Culture / Sporting Life

Tears of Joy Over Ramon Walker Jr.’s UH Return, Special Moments For Dad Damian Dunn — Inside No. 1 Seed Houston’s Feel-Good NCAA Tournament Opener

Kelvin Sampson's Most Together Team Uses the First Round to Root For Each Other

BY // 03.23.24

MEMPHIS — Ramon Walker Jr. expects the tears to come when he gets back to the Peabody hotel where the University of Houston basketball team is staying. Walker’s mom Sharanda and dad Ramon are waiting for him there, eager to grab a moment after No. 1 seed Houston’s 86-46 demolition of Longwood in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“My mom might cry,” Walker tells PaperCity. “She might cry. Just because she knows how much this program, this team, means to me. So just her seeing me go back and play after the injury I had, that’s going to be a really emotional moment.

“It’s going to feel really good.”

Those won’t just be tears of joy. They’ll be tears of determination mixed in. For Ramon Walker Jr. showed plenty of that in completing the injury comeback that many dismissed as something that could not happen. One Houston paper declared Walker “out for the season” in several stories in just the past week and dozens more in the weeks before that. (PaperCity first reported that Walker was working to return this season and the staff believed there was a chance he could be back for the NCAA Tournament on March 2nd.)

“I guess it’s a miracle,” Houston shooting guard LJ Cryer jokes of Walker’s return.

Not quite a miracle. But certainly something to celebrate for a Houston team that enjoys the kind of feel-good NCAA Tournament opener that every true national championship contender wants to set up a Round of 32 rematch with a very dangerous Texas A&M team on Sunday night. For besides Walker playing for the first time since a very brief stint on February 19, there is veteran guard Damian Dunn dropping in 17 points in his long, long awaited NCAA Tournament debut. Beloved walk-on senior guard Ryan Elvin gets into the act too, hitting a pretty pull-up 3-pointer in the final minute that has starting power forward J’Wan Roberts jumping up to gleefully bump backs with him at the final buzzer.

That is what these now 31-4 Cougars, one of the closest teams that Kelvin Sampson has ever coached, do. Root for each other like crazy and champion each other’s successes over their own. In truth, this overmatched 16th seed has no hope once UH’s elite backcourt of Jamal Shead (11 points, nine assists) and LJ Cryer (17 points — including 13 in the first first 14 minutes to set the tone) come out with fire in their eyes.

But Cryer is much more excited to talk about Walker and Dunn than himself after the game. Just like everyone who happens to be on the Houston bench when Dunn scores his first NCAA Tournament points — after playing 106 regular season college basketball games and waiting five years to get here — goes absolutely bonkers. Any starters who are taking a breather included.

That’s noticed by guys like Walker and Dunn, who work just as hard as everybody else in Kelvin Sampson’s relentlessly demanding Houston program but don’t often get the headlines or highlight clips treatment.

“Just seeing them just cheering me on — and giving me confidence — it means the most,” Dunn tells PaperCity. “We treat each other like brothers. We call each other family every day. And I think as long as we’re playing together — and playing the right way — we can do something special.”

“It speaks volumes about how much he cares about his teammates and wanting to be back for them. Ramon’s one of the most unselfish guys on our team.” — UH associate head coach Quannas White on Ramon Walker’s injury comeback.

Damian Dunn, a Proud Father Playing For His Son

This Temple transfer is a married man with a young family of his own — and Dunn thinks of his 15-month-old son Nolan on the night he finally lives his NCAA Tournament dream. Nolan is in the FedEx Forum stands and while he won’t remember dad’s first NCAA Tournament game, he’ll certainly have pictures of the night (with him in them) to look back on one day.

“I’m going to talk to my little boy, just love on him and kiss on him a little bit — and just enjoy the moment,” Dunn says of his postgame plans. “It means the most. Just looking over there — whenever I’m walking back to the bench after a timeout and I see him up there (in stands) — it just fuels me a lot.

“That’s why I’m doing the things I’m doing right now. That’s why I’ve been able to endure just everything that I’ve been going through these past few years just with life itself. Yeah, man. That’s my motivation.”

UH reserve guard Damian Dunn can change everything by grabbing some March magic. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)bounds, at the Fertitta Center
UH reserve guard Damian Dunn can change everything by grabbing some March magic. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

For Walker, the motivation came a few days after the meniscus injury that left him devastated. UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson told the junior wing guard that he’d be back for the NCAA Tournament’s first round, planting that first seed of belief. Even if it needed a little while to grow.

“At first I didn’t really believe him,” Walker tells PaperCity. “But time keeps going and the knee kept feeling better and better and. . .”

Soon Ramon Walker is the one telling his teammates to watch out. “I was telling them, ‘I’m going to be back. I’m telling you, I’m going to come back. I’m going to finish it.’ ”

Then this week, as this NCAA Tournament opener with Longwood approached, it became Kellen Sampson’s turn to gloat a little.

“(Kellen) was like ‘I told you. I told you,’ ” Walker laughs.

“I’m going to talk to my little boy, just love on him and kiss on him a little bit — and just enjoy the moment. It means the most. Just looking over there — whenever I’m walking back to the bench after a timeout and I see him up there (in stands) — it just fuels me a lot.” — UH guard Damian Dunn on his 15-month-old son Nolan


Ramon Walker Takes the Quick, Hard Road Back

It took a tremendous amount of work — much of it with UH basketball’s elite associate AD for sports medicine John Houston — for Walker to get back. Kellen Sampson gave Walker that first little initial spark of hope, but Walker brought himself back. By continuing to push himself, By putting in the sweat equity. Rehab session after rehab session. Day after day.

“It speaks volumes about how much he cares about his teammates and wanting to be back for them,” Houston associate head coach Quannas White says of Walker. “Ramon’s one of the most unselfish guys on our team. We’ve got a lot of great high character guys. That’s what makes this team special.

“Just him working to try and get back, just because he knows that we need him. It speaks volumes about the type of person that he is.”

It’s hard not to love the way Ramon Walker Jr. approaches the game of basketball. He’s the high-energy guy who bounces off the bench, ready to throw his body into the mix like a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot lurching into the battle. He’s not a big statistics guy. Because even the analytics masters haven’t invented a statistic that measures heart. With Ramon Walker, the biggest stat may be the strength of his EKG.

And there he is, jumping into the paint, grabbing an offensive rebound just 16 seconds into his return, his first time in a game in more than a month. It turns out that you can’t turn this energy off.

“It means a lot,” Mylik Wilson, another key part of Houston’s now suddenly four deep again bench unit, says of Walker’s return. “Gives us a spark off the bench. Toughness. And you saw he came in and first thing, he got a rebound. Loose balls — he’s just giving us the spark that we’ve needed.”

With a white sleeve covering his still recovering right leg, Walker will end up playing 14 minutes, grabbing two offensive rebounds, creating two steals and getting to the free throw line on a put-back attempt. It may not sound like all that much, but it’s everything for a Houston team that feared injuries could derail its national championship quest.

University of Houston Cougars beat the Penn Quakers at the Fertitta Center, Saturday December 13, 2023
University of Houston wing Ramon Walker Jr. can change games with his energy. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

On a team with guards like Shead, Cryer, Emanuel Sharp (13 points), Damian Dunn (17 points on 5 for 10 shooting) and Mylik Wilson (seven points, six rebounds, two steals), Ramon Walker does not need to score. So he helps Kelvin Sampson’s Houston team win in a different way. A completely unselfish way.

“He’s like the ultimate culture guy for our team,” Cryer says in a cramped locker room at FedEx Forum, one that almost fits the workmanlike humble nature of a Ramon Walker. “He gets rebounds. He dives on the loose balls. Just does all the little things that you may not even see show up on the stat sheet.

“. . . When we have Ramon out there, it gives us a better chance to win.”

This is how you want to start the NCAA Tournament as one of handful of teams with a legitimate shot to be there, cutting down the nets on Monday, April 8 in Glendale, Arizona. With a little dash of extra hope. With tears of joy for a mom and toddler hugs for a dad who now plays in the Big Dance.