Culture / Sporting Life

The Story of a Jump Shot — How Justin Gorham and Kellen Sampson Worked Together to Retool His Game and Create Something Bigger at Houston

Inside UH's Remarkable Transformation Factory

BY // 01.07.21

The 11th ranked team in the country is wobbling like an old school toy train teetering on the edge of a track. Its limited but surprisingly loud home crowd is wavering. And another American Athletic Conference underdog is smelling an upset. Then, Justin Gorham hits a 3-pointer at the top the key. He follows that up by draining a long two in the corner — and setting up Quentin Grimes’ four-point play in a two-man play exchange.

Suddenly, Wichita State’s 10-point second half lead is all but gone in three trips up the court. Suddenly, the University of Houston is rolling.

Justin Gorham is changing games for one of the best college basketball teams in America now. But first, Kelvin Sampson’s program had to transform his game.

Those threes and long jumpers that helped push UH on a 16-0 run and secure a 70-63 win are a relatively new thing for Gorham. He’s built an effective jumper effectively from scratch by spending hours working on it with UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson.

“That’s something I didn’t shoot at my old school,” Gorham says of his time at Towson.

The younger Sampson, who is UH’s next head coach in waiting, made Gorham start shooting it almost as soon as the 6-foot-7 forward arrived on the Houston campus. Gorham may have gotten these jumper instructions even before he received the keys to his dorm room. Much of the season Gorham had to sit out under the transfer rules in 2018-19 consisted of him shooting in near empty gyms with Kellen Sampson.

“Me and Coach Kellen used to be in the gym all day before games, all day after practice just working on the three ball,” Gorham says.

Kellen Sampson has never been afraid of some serious gym time. His basketball lifer dad is a coach. Heck, he even married a coach. (Kellen Sampson’s wife is former University of Houston women’s basketball assistant coach Tonya Benton.) To find a player willing to nearly match Kellen Sampson in gym time is something.

But Justin Gorham’s making a mighty run at it.

This is not just the story of a jump shot. It’s the tale of a program that’s the best thing going in the entire Houston sports landscape right now. By a landslide. And will be at least until the Astros start playing again.

Playing Games With America on the Brink

This win over Wichita State — the Cougars’ ninth win in 10 games this season — comes on one of the worst days in American history in recent memory. A day when a mob of rioters stormed the US Capitol, some waving confederate flags and other vile symbols.

“I was just so disappointed,” Kelvin Sampson says of the scene in Washington D.C. “I was just disappointed. I was disappointed. I wasn’t disappointed in our country. I was disappointed for our country.

“We’re better than that. That’s all I’m going to say. I’d like to say a lot more, but that’s enough.”

Imagine what it must have been like for Kelvin Sampson, a 65-year-old man who grew up in North Carolina as a minority in the 1960s, whose dad John “Ned” Sampson was one of the Lumbee Indians who made national news courageously breaking up a Ku Klux Klan rally in 1958, to see that in 2021. There is no equating that with sports, but Kelvin Sampson is a coach. So he coached the game on the schedule hours after we all watched America seemingly almost fall apart.

My wife — who is a much more serious journalist than me — did look at me a little funny when I reminded her that I was heading out to cover a basketball game Wednesday night. These games are not ever changing the world, they’re not making any real world injustices right. But they do have some meaning. They do matter to many — whether you think they should or not.

There is something to seeing a college kid like Justin Gorham find not just his jumper, but his place in one of the only programs that may have been able to bring things he didn’t even know he had out of him. Gorham did not arrive at the University of Houston as one of the most coveted transfers in America. He was not wooed like newly departed Houston guard Caleb Mills will be in the transfer portal or like his teammate Quentin Grimes was leaving Kansas.

Gorham never had much of a chance of wowing the recruiting services. Now? He has to be considered a favorite to make at least first-team All-AAC and perhaps even a dark horse contender to challenge scorers like Grimes for conference player of the year honors. That’s a transformation Clark Kent could admire.

It’s also the type of metamorphosis that keeps seeming to happen in Kelvin Sampson’s remarkable University of Houston basketball rebuild.

The tale of Justin Gorham’s remade jumper is the story of the UH program, too.

Justin Gorham is changing games for one of the best college basketball teams in America now. But first, Kelvin Sampson’s program had to transform his game.

“I think that’s one of the things our guys are pretty good at — evaluating guys who fit us,” Kelvin Sampson says when I ask if the growth of Gorham’s game has surprised even him. “There are a lot of guys that look taller. Look faster. Look prettier. Little of this, little of that. They may not fit us.

“I’d rather coach against those guys.”

A lot of basketball players would rather go against a flashy, five star recruit than face the relentlessness physicality of Justin Gorham, too. While Gorham’s transformation is easier to see because of the starting talent base, his partner in that four-point play has also seen his game rise in ways it never did at Kansas.

After a somewhat inconsistent first season at UH, the talent gifted Quentin Grimes is turning into one of the best closers in all of college basketball right before everyone’s eyes. He scores 20 of his 22 points in the second half against Wichita State (6-3), making the dogged Shockers buckle seemingly with every cold-blooded flick of his wrist.

With Mills leaving and super freshman Tramon Mark still trying to re-find his game, there is more pressure on Grimes and DeJon Jarreau than ever before. So far the Kansas convert and Jarreau — who rallies to put up 13 points, 10 rebounds and five assists after missing his first six shots of the game — have been more than up to the task.

“We were definitely surprised by it,” Grimes says of Mills’ decision to transfer. “You don’t even know how close we were with Caleb. It was like sad.  For personal reasons, he had to make his decision. The best decision for him. But yeah, we text him all the time. We still talk to him and everything.”

Friendship is deeper than basketball. That’s probably a good lesson for this night — or any night — too.

UH Jump School

Justin Gorham and Kellen Sampson clearly built a bond during those endless jump school sessions. Now, Gorham is getting younger Cougars like Reggie Chaney and J’Wan Roberts to show up early for practice to work on their games together. It turns out Kellen Sampson was not just building an effective jump shot in those sessions.

He was building a future leader, too.

UH Kelvin Sampson and Kellen Sampson
Kelvin Sampson and Kellen Sampson are coaches to the core. (Photo by UH Athletics)

“Three point shooting — I’m going to give Kellen a lot of credit,” Kelvin Sampson says. “Kellen is the best I’ve been around in this — player development. He’s incredible.

“Fabian (White Jr.’s) jump shot — Fabian couldn’t shoot a jump shot when he got here. . . How do you develop that jump shot? Kellen. (Former UH player) Devin Davis? Devin Davis could really shoot, his ball just never went in. He couldn’t make it. Who developed his jump shot? It was Kellen. Justin Gorham? He had to develop a 3-point shot and to develop consistency at the free throw line.

“Hours and hours and hours of work. Describes our program to a T. If you want to develop your game. If you want to be the best you can be, this is a great place for you.”

Gorham’s overall shooting percentage has risen from 34 percent last season to 52 percent this season. He’s hitting 50 percent of his threes (7 of 14) through 10 games.

That type of transformation is worth watching on a Wednesday night. Even when it seems like the world is falling apart around us. When I got home my wife was listening to the electoral count finally get certified with all the kids still awake. Everyone can use a bubble against the madness.

Kelvin Sampson and Kellen Sampson have created one for these UH players, coaching together to build a space where they can find joy. As long as they put in the work. Hour after hour after hour after. . . It’s not saving the globe in any dramatic superhero type way.

But don’t tell me it doesn’t mean something.

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