Culture / Sporting Life

Justin Gorham Makes UH One of the Most Annoying Teams in America to Play Against — And That’s a Beautiful Thing

Driving Temple Mad With Relentless Rebounding Desire

BY // 12.23.20

Justin Gorham is as annoying as an 8 am class, a video game player who beats you with secret cheat codes, an endless cable carriage dispute and Justin Bieber to the University of Houston’s college basketball opponents. Gorham gets under the skin of opposing players like a burrowing mite, intent on causing disruption. The senior forward from Maryland is turning into the player who defines one of the toughest teams in America.

You do not enjoy playing a basketball game against Justin Gorham. You’re going to leave it mad, bruised and as irrationality frustrated as a Karen in a grocery store.

Gorham is at it again in Houston’s emphatic 76-50 smackdown of Temple in their American Athletic Conference opener. He and Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars do not just beat the Owls. They practically leave them needing therapy.

Long before the end of the game, Temple players like Damian Dunn are reduced to trying to create physical confrontations with UH’s relentless band of brothers. If you can’t beat them, wrestle them?

“They were getting frustrated that they couldn’t get any shots off,” Gorham says after UH hounds Temple into 29 percent shooting. “But I mean the little antics and stuff, we just have to keep our composure and win the game. Because we don’t want to do anything dumb to let any of us miss the next game or anything.”

Gorham’s game is never dumb. But it’s infuriating to opponents in the best Dennis Rodman kind of way. Gorham’s even been rebounding like a Worm in training for the last two games at least, racking up 28 rebounds (including an incredible 18 offensive rebounds). UH coach Kelvin Sampson has called Gorham this year’s “identity player” and that is never more apparent than in this Temple win.

Houston does not just out talent an Owls team picked to finish near the bottom of the conference. They completely out physical and out tough a Temple program that became legendary for its toughness under former coach John Chaney. In the old days, someone out toughing Temple would have been unthinkable.

Now, Kelvin Sampson has one of the toughest programs in the land — at Houston of all places. It’s highly unlikely Sampson will ever try to fight an opposing coach the way Chaney once went after a young John Calipari. At least, not these days. (To be fair, the Calipari of today would probably even admit that a young John Calipari could be ultra annoying.) But Sampson sure knows how to build a program of warriors.

And Justin Gorham, who struggled to find a consistent role at times last season, is emerging as one of Sampson’s star pupils.

“Justin, he’s got a swagger about him,” Sampson says when I ask about Gorham’s skyrocketing rebounding rate. “He’s not afraid. When that stuff got chippy out there on the court tonight, the first one I went and grabbed was Justin. He’s not backing down from anybody now.

“And I know how big those games are coming up. . . What you’re seeing of Justin is his personality. He’s a tough kid. He’s never rebounded at this level, but he’s never had it shoved down his throat every day either. But for him to embrace it and buy in. It’s like (last season’s rebounding star) Nate Hinton. Go look at Nate Hinton’s high school stats. He was a much better rebounder at Houston than he was in high school.

“But it’s not for everybody. Rebounding’s not for everybody. Some guys would rather stand outside and look like a tuxedo. Pretty on the outside, but not very tough on the inside. Justin — he ain’t no pretty boy now. He’s a tough kid.”

UH’s Tough Talent

That toughness is why this now 6-0 UH team may be even more fearsome than even being the sixth-ranked team in the nation already suggests. UH plays this game without AAC Preseason Player of the Year Caleb Mills, who Sampson holds out to give him more time to heal. It plays it with Marcus Sasser, arguably its best 3-point shooter and traditional point guard, just getting back into the mix of things.

Yet, the Cougars never trail — and their lead never dips below 13 points in the last 18:41 of the game. Sampson’s team looks like it’s in a different class from Temple entirely. When Dunn tries to start a shoving skirmish with 12 minutes left, going as far as moving the ref out of the way in an attempt to get at Gorham and DeJon Jarreau, Temple’s frustration is unmissable.

Gorham and these Cougars will drive foes up a wall. Houston’s overriding talent is apparent even without Mills and with Sasser largely playing like a shadow of his full-strength self (though Sasser’s presence immediately improves the Cougars’ ball movement). You can see it blindingly in the Quentin Grimes of 2020.

The guard with the NBA frame is quickly becoming UH’s most consistent player a season after that was anything but the case for the talented Kansas transfer. Grimes puts up 22 more points, hits four 3-pointers, and contributes the drive of the night (sliding in to hit as layup as he falls down amid traffic) in this one.

“They probably got the best guards in the country,” Aaron McKie, the former 76ers player turned Temple coach, says of Houston. Still, McKie who once was one of the NBA’s toughest role players riding shotgun to Allen Iverson, knows this UH program is about much more than that.

UH Temple
The University of Houston’s relentless defense left Temple frustrated and combative. (Photo by UH Athletics)

True tough guys recognize other tough guys. And McKie certainly likely sees something of himself in Cougars like Gorham. It’s impossible to not look at the 6-foot-7, now beyond-solidly built Gorham and not see a daunting obstacle. There are bulldozers less well constructed.

“Yeah, not a pretty boy,” Gorham says when he gets asked about Sampson’s descriptor. “Not a pretty boy. Can’t be soft on the court. You watch us, we play physical. So if you’re the soft one, you’re gonna see who the soft one is. And I don’t want to be the soft one.”

You do not enjoy playing a basketball game against Justin Gorham. You’re going to leave it mad, bruised and as irrationality frustrated as a Karen in a grocery store.

No one in this big man rotation that could very well determine just how far these backcourt stacked Cougars can go in March wants to be the soft one anymore. Gorham is helping bring that too, battling Arkansas transfer Reggie Chaney and freshman J’Wan Roberts in long pre-practice sessions nearly every day.

“He drives us — even in practice,” Roberts says of Gorham. “Hardest worker in practice. He goes for every offensive and defensive rebound.” Yes, Justin Gorham is an absolute pain to go against in practice too.

Roberts grabs seven rebounds and adds three blocks in only 15 minutes himself against Temple. Chaney scores 13 points in 21 minutes. And it’s probably no coincidence both of them look to Justin Gorham to figure out what they should be doing.

“Like I said, he does in practice,” Roberts says. “And I look at it — and just go based off him. And try to match his energy every day.”

Gorham will not always score at the rate he does against Temple (getting 14 points to go with those 12 rebounds). But he’ll always be someone who UH’s opponents will have to deal with. And account for. And worry over.

Justin Gorham does not make basketball pleasant. He’ll frustrate you right out of your game — and love every minute of the battle.

That can be a beautiful thing that is anything but pretty.

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