Culture / Sporting Life

With Kelvin Sampson Grieving, UH’s True Family Program Shows Through — Jamal Shead Delivers a Speech, Jarace Walker Meets a Challenge and the Love Is Real

Playing Like You Care Is All This Coach Has Ever Asked

BY // 03.12.23

FORT WORTH — There is basketball and then there’s life. No matter what you do for Kelvin Sampson on the basketball court, if you play for or ever have played for him, he’ll be there for you in life. With Kelvin Sampson facing real life grief of his own — with the death of his twin sister Karen, which Sampson found out about Friday morning, just hours before the University of Houston’s first American Athletic Conference Tournament game — his current players tried to be there for their coach in life.

UH point guard Jamal Shead stood up in a team meeting and told his teammates outright that they needed to be there for their coach, for the guy who is always there for them.

“When those guys speak, you know it’s powerful,” UH assistant coach Quannas White tells PaperCity. “Jamal doesn’t always. He says things when he needs to. I’ve seen so much growth in the last couple of years of him becoming a really good leader.”

Seemingly taking Shead’s words to heart, the No. 1 ranked team in America would be there for their coach by playing with the all-out intensity he relishes from the opening tip in a 69-48 dismantling of a good Cincinnati team fighting to keeps its own desperate NCAA Tournament dreams alive. Houston will have to overcome some adversity (basketball adversity, not life adversity) in the game when star guard Marcus Sasser crashes hard to the floor with six minutes and 57 seconds left on the first half clock. Down on the floor in obvious pain for a few minutes, Sasser will eventually go to the locker room where he gets diagnosed with a strained groin.

That’s a frightening sight for this talented UH team’s national championship dreams. Sasser is Houston’s best player, its most reliable scorer and 3-point shooter, and an underrated passer and defensive force. But it’s not a life thing. There are things bigger than basketball and that’s part of what Shead talked about when he stood up in front of the team.

Like being there for a teammate. Or your coach.

White, who works with UH’s guards, pulled Shead aside on the bus ride back to the hotel after the Cincinnati win to tell the point guard how proud he was of him stepping forward and addressing the team.

“I told him that on the bus tonight,” White says. “I said, ‘It’s great to see how much you’ve grown, man. Your leadership.’ Everything’s come circle. I’m proud of him.”

Kelvin Sampson incredibly would almost seem to blame himself for what he believed to be a rather lackadaisical effort from his team against East Carolina in the Coogs’ AAC Tournament opener.

“(Friday) was a difficult day in a lot of different ways for me personally,” Sampson says. “And these kids are going to feed off me most days. I wasn’t very good yesterday. I’ll step up and take responsibly for that.”

Of course, no real human — or any being with any kind of heart — would blame a grieving Kelvin Sampson for anything. In many ways, it’s a wonder he even was able to coach the game just hours after learning about his twin sister’s death.

University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson and his point guard Jamal Shead are almost always on the same page. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston coach Kelvin Sampson and his point guard Jamal Shead are almost always on the same page. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Sampson’s players didn’t know what their coach was going through when they took the floor against East Carolina. They did on Saturday — and they gave Sampson one of their most complete efforts of the season, one that left a 21-12 Cincinnati team wondering what kind of unidentified flying object hit them just minutes into game. Again, there’s basketball and there’s life. And what this now 31-2 Houston team, one that will be a No. 1 seed when the NCAA Tournament field is revealed Sunday evening, did to Cincinnati is basketball.

The kind this team has played in a slew of dominating games this season. But the Houston players will tell you there is some real life behind this particular Cincinnati blitzing too.

“I feel like we kind of feed off his energy,” UH super freshman Jarace Walker says when asked about his coach’s personal heartbreak. “Like he said there was a lot of personal stuff going on that we know. I feel like we kind of disappointed him yesterday (against East Carolina). As a team we kind of got together and said we have to step it up.

“Just play harder and better.”

Walker and junior forward J’Wan Roberts — the two players Sampson was the hardest on after the East Carolina game — did more than play hard and play better against Cincinnati. They dominated the game in many ways.

Walker, the 19-year-0ld who will be an NBA Lottery Pick in this June’s draft, and UH’s 67-year-old basketball lifer of a coach have a particularly strong bond, one built on life talks at night in many ways. And the freshman finishes with 13 points, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block while posting a game-best plus 22 plus-minus rating.

Once again, Jarace Walker more than takes Kelvin Sampson’s words to heart.

“I feel like I kind of need it,” Walker says of being coached hard by Sampson. “Just a coach like that to stay on me, it shows that he cares about me. So when he does that I feel like I’ve just got to respond right away.”

J’Wan Roberts comes out just as determined, puts up 16 points and eight rebounds.

“I do take it personally,” Roberts tells PaperCity of Sampson challenging him. “Because I know what he expects from me. I just know what I bring to this team. The harder I play, the more I do, it gets the fire in our team. Gets us fired up.”

University of Houston Cougars men’s basketball team defeated the Tulane Green Wave at the Fertitta Center
University of Houston forward J’Wan Roberts can bring a lot of energy. (Photo by F. Carter Smith))

The Cougars have much more fire than Cincinnati can handle in this AAC semifinal Saturday. The Bearcats two best players — David DeJulius (1 for 10) and Landers Nolley II (3 for 13) – are hounded into a combined 4 for 24 shooting clip. DeJulius and Nolley are so bottled up that they must feel like they’re stuffed inside an Amazon box with all the extra packaging.

“They’re a really good basketball team,” Cincinnati coach Wes Miller says. “A championship team.”

“Like he said there was a lot of personal stuff going on that we know. I feel like we kind of disappointed him yesterday (against East Carolina). As a team we kind of got together and said we have to step it up. Just play harder and better.” — Jarace Walker on Kelvin Sampson

UH, Selection Sunday and The Marcus Sasser Injury Question

Houston will play for another AAC tournament championship on Sunday in a rematch with a Memphis team that would like nothing more than to send the Cougars to their Big 12 future off a loss. But as emotionally charged as every UH-Memphis meeting is, this title game will mean nothing to Houston as far as its NCAA Tournament seeding. While Sasser is officially listed as questionable for the game, and will no doubt push to play, it’s hard to see any upside for this UH team in letting him do so. Unless it really is a beyond minor injury.

“I would probably err on the side of holding him out,” Sampson says. “Because of how important next week is.”

Sampson will certainly put the health of Sasser, the senior who withdrew from the NBA Draft last summer for one more run at Houston, first. Remember even though Sasser was medically cleared to return for that Elite Eight game versus Villanova last March after missing most of the season with a foot injury and pushed to play, Sampson elected to keep him out. With a Final Four berth on the line.

This is part of why Sampson’s players love him so much, why they feel like they’re his guys. Because he shows them they’re what’s most important to him. Again and again. Above any game or any win. That’s real life stuff.

So maybe it should be no surprise that those players want to engulf Sampson with their love with their coach hurting in a real life way. Jamal Shead is the one who stepped in front of the team and said it out loud. But almost everyone of these Coogs hugged Sampson in a way he understands. With the sheer intensity of their effort.

With how much heart they play with. Every coach in the world talks about their team being a family, even the borderline psychotic ones who are actually absolutely despised by their players. But Kelvin Sampson has truly built a family at the University of Houston. And this is how a real family responds when one of theirs is hurting.

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