Culture / Sporting Life

Jamal Shead, the Power of Mom and a Kelvin Sampson Heart to Heart — An Uncommon Bond Between a Rare Point Guard and a Unicorn Coach Drives Ever-Strong Houston

With Shead Playing Free, Texas Tech Has No Chance in a Top 25 Showdown

BY // 01.18.24

Running into the timeout huddle, roaring, Jamal Shead bounces off a few teammates like a human pinball unleashed. The University of Houston’s elite point guard is letting all his emotion out, charging up his teammates and a frenzied Fertitta Center even more. This is what happens when Shead plays loose and free. He dominates — and makes everything right for a Top 10 program with crazy high standards that threaten to turn a modest two game losing “streak” into something of a fan crisis.

“When I have something to be emotional about, Coach tells me to show it,” Shead says when I ask him about the fierce outbursts that a merciless mindset Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan would appreciate. “So I try my best to show it.”

Shead and UH coach Kelvin Sampson may be the best point guard and coach combination in all of college basketball. And they’re certainly the biggest reason this now 15-2 Houston team is one of the truly legitimate national championship contenders standing. For that, Cougar fans can thank Jamal Shead’s mom in many ways. For Lysa Shead is the one who first sensed that this ever-demanding man with the sometimes hidden warm side was the right coach for her son.

“My mom picked him before I did,” Shead says. Lysa Shead knew Kelvin Sampson was her coach for sure after he sat down for a meal in her house.

“He came to the house for an in-house visit and my mom made chicken spaghetti,” Shead remember. “He talks about it all the time. He explained to (my parents) that this is a process. He wouldn’t leave me out to dry. But he wouldn’t make it easy. And he’s kept his word since that day.

“It’s been a hell of a journey. And I’m happy that I’m here and riding it out with him.”

This is all but undoubtably Jamal Shead’s last ride at Houston before he tries to prove that his otherworldly leadership skills, relentless competitiveness and still underrated athleticism translate to the NBA. And it is certainly one of the 68-year-old Sampson’s last seasons in college coaching. You can bet these two are going to make the most of tbis final lap together. Leaning on each other.

Before Shead shows the way to a 77-54 throttling of a previously Big 12 unbeaten No. 25 Texas Tech team Wednesday night, UH’s basketball lifer of a coach frees his mind to do it. Kelvin Sampson is as good a psychologist as he is a game planner and he senses that his point guard, the player leader who carries so much for this fifth-ranked Houston team, needs something.

Something that has little to do with a bouncing ball.

“At shootaround today, I just made a point to have a little chat with Jamal,” Sampson says. “Because I started thinking about this. You know, I probably don’t tell these guys enough how much I love ’em. How much I appreciate ’em. Because I know that sometimes I’m not always the easiest guy to play for.”

“It’s been a hell of a journey. And I’m happy that I’m here and riding it out with him.” — Jamal Shead on playing for Kelvin Sampson

University of Houston point guard Jamal Shead and coach Kelvin Sampson are an elite combination. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston point guard Jamal Shead and coach Kelvin Sampson are an elite combination. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Shead admits that the talk catches him off guard, completely changes his mindset going into what felt like a giant game in many ways. The result? UH’s point guard grabs the Big 12 battle within the first 10 minutes and never lets it go, punishing Texas Tech with pull up jumpers, leaners in the lane, look-away assists and one man fast breaks. Shead finishes with a career-high 29 points on 12-for-16 shooting, adds 10 assists, four rebounds and two steals. He all but makes some talented Red Raider guards tap out.

Jamal Shead is not losing this game. No way. No how. No chance. Not after that pressure-lifting heart-to-heart talk with his coach.

“I was just trying to focus on the game today,” Shead says. “And he came in there and we didn’t talk about basketball. He talked about just my growth and life. It takes that sometimes to get your mind off stuff. To get your mind off that we were on a losing streak.

“He got my mind off something and it brought me back in the right way.”

Jamal Shead’s Mom Knows Best

There is all kinds of coaching. There is the scouting and scheming from UH’s next level coaching staff (Sampson, Kellen Sampson, Quannas White and K.C. Beard) that allows Houston to pile up 40 paint p0ints against Texas Tech and shoot 52 percent from the field overall. Sampson quickly tweaks an already excellent plan by switching which block senior forward J’Wan Roberts (12 points on 6 for 9 shooting) operates from in the second half, creating better shot opportunities for Roberts and better driving lanes for Shead.

Then there is the coaching from the heart that frees up Jamal Shead to dominate. This is the kind of coaching that Lysa Shead sensed her son needed on that fateful chicken spaghetti dinner night. If you spend any time around the Sheads, you quickly get the sense that Lysa Shead is the true deciding force in the family. Earlier this season at Xavier, Elvin Shead — Jamal’s dad and Lysa’s husband — told me that they were committed to attending every UH game, home and away, this season because Lysa Shead decided they weren’t missing anything.

“She’s the boss,” Elvin Shead, a former Army man, says without hesitation.

Now Lysa and Elvin Shead are witnessing the continuing evolution of their son into one of college basketball’s ultimate bosses, one of the few players in the country with the potential to swing who ends up cutting down the nets.

“It’s fun to watch,” Elvin Shead tells PaperCity. “We’re really enjoying the journey with him. We see it. We see the process that he’s been through with Coach Sampson and his staff. It’s just fun to watch. To see not only Jamal’s growth, but all the kids in the program’s growth. It’s there. The program is proven.”

Jamal Shead isn’t chasing stats or SportsCenter highlights in this Houston program. In fact, he sounds a lot like his dad after his career-high scoring outburst. He quickly tries to shift the discussion to his teammates. Shead points out how Baylor transfer LJ Cryer’s defense set the tone for this bounce back win, one that evens the Cougars’ Big 12 record at 2-2 after two excruciatingly close road losses. He praises Ja’Vier Francis, the 6-foot-8 pogo stick of a center who sometimes overwhelms Texas Tech with his activity, picking up two huge blocks and posting a game-high plus 31 plus-minus rating in 25 minutes of court time.

“Ja’s been one of our most consistent players since the Big 12 started,” Shead says. “He’s getting better every day. And he beats himself up more than you guys could think. And it’s my job to make sure he stays as confident as he can in himself.

“Because he’s really good. And the work he puts in every day, I see it. And I believe in it.”

University of Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson visited with Drew Richards, head coach of the UNC Pembroke Braves, his alma mater, before an exhibition contest
University of Houston center Ja’Vier Francis is a dunk machine. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

To Jamal Shead, this is the job of a point guard too. It turns out Kelvin Sampson isn’t the only one who understands in the power of showing someone you believe in them. Shead will take what Sampson teaches him and pay it forward. Even when it’s his night. There is only one Jamal Shead in college basketball.

Jamal Shead isn’t chasing stats or SportsCenter highlights in this Houston program. In fact, he sounds a lot like his dad after his career-high scoring outburst. He quickly tries to shift the discussion to his teammates

“He’s not the most talented point guard in the country, but he’s right at the top as one of the couple of best point guards in the country,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla tells PaperCity. “Because ultimately your point guard has to win games.

“And he’s the ultimate winner. . . He’s going to do everything you need him to do.”

But sometimes even that guy just needs a heart-to-heart talk about everything but basketball. Kelvin Sampson will be there for Jamal Shead there too. That’s what these two do.

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