Culture / Sporting Life

Party Crashers — Inside Houston’s Epic Final Four Moment, the Sweetest Father-Son-Daughter Hug Ever, “No Cap” and a Celebration Earned

DeJon Jarreau, Quentin Grimes and Kelvin Sampson Make Their Own History by Leaning On Each Other

BY // 03.30.21

INDIANAPOLIS — DeJon Jarreau and Quentin Grimes embrace, screaming into each other’s ears, floating off the contact high of making the boldest of dreams come true. It’s just happy chaos now. Cougars finding Cougars and hugging with all their might.

Soon, Kelvin Sampson, Kellen Sampson and Lauren Sampson are locked in a three-way bear squeeze. Father, son and daughter — the original architects of this remarkable University of Houston basketball rebuild in many ways — sharing the sweetest of moments. Kellen and Lauren Sampson are crying hard into their father’s shoulders, all the joy and sweat and endless work coming out in a torrent.

Somehow, Kelvin Sampson always saw this through the distance, held firm in the belief that he could make Houston basketball one of the elite programs in the land. UH is in the Final Four — and it’s no fluke, no miracle, no underdog story. Kelvin Sampson did it the right way, the hard way, brick by brick by brick by. . .

“They didn’t invite us to the party!” Jarreau shouts, holding the regional championship trophy high above his head. “We had to kick the door in. No cap!”

“No cap! No cap!” Sampson, the 65-year-old basketball lifer who’s always learning new tricks shouts back, using the TikTok beloved slang for “No lie” more than correctly to the utter delight of his college-aged players.

These Houston players so earned this party. And the ultimate Final Four spotlight that’s coming against Baylor on Saturday night. They earned it not just by beating Oregon State 67-61 with a pure gut-check of a closeout. This moment is about so much more than just one game — or even one NCAA Tournament.

It’s about a group of players that refused to ever give up on each other, refused to listen to all the doubters (including many within the city of Houston) who sometimes openly scoffed at the idea that this could ever be done. This isn’t Phi Slama Jama come back to life. This is something sweeter, something tougher, something all these particular UH players’ own.

Houston’s cutting down the nets on the biggest of stages. What can anyone say now?

“Just being counted out and doubted,” Jarreau says, a big piece of priceless Lucas Oil Stadium net tied to his backwards Final Four baseball cap. “Just to kind of prove to the world that we belong here. . .

“Just very grateful.”

In truth, these UH players do not even quite realize what they’ve done yet. At least, not the full extent of it. Getting to the Final Four is something beyond permanent. When you’re 21, 22, 23 years old still very much playing for a national championship, the sheer gravity of making the Final Four, does not set in. DeJon Jarreau, Quentin Grimes, Marcus Sasser, Justin Gorham and Co. do not realize that people will be talking to them about this Final Four run 20 years from now. But they will be.

They hang banners for Final Fours.

“I’m glad they let me go along on the ride with them.” — Kelvin Sampson on his players.

Houston’s cutting down the nets on the biggest of stages. What can anyone say now?

“Toughness, toughness,” Grimes says. “That’s what coach preaches every day. The tough team is going to win. That’s what we went out there and did today.”

When Oregon State erases every last bit of Houston’s 16-point second half lead, Grimes becomes the toughest guy on the court, the one who wants every big shot. The Kansas transfer who found the home at UH he never could in the Jayhawks’ blue blood factory scores eight straight Houston points, hitting two of the biggest 3-pointers you’ll ever see.

When Quentin Grimes is done flicking his wrist, the lead is back up to 64-56. The man his teammates call Q has steadied an entire program, shoving away any last bit of doubt or nerves with 10 points in the last six minutes of a Final Four ticket punching game.

Bring on Baylor —and one of the sporting world’s ultimate showcases. Kelvin Sampson and the Coogs are not done dancing yet.

An Entire University Moment

Chris Pezman knows how mammoth this moment is for the University of Houston, for everyone who’s ever supported the program, for anyone who’s ever felt even a little kinship for a city school that’s never let anyone else’s perception of what it should be define it. UH’s athletic director spends some of the giddy moments after the game, going around and hugging some of the donors in the Lucas Oil Stadium stands.

The players jumping up and down on the court, throwing buckets of confetti on each other, are not the only ones shedding a few tears.

By the time, Pezman gets to the plane that will whisk him back to Houston for a week of making sure everything is right for Saturday, he has 283 new text messages on his phone. Two hundred and eighty three new messages in less than 30 minutes. From people around the country, in all sorts of sports positions. People who understand just what making a Final Four means for a university like Houston.

Pezman called this more than a year ago, telling PaperCity that he could see a Final Four run coming from Kelvin Sampson’s program. The AD just didn’t know it would come this quick. Or be quite this emotional.

Seeing Sampson in that embrace with Kellen and Lauren is when it truly hits Pezman.

“No words,” he tells PaperCity. “Something like that doesn’t happen ever. It’s emotional for me — and it’s not even my family.

“But really, there’s no bullshit in it. It’s genuine. The real love he has for his family, for those kids on the team, you can see it in those moments.”

Kelvin Sampson wrapped his son Kellen and daughter Lauren in the hug of all hugs after Houston made the Final Four. Kellen and Lauren could not stop crying tears of joy.

Those moments are the best that sports have to offer — and this University of Houston team has provided so many of them. Sure many were late to get onto the bandwagon, but when Jarreau and Co. look back now, they see an entire city behind them. And then some.

“I feel like we definitely deserve a 30 for 30 for this,” Jarreau laughs, bringing up the ESPN documentary series that chronicles great sports stories that go beyond just the court. “. . . The feeling is unexplainable.”

Houston’s cutting down the nets on the biggest of stages. What can anyone say now?

All the way back in the early days of preseason conditioning last June, when no one was still quite sure how this COVID college basketball season would go or if there even would be one, the UH players would break huddles by shouting out “Final Four!” and “National title!”

N0w, they’re in the Final Four, two wins from winning it all, having made true what others could not even fathom for so long.

“There’s no bullshit in it. It’s genuine. The real love he has for his family, for those kids on the team, you can see it in those moments.” — UH athletic director Chris Pezman on Kelvin Sampson.

All because Sampson and these players believed in each other, leaned on each other, and kept fighting together. This UH Final Four team does not have a lot of instant success stories. Instead, it has guys like DeJon Jarreau, who almost completely remade his game his senior year, going from a player Sampson was not even 100 percent sure he wanted back at one point to the Most Outstanding Player of this Midwest Regional.

Jarreau has absolutely controlled so many of these March games and he’s at it again with the Final Four on the line, flirting with a triple double (10 points, eight assists, eight rebounds) and having as much to do with UH’s first half dominance as anyone.

That’s this Houston team. And so is Marcus Sasser, who puts up 20 points and hits five 3-pointers when these now 28-3 Cougars need it most. Sasser was no one’s idea of a five star recruit coming out of Red Oak in the shadow of Dallas. But Sampson’s staff saw plenty in him.

“I don’t care about great recruits,” Sampson says. “Never been my deal. I wanted kids who I could coach. Kids who would be coached. That would be able to survive some tough days, some hard days.

“And I could get ’em to play for each other.”

Beyond Phi Slama Jama

Now, these UH players are making history for each other. They’ll be even more talk about bringing back the echoes of Phi Slama Jama, those high-flying showman who did get themselves a 30 for 30, without ever winning it all. Especially nationally. But Hakeem Olajuwon has nothing to do with this Houston team winning. Olajuwon has already won two championships for the city of Houston (with the Rockets after coming close with UH).

But this is not The Dream’s run. This is about Jarreau, Grimes and all-out fight of a team that would just not take “No” as the answer for its Final Four visions.

“They made their own breaks,” Pezman says of this UH team that will now live on forever in school history and the rafters of The Fertitta Center. “We were due. It’s our time with the program coach developed. Kelvin got the odds stacked in our favor with the way he built this thing.”

Kelvin Sampson UH
Kelvin Sampson holds the regional champions trophy up as his players holler and the confetti falls. (Photo by Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

When Sampson finally leaves the court, after the all the hugs (including the one between the father who’s the coach, the son who’s the lead assistant and the daughter who does everything else), the coach sits down in front of an NCAA March Madness background to talk to the media. Kelvin Sampson is wearing one of this year’s snazzy new Final Four hats. The ones with FINAL written in bold letters next to the figure of a hand holding up four fingers.

Out on the court, some of Sampson’s players are still flashing four real fingers, soaking in the moment and gesturing to their loved ones up in the stands.

But UH’s coach is looking backwards to all those who helped him along the way. Kelvin Sampson brings up the late Jud Heathcote, the should be legendary Michigan State coach who gave Sampson his very first job as a 22-year-0ld graduate assistant more than 40 years ago. Magic Johnson was still around the program when Sampson first arrived at Michigan State and Johnson sent Sampson a message over Twitter after this Final Four clinching win.

Sometimes, it’s bigger than just a game. Sometimes, it’s about all those interconnected moments that lead you to the most special of nights in a cavernous football stadium that becomes a pure Texas party.

“For this team to be 28-3, going to the Final Four, is one of the greatest accomplishments I’ve been around,” Sampson says. “I have this group of players and this staff — every one of this staff, all of the players — to thank for it.

“And I’m glad they let me go along on the ride with them.”

Houston’s cutting down the nets on the biggest of stages. What can anyone say now?

It’s history, but it’s also hugs. It’s holding onto to the people that pushed the best out of you, knowing there’s more to come. One shining moment? Try a hundred, already. The University of Houston’s in the Final Four and anything’s possible for this program now.

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