Culture / Sporting Life

UH’s Own Basketball Heaven — Quentin Grimes & Friends Show How Kelvin Sampson Created a Duke Level Atmosphere in Houston’s Third Ward

The Fertitta Center Is Already Clearly One of the More Special Settings in College Basketball

BY // 02.21.23

Kelvin Sampson goes on a walk with 12 seconds left in another win over Memphis, rubbing his hands together as his usual game face scowl dissolves into a big smile. The University of Houston coach is headed for the baseline where Quentin Grimes, Fabian White Jr., Kyler Edwards and Galen Robinson Jr. are sitting. The former UH players quickly engulf Sampson in one big circle of hugs.

They effectively put Sampson at the center of what he’s built.

“When you think about those great programs — when you think of Duke and North Carolina, Michigan — you think of all those great players coming back,” says Lauren Sampson, UH’s do-everything director of basketball operations and Kelvin Sampson’s proud daughter. “And it’s so fun when it’s our guys coming back.

“It’s a testament to the brotherhood that’s been built.”

You’re not supposed to be able to build a Duke or North Carolina level program in nine seasons. That’s supposed to take generations. But in many important ways, Kelvin Sampson has. The brotherhood is certainly already there. Many would say that UH still needs to win a national championship or two to put itself up there with the true giants of college basketball. And Kelvin Sampson himself probably would be the first to agree with that.

But just try telling Quentin Grimes he missed out on anything by being a Cougar. Grimes tried life at Kansas’ blue blood program, found everything he needed at UH instead and is now a certified NBA Rising Star for the New York Knicks. One who flies right from Utah and NBA All-Star Weekend to spend several days with arguably the best developmental coaching staff in all of coaching basketball, the one that helped him re-find his path to The Association.

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Just try telling anyone at the Fertitta Center on Sunday for Houston’s 72-64 win over Memphis that there is anything they’re missing. The record crowd of 7,730, a beyond buzzing loud arena, Houston’s own version of celebrity row, one where Top 10 all-time NBA player Hakeem Olajuwon is becoming something of a regular.

This is basketball heaven. Built right here in Houston’s Third Ward.

And anyone who truly loves basketball sees that almost as soon as they settle into one of the seats for the first time. Or in Calvin Murphy’s case, watches while standing (and often strolling) near the tunnel as energetic as ever.

“They cheer for me louder here than they do at the Rockets game,” Murphy, the Houston Rockets legend and NBA Hall of Famer, cracks. Wearing one of his trademark sparkling suites, Murphy couldn’t be more caught up in the atmosphere, the intensity that practically drips off the floor and the man at the helm who is the key to it all.

“It’s unfortunate, but University of Houston basketball has outgrown the building already,” Murphy tells PaperCity. “It’s a gorgeous place to play. I love arenas like this where the fans are on top of you.

“They didn’t envision Kelvin (Sampson) would take it to this level this quickly. The Rockets should have never let him get away.”

Fortunately for UH, the current owner of the Rockets Tilman Fertitta, the man whose name is on this arena, is the chairman of the university’s Board of Regents who wouldn’t try and poach one of the best minds in basketball anywhere. Kelvin Sampson belongs in college basketball anyway. You can’t get broken from your usual postgame intensity and called over for a hug and kiss from your daughter as Sampson was in a back hallway after the win at SMU last week.

You can’t build this kind of nirvana in the NBA.

“I love being in this building,” Grimes says. “I loved playing here.”

You’re not supposed to be able to build a Duke or North Carolina level program in nine seasons. That’s supposed to take generations. But in many important ways, Kelvin Sampson has

University of Houston Cougars men’s basketball team defeated the Memphis Tigers at the Fertitta Center
Former University of Houston players Damyean Dotson, Quentin Grimes (Knicks), Fabian White Jr., Galen Robinson, Landon Goesling and Kyler Edwards all came back to the Fertitta Center. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Grimes now plays his home games in The World’s Most Famous Arena. But there is still something special about an unforgettable college environment, like the kind Kelvin Sampson and his team have built at Fertitta Center.

“It’s us,” Sampson says when I ask him if he ever takes time to reflect on how far this thing has come and what he’s built. “Not me. I talk to our kids all the time about being selfless. . .

“There are so many people that had a hand in doing this. These two kids here. This is my fourth year coaching these guys. We’ve developed a really good program here. But the emphasis is we have. One person doesn’t do it.”

The two kids Sampson is talking about are Marcus Sasser and J’Wan Roberts, sitting on either side of him. Sasser and Roberts both score 20 points against Memphis with Roberts adding 12 rebounds, displaying the kind of ferocity on the offensive boards that he displayed last season when his minutes were limited and that’s all he had to worry about.

Roberts’ teammates saw this kind of game coming from him.

“He was focused all week,” reserve center Ja’Vier Francis tells PaperCity. “And once J’Wan’s locks in, he’s special. I knew something was going to happen, but I didn’t know what. But he deserved it.”

Now 25-2 UH deserves to be the No. 1 ranked team in America again and it will officially take that ranking into Wednesday night’s game with surprising Tulane, another Fertitta Center special. But UH’s on-campus arena being the place to be these days, the only venue in Houston sports that can match Minute Maid Park for electricity, is not about one special season or this particular UH dream team of gifted selfless passers and maybe five legitimate NBA level talents on the overall roster.

You don’t become a Duke because of one or two super seasons. You need to keep stacking them up, one on top of each other like Sampson and UH are. You need to create a special setting. One that is as much about the people who occupy those seats as anything else.

“I think we’ve created basketball educated fans,” says Karen Sampson, the coach’s wife who’s seen it all and is almost always the nicest and warmest person in any building she enters. “They absolutely make a difference in games now.”

UH doesn’t finish particularly well against Memphis, giving up 43 points and 53 percent shooting from the field in the second half. But Jamal Shead, Sasser and Roberts make enough plays and plenty of free throws (with Sasser and Roberts going a combined 16 for 17 from the line) with the Fertitta Center roaring all the way.

Special places matter. Even when you create them from scratch. Maybe especially when you create them from scratch.

“When you think about those great programs — when you think of Duke and North Carolina, Michigan — you think of all those great players coming back. And it’s so fun when it’s our guys coming back.” — UH director of basketball operations Lauren Sampson

UH athletic director Chris Pezman and president Renu Khator know that they’re among the many beneficiaries of these Kelvin Sampson feats. Sitting in the first few rows (Pezman gives up his usual front row seat for Olajuwon’s group), that roar of a crowd cascading down and the intensity on the court is even more unmissable.

“Today we had a record attendance,” Khator tells PaperCity. “For our players to have this kind of support and play in this kind of environment, it’s just really unbelievable. And it’s very memorable for them.

“Coach Sampson has created this environment and this winning program. I remember the very first year for coach and I do remember that we hardly had anyone there. And for us to come this far, it’s just great. It’s absolutely exciting.”

University of Houston Cougars men’s basketball team defeated the Memphis Tigers at the Fertitta Center
University of Houston guard Marcus Sasser is a gifted passer too. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Kelvin Sampson and His Guys

For Sampson, the real exciting part is seeing his former players, his guys. Grimes, Robinson and White can probably count on one hand the number of times that Sampson has hugged them with time still on the clock while they played at Houston. Maybe one finger. But with a pause in the action after a hard Memphis foul that will send Sasser to the free throw line, this old school basketball lifer of a coach heads for the baseline and his guys.

It becomes a different relationship once players move on in life, one where Kelvin Sampson is texting Grimes before and after the NBA Rising Stars games where Grimes came a few points in the final from being named the MVP.

Culture has become one of the biggest buzzwords in sports these days. Years and years, maybe decades, after Kelvin Sampson first talked about it, it is now used ad nauseam by practically everyone. Heck, the Houston Texans tried to brag about their “culture” last season. Even if a coach has dysfunction and infighting going on all around him, he’ll talk culture to the media.

But with his UH program and this coach, you can actually believe it.

“I think it’s authentic,” Lauren Sampson says. “I think a lot of folks talk about culture and program and family. But it’s all authentic with him. We sometimes see these kids at their worst. And to see them at their best is important.”

In some ways, J’Wan Roberts is already looking forward to those days, imagining his own future UH homecoming.

“A couple of years from now, when I’m in real life, I’m going to come back and see how Houston is playing,” Roberts tells PaperCity in the hallway outside the locker room. “See how the boys is. This is always going to be a second home to me.”

This is what Kelvin Sampson builds too. The record crowd, the demand for UH basketball tickets now, the local celebrities in the stands are part of creating the environment. But sometimes being at the center of an impromptu hug circle means more.

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