Culture / Sporting Life

Kelvin Sampson’s Rescue Dog Becomes a Celebrity, Jamal Shead Cries For His Brother and Jarace Walker Throws Down a Message — A Closer Look at Houston’s New March Reality

Climbing Ladders and Cutting Down Nets Is Part Of This Family's Legacy, But This Run Is Different

BY // 03.03.23

Watching basketball players scale the ladder one by one to each cut down their own piece of net is a familiar scene for Karen Sampson. The matriarch of this University of Houston basketball program, the coach’s wife who’s always been much more than just a coach’s wife, stops Hollis Price, the UH assistant coach who starred on her husband’s first Final Four team at Oklahoma, to ask him how many titles he’s been a part of with the Sampsons now.

“I just count the rings,” Price quickly shoots back. “I don’t count the hats. It’s close to 12. I’ll let you know tomorrow. I’ll go home and count.”

Kelvin Sampson’s wife gets a real kick out of that. “Did you hear Hollis?” Karen Sampson laughs, lightly grabbing a reporter’s arm. ” ‘I got to count my rings.’ ” Conference crowns, conference tournament titles, regional championship trophies, they add up quick when you spend years around Kelvin Sampson. Then, of course, there’s that big ring that everyone who loves Sampson desperately wants to get him — a national championship ring.

Yes, the cutting down the nets celebration after Kelvin Sampson’s No. 1 Houston team turns back Wichita State 83-66 to move to 28-2 with one regular season game remaining (a Sunday national TV showcase at sure-to-be supercharged Memphis with Jim Nantz on the call) is familiar in a lot of ways. But Karen Sampson will tell you it’s different too. The students lining up down the arena steps and far across the sidewalk to get in is very different, something the coach’s wife never imagined she’d see here at what used to be a basketball desert in Houston’s Third Ward.

But the easiest way to illustrate how much has changed, how much change Kelvin Dale Sampson has brought to Houston, how much this particular No. 1 UH team has absolutely grabbed the city, may be the tale of Sampson’s dog.

“It’s funny,” Karen Sampson tells PaperCity. “People recognize our dog. He’ll be walking our dog early in the morning or late at night and people are stopping (their cars) and yelling ‘Go Coogs.’ That’s different. That didn’t happen before this year.”

Kelvin Sampson is often wearing a hat, or  bundled up on these walks when the light is dim or nonexistent. But people in his neighborhood recognize his little dog that’s a part poodle and chihuahua (and more) mix, so they know it’s Sampson. And the honks and shouts of encouragement have become a regular thing.

Yes, Kelvin Sampson’s rescue dog is becoming something of a local celebrity.

It pays to be around this Sampson winning machine. Even if you walk on four legs.

“They recognize our dog,” Karen Sampson laughs.

You can’t fake this kind of an organic bond forming between a coach and a city. Just like you can’t fake the brotherhood of being backcourt buddies. Tears trickle down UH point guard Jamal Shead’s face during the pregame Senior Night ceremony when Marcus Sasser is introduced for his last Fertitta Center game. The reality of college basketball’s finality — the finite number of moments you have with the teammates who turn into your best friends — hits Shead hard.

“I cried before the game for sure,” Shead tells PaperCity. “During that little ceremony. I definitely cried. That’s my brother. I won’t take that for granted. That this was our last time playing here together.”

Then Shead goes out and refuses to let UH even think about losing on Senior Night. With Houston’s offense stagnate and Wichita State seemingly hitting everything, Kelvin Sampson’s No. 1 team needs someone to grab the game. Jamal Shead does, giving America a preview of what could be the best backcourt in the entire NCAA Tournament.

On Senior Night at the Fertitta Center, the University of Houston Cougars men’s basketball team cut down the nets after defeating Wichita State 83-66 behind Marcus Sasser’s 24 points and Jamal Shead’s 25 points
UH point guard Jamal Shead refused to let his seniors lose their last home game. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

The point guard finishes with a career-high 25 points in the rare game where he really hunts for his own shot. For Shead, it is always about doing whatever the team needs. In the emotion charged cauldron of a Senior Night — with another record setting Fertitta crowd (7,819) expecting a party — UH needs someone who can shed tears in the pregame and turn into a cold blooded finisher on the court.

And Marcus Sasser is the least surprised person in the entire building that Shead is the one.

“He played great,” Sasser says after giving his grandmother one last hug before heading to the locker room to finally change a good hour after the final horn. “People play (Jamal) for the pass. But he just showed you today that he can score the ball too. And when he does that, he just helps the team.”

Sasser (22 points, four assists) and Shead combine to score 33 of the 50 points in UH’s second half blitz. The most talented team of Kelvin Sampson’s entire nine year run with Houston can overwhelm opponents with beautiful offense too, another shining March sign.

“He used to get on me, break me down, make me want to quit, cry almost. And look at us now. He did it for a reason. He knows what he’s doing. I couldn’t thank him enough really.” — UH guard Marcus Sasser on Coach Kelvin Sampson

With Kelvin Sampson, It’s Process Over Pressure

Kelvin Sampson isn’t looking ahead like most of the city of Houston seems to be, especially all those bandwagon jumper ons (welcomed with a smile) who act like they’re suddenly discovering something new, like this Sampson dynasty hasn’t been here for years. While everyone else automatically advances this No. 1 team to the Final Four in its hometown, acting like it’s a given, this 67-year-old basketball lifer of a coach knows how fickle March can be. Even for the most talented teams. Sometimes especially for the most talented teams.

So Kelvin Sampson pays respect to the process even as he carries around a big chunk of net. He notes that UH had 96 regular season practices heading into the Wichita State game, 32 days of summer workout sessions, another 24 in the fall.

“It’s not easy being a college basketball player,” Sampson says. “These guys have earned everything they’ve gotten.”

UH’s players will tell you that Kelvin Sampson truly makes that journey worthwhile even as he often makes it harder, expecting much and always demanding more. Even as Sampson gives Sasser a commemorative basketball for tying both Houston’s all-time 3-point record (which Sasser should break Sunday) and Fabian White Jr.’s Fertitta Center all-time wins record (49), the coach delivers a message with the warm hug. He whispers “We’ve still got more work to do” in his senior guard’s ear, the one who came back rather than going into the NBA Draft for just these kind of moments.

Marcus Sasser loves that, having long since grown to relish the relentless push that almost crushed him as a freshman.

“We built it from day one — June 1st (Sasser’s freshman season),” Sasser tells PaperCity. “He used to get on me, break me down, make me want to quit, cry almost. And look at us now.

“He did it for a reason. He knows what he’s doing. I couldn’t thank him enough really.”

Sasser is talking in the hallway just outside UH’s locker room now. It’s quiet back here, away from the happy chaos of a postgame court flooded with people, with Houston students lining up to take pictures with Sasser and get his autograph (with UH’s development program star patiently sticking around to get to everyone). Away from the noise, Marcus Sasser almost matches Jamal Shead’s pregame tears.

“I love that guy to death really,” Sasser says of Sampson, his voice catching a little.

The feeling is more than mutual with Sampson noting, “Marcus didn’t have to come back.”

He did and he’s playing another season with his backcourt partner Jamal Shead (with potentially 10 more games to play together if everything goes right this March), getting to hoop with Jarace Walker, the supernova of a talent who is almost certainly going to be an NBA Lottery pick in June’s draft. Walker likely plays his last game at the Fertitta Center against Wichita State too.

“To be honest I try not to think about that kind of stuff because I know there’s still a lot of basketball left to play,” Walker says. “I’m going to let the rest of the season kind of take care of itself and I’ll kind of cross that path when I get there.”

Still when Walker finds himself free in the open court with less than 90 seconds remaining, he admits the reverse windmill dunk he unleashes that turns everyone of that record crowd of 7.819 into witnesses who are losing their minds, carries some meaning.

“I mean, it was awesome,” Walker says when I ask him about the dunk moment. “I just wanted to let the fans have a little fun with it, go out. We were up big so just trying to get one down.”

On Senior Night at the Fertitta Center, the University of Houston Cougars men’s basketball team cut down the nets after defeating Wichita State 83-66 behind Marcus Sasser’s 24 points and Jamal Shead’s 25 points
UH coach Kelvin Sampson brought his grandson Kylen along for ride on championship night. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Jarace Walker (13 points, nine rebounds, three steals) gets it down and soon everyone is going up the ladder to cut down those nets to officially celebrate another conference title. Kelvin Sampson takes his 2-year-old grandson Kylen Ned Sampson up the ladder with him, just like he used to take his daughter Lauren and his son Kellen up championship ladders when they were little kids.

All Eyes On Houston

UH’s bandwagon is bigger than ever — and it’s still growing with new fans and camera crews jumping on every day. In many ways, this No. 1 Houston team will have more pressure on it than any other Kelvin Sampson team ever during the unforgiving heat of March Madness. But this is how you keep the pressure at bay. By reminding yourself of what truly matters.

“We try to experience the other parts of life when we can,” Karen Sampson tells PaperCity. “That’s a big one — having our grandkids. He gets away from it and goes and picks them up.

“You look at him and he’s just this big gruff thing, until you see him with his grandkids or this little dog.”

Welcome to UH’s new March reality. Where even the Sampson family rescue dog is becoming famous.

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