Culture / Sporting Life

Inside the Cruel Ending of Jamal Shead’s Remarkable College Basketball Career and How His Houston Teammates Tried to Make It a Little Better

A Forever Leader and All-Time Cougar Great Sees the Guys He Always Lifted Up Grow Into Trying to Do the Same For Him

BY // 03.30.24

DALLAS — Everyone wants to say something to Jamal Shead, to try and express their appreciation for the best teammate they’ll ever have. But the rest of the University of Houston players know that no matter what they say it won’t be able to completely sum up what Shead has meant to them, Probably won’t come close. And certainly won’t make the cruel, cruel ending that Shead endured any better.

But they’ll almost all try anyway. That’s what this closer than close UH team — one of the most selflessly together teams Kelvin Sampson has ever had in 35 seasons of coaching college basketball — does. They try to lift each other up. Even when it hurts. Especially when it hurts. So Cedric Lath, the young center from Ivory Coast who hasn’t seen his parents in four years to chase this better life basketball dream, crouches down to try and comfort Shead, who hasn’t moved from his spot on the bench — his second half prison — since the final buzzer sounded.

Later in the locker room, Ja’Vier Francis will come over to sit with Shead, to wrap his point guard up in hug and tell the guy wh0 never stopped believing in him how special he is. Francis, UH’s long defensive disrupter, doesn’t always say a whole lot. But the words of appreciation come rushing out in this case. Cause Jamal Shead to tear up all over again.

College basketball’s best leader deserves so much better of an ending than this. Duke 54, Houston 51, with Jamal Shead crumpling to the floor with a horrifically painful ankle injury that Sampson says will take four to six weeks to rehab, is even crueler than Villanova 50, Houston 44 in that 2022 Elite Eight game. For this is almost assuredly it for Shead at Houston, the final college chapter for a player who will be remembered by fans of this Golden Era of UH basketball like Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler are remembered by an earlier generation.

Shead isn’t as close to insanely talented as The Dream and Clyde The Glide. But the impact he’s made at the University of Houston is right up there with two of the NBA’s Top 75 Players of All Time.

“It’s hard,” junior guard Ramon Walker Jr. says of the likelihood of never being Jamal Shead’s teammate again after this Sweet 16 loss. “With Jamal, it’s just hard. Being around him every single day for three years with one another. And when I say every single day, I really mean every single day. Thinking about he’s not going to be here next year and I just. . .

“He’s my mentor. Just helping me, guiding me through my freshman year. The next year, the sophomore year I went through some things, but he was always there. He’s always right there when you need him.”

Cedric Lath Jamal Shead Houston
Cedric Lath tried to console Houston point guard Jamal Shead after the game. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Jamal Shead almost assuredly will be president of something someday. He’s the leader of leaders, the rock his Houston teammates always knew they could lean on. But as much as his teammates love Shead, he loves this UH program just as hard right back.

And the reality of this being it seems to be sinking in with him t0o.

“I’m just with my family right now,” Shead says, sitting with his Houston teammates in a locker room for probably the last time. “I’m trying to soak it all in before it’s all gone.”

Jamal Shead’s NBA Draft Future

This is considered one 0f the worst NBA Drafts in a long time talent wise, making it maybe the perfect time for a player like Jamal Shead, whose next level leadership and ability to professionally point guard a team could get more second looks in this class, to come out. As long as his rehab from the grade four ankle sprain he suffers in this Duke game goes well and he can show off his skills in draft workouts.

Shead has a year of eligibility left because of the extra COVID season — and he leaves himself a slight window to return after the Duke nightmare. But for Shead to realistically come back something must go wrong. His dream is to play in the NBA. That is the dream, the overriding goal, for almost all these maj0r college players.

It wouldn’t be surprise if the rest of UH’s starting backcourt — LJ Cryer and Emanuel Sharp — go through the draft process and get feedback from NBA teams (while retaining the ability to return to Houston) either. College basketball teams, even elite ones like Houston, are always in flux season to season.

This is why Ja’Vier Francis, the young center whose heart is often vastly underrated, making it a point to go around the locker room and talk about next year with his teammates may be no small development. Francis taking on a little more leadership could be big for this UH program.

“I was going around dapping everybody up, telling ’em, ‘It’s not over,’ ” Francis tells PaperCity. “I mean, it’s over for this year. But next year we’re going to be right back in the same position.”

Mylik Wilson, the backup point guard whose defense and rebounding often made an impact for this 32-5 Houston team, is already planning to take advantage of his extra COVID year next season. “I’ll be playing college basketball next season,” Wilson tells PaperCity. At Houston I hope.”

Ramon Walker also talks eagerly about returning. UH power forward J’Wan Roberts, who also has an extra COVID fifth year available if he wants it, says he has not thought about what he’ll do yet. Those are concerns — and NIL discussions — for another day though.

This Saturday, this day after, should be about treasuring the run of a special Houston team that made history. Winning the Big 12 — the highest rated basketball conference in the land — in this UH program’s very first year in the league is a huge feat for Shead, Roberts, Cryer and Co. This team will put a banner up. Even if it’s not the national championship banner they all craved and worked so hard to try and grab.

“He was always there. He’s always right there when you need him.” — Ramon Walker on UH teammate Jamal Shead


Kelvin Sampson’s Crippled Houston Team Fights Duke to the Last Possession

Even without Shead — who plays just over 13 minutes before the fateful drive to the hoop that turns his ankle two different directions — these Cougars fight to the very final possession against a Duke team with its own future NBA players. Houston’s season ends with Mylik Wilson diving to the floor in chase of a rebound, slamming himself so hard on the hardwood that he’s still bleeding from his elbow in the locker room afterwards. Wilson will effectively beat two Duke players to the ball too. But he can’t quite keep the ball inbounds to get these Cougars one more final shot.

Just another bounce that doesn’t go this Houston team’s way.

Mylik Wilson Houston
Mylik Wilson dove for the basketball. That’s what University of Houston players do. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Emanuel Sharp shoots the three pointer with four seconds left that Wilson chases. Sharp gets off a clean look at the top of the key, a shot that could have tied the game and sent it into a potential overtime. But it’s short. Maybe fittingly on a night in which Houston strangely only gets off eight 3-point shots in total (only five combined from the Cougars’ best shooters Cryer and Sharp), leaving itself without the extra points that can swing a game like this.

Of course, the biggest swing happens when Shead is lost. UH’s point guard, the best defensive player in college basketball, is playing perhaps his best defensive game ever before he gets hurt, completely controlling the game and making Duke’s offense seem as steady as someone trying to walk on high heels for the first time. Across ice.

Shead forces Duke’s talented freshman guard Jared McCain into four turnovers in the first 11 minutes of the game, making a future NBA player look as lost as puppy dropped into the middle of a corn maze. Houston’s leader is dominating. . . and then he’s gone.

“He was the best player on the floor tonight,” Kelvin Sampson says of Shead.

Until the lifeline point guard becomes the latest — and cruelest injury yet — for a Houston team that lost two young players talented enough to be future NBA regulars in Terrance Arceneaux and JoJo Tugler to season ending injuries earlier in the year, and had power forward J’Wan Roberts getting his knee drained every week to be able to continue to play. Tugler’s broken foot in particular limited what once seemed to be a nearly boundless ceiling for these Cougars.

“We know how good we are at full strength,” Emanuel Sharp tells PaperCity. “It’s just kind of frustrating to not be able to click at full capacity.”

“We felt like we had a good enough team to get to Arizona,” Sampson says of the site of this year’s Final Four. “It was unfortunate that that team wasn’t able to stay together.”

This is becoming a much too familiar March script for this Houston program. Last season, late injuries to Marcus Sasser and Jamal Shead sapped a team with two first round NBA Draft picks of its full power in the NCAA Tournament. The season before that in 2022, Sasser and the uber talented Tramon Mark were b0th lost for the season just days apart in December.

Sometimes sports are not any more fair than regular life. Sometimes it feels like you can’t catch a break no matter how hard you work. And no team in the country works harder than Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars.

“I don’t know what it is,” Sharp says. “It’s just bad luck. Last year with Marc and Mal. And then the next year, a lot of guys hurt. It just sucks.”

This should not be how Jamal Shead ends his brilliant college basketball career. Sitting on the bench for the entire second half, often in too much pain to even stand up. Sampson and Shead’s teammates know at halftime that UH’s lifeline will not be coming back. Any talk of a return is just a decoy for Duke. In truth, Shead’s ankle injury is severe enough that he would not have been able to play in any more games even if the Cougars kept advancing.

“That’s our guy. It just sucks to not be able to play with him in our last game. To go out like that. “It just sucks. We love him. . . And it just sucks that he’s not going to be back next year.” — UH guard Emanuel Sharp on Jamal Shead

Injured Houston point guard Jamal Shead (right), tried to do what he could to help teammates like Emanuel Sharp while on the bench. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Injured Houston point guard Jamal Shead (right), tried to do what he could to help teammates like Emanuel Sharp while on the bench. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Shead knows his season is over, long before Mylik Wilson’s dive for that last rebound. But he still leads his guys out of the locker room for the second half. He still tells them what he’s seeing from the bench, still brings his will to the fight. But he’s helpless to change the outcome of this game.

“Super hard, man,” Shead says of having to sit and watch UH’s season end. “I know that if I played, it probably would have been a different outcome. Or I hope it would have. I’m just glad I got to play this year with these guys. It’s a special group.”

Jamal Shead’s teammates will all try to tell him how special he is, to do their best to lift up the hurting guy who always lifts up everyone else. Shead wipes away a few tears, still dressed in his full uniform and the black sweatshirt he wore on the bench the entire second half when reporters are ushered out of the locker room by the NCAA monitor.

“Jamal is the leader of this team so everybody’s got a connection to him,” Sharp tells PaperCity. “That’s our guy. It just sucks to not be able to play with him in our last game. To go out like that.

“It just sucks. We love him. . . And it just sucks that he’s not going to be back next year.”

Yes, Jamal Shead deserves so much of a better ending to his remarkable UH run. But this transformative point guard will always be a part of this University of Houston program. You can see his impact through the tears, in the guys coming up to him after the season’s lost, the future leaders he helped create maybe showing themselves for the first time.

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