Rob Gray, Kelvin Sampson are perfect NCAA castoffs to lead Houston's return to glory
Houston's March Madness past connected with its present in its first NCAA win since 1984
WICHITA, Kansas -- The 72-year-old Hall of Famer at courtside wearing the radio headset was told during a commercial break.
The sort-of punky guard with an often-mocked man bun who just won the game seconds earlier had also tied a record -- the Hall of Famer's record.
University of Houston and NBA legend Elvin Hayes had spent three years on the radio wearing that headset, describing Rob Gray's exploits as the Cougars' radio analyst. Hayes had also spent 50 years owning the record for most points in an NCAA Tournament game in this city, 39.
Until Gray matched it Thursday night. In one swooping up-and-under layup, with 1.1 seconds to go, Gray not only beat San Diego State 67-65 in a West Regional first-round game, but he also drew a line:
• From Hayes to the present. In that magic 1967-68 season Hayes was establishing himself and Houston. His 39 points in that Midwest Regional win 50 years ago (to the day on Friday) over TCU sent to the Cougars to their second straight Final Four.
• From those legendary Phi Slama Jama teams to now. Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon and scores of other high-flying Cougars carried the torch through the 1980s. Thursday's win was the first for Houston in the NCAA Tournament since 1984, in Olajuwon's penultimate game with the Cougars.
• From coach Kelvin Sampson to redemption. The two-time national coach of the year arrived four years ago, disgraced. On Thursday, he was back on top winning a tournament game for the first in 11 years to the day at Indiana.
Whether or not he considering all that serendipity, Hayes crowed from courtside, "Rob Gray, he refused to lose tonight. That is truly amazing."
Yes, it was in one of those made-for-Disney tournament finishes that make us fall in love all over again each March.
Consider Gray, a fifth-year senior from North Carolina, started at a prep academy and migrated to a juco before landing at Houston in 2015. One-third Trae Young, one-third daredevil, one-third shut-yer-yap on-court annoyance, Gray saw his scoring actually go down this season. Sampson needed to spread the scoring around. The Cougars had become more talented.
But as history crystallized, Gray became the go-to for most of the season averaging 18.5 points. In the locker-room afterward, he was still aching over missing a game-winning shot Sunday in the American Conference Tournament championship.
"I never played in March Madness," said Gray, a rather unremarkable-looking athlete at 6-foot-2, 185 pounds. "I'm a fifth-year senior who went to the NIT twice. We lost the (AAC) championship by one, that's still in my head. I can't get over it. I didn't want to go home. I didn't want this to be my last game for Coach Sampson."
Sampson didn't become one of the best college coaches around by ignoring the obvious. After the Aztecs had hit two clutch threes with less than 64 seconds to go, he called for a clear-out for Gray.
With less than a half-minute go, Gray dribbled out the clock until about six seconds remained. With a mad crossover, he beat San Diego State's senior leader Trey Kell to get inside.
There he was met by 6-10 Malik Pope, the Aztec's best player. With the path over Pope blocked, Gray finished from under the big forward's arm.
"It just goes to show you, you can't drown in your own sweat," Gray said. "No one can define you. Anything is possible. I came to U of H, I was out of shape, 15 pounds overweight."
And to think the season started with Gray being suspended one game by the NCAA for playing in a church rec league. A friend had paid his $5 entry fee.
That was deemed an extra benefit. The absurdity of it all was overshadowed by the good old purity of basketball. Good thing NCAA president Mark Emmert had exited the building earlier in the day.
"If you want to know the brutal truth, the NCAA has to change a lot of rules," Gray said. "To be specific, I don't think it makes sense to get suspended for playing basketball in the offseason.
"I can't enjoy a rec league game with my friends? It was cardio."
He bit his tongue before he said too much. This was time for a hero to bask. Houston basketball once again has a pulse, a heartbeat, a future.
At age 62, so does Sampson. Twice, about a decade ago, he was found to have made hundreds of impermissible phone calls to recruits at Oklahoma and Indiana.
The penalty remains outrageously unfair. For conduct that was long-ago deemed, Sampson got a five-year show cause penalty from the NCAA.
That meant he was essentially banned from college coaching.
"I was bitter for a long time," Sampson said. "All I wanted to do is coach in the NBA. I didn't want anything to do with college basketball."
Capitalizing on those NBA relationships, Sampson thought he was on-track to become a pro head coach. Gregg Popovich had called and offered a consultant's position. Sampson then had made it to the Bucks. The Rockets took him from there. James Harden still drops by the Cougars' practices.
Then Sampson's parents, Ned and Eva, died within five weeks of each other in 2014. Soon after, Houston AD Mack Rhoades called with a job offer.
"Kelvin is a master at building programs," Rhoades said. "He always won most of the time with less."
Yeah, but the Houston program he inherited had a lot less. The Hofheinz Pavilion was a dump. The players he inherited didn't deserve even that.
Billionaire booster Tilman Fertitta bought into Sampson's vision. TV's "Billionaire Buyer" wrote a $20 million check to completely gut and rename Hofheinz. It's now called the Fertitta Center, as it should be.
"When our name went up there (on the NCAA bracket) it was like a snap of the fingers," Sampson said. "That was the perfect antibiotic. It cured us."
After Gray's shot went in Harden weighed in to reporters after the Rockets game.
"Advance, advance, that's all it's about," he said.
Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon had kind words too. In one magic night, all the generations were being tied together.
"It's bigger than me, its more for what this program stands for," Gray said. "For Coach Sampson to recruit me on this vision: 'I want to build this program back up, I'm not going anywhere. I need guys like you in order to get that to get it done.' "
Sampson did for one shining moment. Ask that 72-year old at courtside.
"To be able to share a record with Rob really makes me feel great," Hayes said. "He is a guy who wills us to win. Today, he took on the whole San Diego State team and he beat them."
Or as Sampson philosophized in a giddy Houston locker room.
"They call it madness for a reason," he said. "That was straight madness."
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