game with Houston, second only to Emanuel Sharp’s career-high 20 points. On just eight shots. Just days after returning to practice from a nagging ankle injury. And end up being praised by Kelvin Sampson for his willingness to work.

“I think it speaks more to his work ethic,” Sampson says. “Damian’s a hard worker. . . But this game’s not about any one player. I don’t think anybody really stood out tonight. That’s kind of the strength of this team. Our defense is our star.”

That is a Reggie kind of game, where who gets the credit does not matter.

University of Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson coached the Cougars’ opening night game over the University of Louisiana, Monroe
University of Houston point guard Jamal Shead is a passing wizard. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Shead, arguably the best point guard in college basketball and certainly one of the few real contenders for that title, only plays 18 minutes. So does Dunn on that healing ankle. Sharp logs 21 minutes. Those type of low mileage totals could be invaluable in a season that these players hope lasts all the way to April 8 and One Shining Moment.

“There’s no reason to ever go halfway on the court with this team,” Sharp tells PaperCity. “Because there’s always people waiting to come in. Whether it’s me. Or Mylik (Wilson). LJ (Cryer). Dam. We all have each other’s backs.”

Like Reggie Chaney always had anyone’s back. No questions asked.

There is real loss and basketball. No one with any real sense thinks they are anyway comparable. Sometimes, all you can do is try to honor the special person who is no longer there, to remember and treasure them the best way you can. This UH program is doing what it can, even if it will never seem like enough, learning as it goes there too.

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