The Houston Cougars punched their ticket to the Final Four Sunday night with a win over Oregon State. It’s been a long and winding road between Final Four berths for Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson, who was last on this stage in 2002 with the Sooners. Sampson left Oklahoma for Indiana in 2006, got dinged by the NCAA for recruiting violations in 2008, and was subsequently bounced from college basketball on a five-year show-cause penalty. As soon as he regained eligibility in 2014, Sampson jumped at the Cougars job, and he’s been building the program to this moment ever since.
Those dark years of exile took Sampson to the bleak shores of, uh, the National Basketball Association, where he was an energetic assistant coach for the Milwaukee Bucks and then the Houston Rockets. But Sampson evidently wasn’t cut out for working with professionals, and is fond of telling a story of the time he tried to coach an NBA big man on a more aggressive, energetic approach to pick-and-roll defense, but found the player to have been spoiled rotten by the insidious effects of earning a salary for one’s work. Here’s that story, as presented in a new CBS Sports profile of Sampson:
He shuffled off to the NBA, where he tried to adapt but didn’t find soulful satisfaction. Three years with the Milwaukee Bucks, then three more with the Houston Rockets. At one point early on as an assistant, Sampson was working in practice with a big man and laying into the player about jumping a screen on defense. Sampson was just being Sampson: a fiery teacher trying to better a player — albeit a veteran.
The player turned to Sampson, and this is a paraphrase, but essentially said, “Coach, you’re a great guy and trying to help. But let me tell you something. I will never jump a ball screen. Everything in my contract says I have to block shots and rebound. That’s where my bonuses are. So I’m going to block shots and rebound. I won’t be jumping one ball screen for you.”
Sampson knew then and there the NBA life was never truly going to be for him.
Since this story is obviously true and is not at all a yucky little fable about how NBA players are entitled and the player-coach relationship is corrupted when both parties earn a salary and the NCAA’s forced amateurism is therefore a purer expression of team sports, it is only natural to wonder: Which poisoned NBA big man flatly refused to jump out on ball screens because he had realistic contractual incentives tied to blocked shots and rebounds? Sampson coached with the Bucks from 2008 to 2011, and with the Rockets from 2011 to 2014. Scrolling through the rosters of these teams is a nice little trip down memory lane. I remember most of these guys! Here are some veteran big guys who may or may not have told Kelvin Sampson to go screw:
Of these, then-39-year-old Kurt Thomas is the one I most enjoy imagining being told to leap out on ball screens by an overheated assistant coach, followed by then-37-year-old Marcus Camby. And I have no memory of Francisco Elson whatsoever. Anyway one of those guys up there very definitely once refused to execute his team’s defensive system because that same team wrote conflicting incentives into his player contract. Wow! Hey, who are some big men you remember?