GREENVILLE — It’s a good 2½-hour drive from Pembroke to East Carolina’s Minges Coliseum, too far for Kelvin Sampson to make the trip in the short time he was in North Carolina last weekend.
So instead of visiting his hometown just this side of the South Carolina border, Sampson had a little piece of his hometown venture up Interstate 95 to visit him.
As satisfying as his team’s 65-49 victory against ECU might have been from a professional standpoint, the Houston basketball coach was never happier Sunday than the few moments he got to spend after the game catching up with the large group of family and friends that came to Greenville to see and support him.
“I love Pembroke,” Sampson said. “I think the older I get, the more I love it. A lot of my role models and people that really helped me have died and so when I come back I always think about them.
“My greatest role model was my mother. My hero was my dad and I’ve lost both of them. As soon as our charter landed in Greenville, I started thinking that they’d be here tonight. But it was neat to see a lot of friends.”
Sampson’s father, Ned, was a standout multisport athlete at what is now known as UNC Pembroke before beginning a long and successful career coaching high school basketball in Robeson County.
Kelvin followed in Ned’s footsteps, first by earning induction into the UNCP Athletic Hall of Fame as both a basketball and baseball player, then going into coaching himself. Unlike his father, his path took him far from home — first to Michigan State as a graduate assistant, then as a head coach at Montana State, Washington State, Oklahoma, Indiana and now Houston.
Although Pembroke has remained close to Sampson’s heart throughout his journey up, down and back up the coaching ladder, the only Native American ever to take a team to the Final Four has become just as connected to his current home.
It’s a relationship that was solidified under the most difficult of circumstances last summer after Hurricane Harvey ripped through East Texas, causing floods that left thousands in and around Houston without food, clean water, shelter or clothing.
Sampson was fortunate that his house is built on high ground. But he was moved by images of those who weren’t as lucky and knew he had to do something to help.
“I was watching local TV and there was one thing that jumped out at me,” Sampson said. “I saw a young mother and she had a little boy on her hip. The water was up to her waist and there was this fishing boat she was trying to get to.
“She kept repositioning the boy higher so he wouldn’t get in the water and she was just trying to get to that boat. God, that really tugged at my heartstrings. So I got on the phone with my son (and assistant coach) Kellen and said we’ve got to use what we have to help.”
The Sampsons decided to donate T-shirts, shoes and other items from their program to help the relief effort for those displaced by the storm. Shortly thereafter, Kelvin took to social media challenging his fellow coaches to send donations, too.
The response he got was overwhelming and made national headlines.
“Be careful what you ask for,” he said.
The initial delivery consisted of 787 boxes of clothing, sent from college and high school programs — both men and women — from all over the country.
“We had an embargo on the City of Houston mail service for two days, but when they finally lifted the embargo, UPS, FedEx, U.S. Postal Service … we had stuff coming in from everywhere,” Sampson said. “I went to my athletic director and said we need a room so we can start stacking these boxes. And that was just the start.”
All told, Sampson’s clothing drive totaled more than 5,000 boxes, 25,000 T-shirts and 35,000 pairs of shoes that his daughter Lauren distributed through six different relief agencies.
“We were able to help a lot of people,” Sampson said. “That’s all that matters.”
In the process, Sampson also ended up helping himself.
Despite a resume that includes a 61.6 winning percentage, 13 NCAA tournament appearances, a national Coach of the Year award and a Final Four appearance with Oklahoma in 2002, Sampson’s reputation in his profession was tarnished by an NCAA violations case that led to his firing less than two seasons into his tenure at Indiana.
Sampson was also slapped with a “show-cause” sanction that kept him out of college basketball for five years.
Instead of being remembered as “that coach who ran foul of the NCAA,” he’s become more famous for being “that T-shirt guy” — a selfless hero who came to the aid of thousands when they needed it most. His professional reputation has also been rebuilt through his work on the court.
Now 62 years old, Sampson began resurrecting his career as an NBA assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets. That led to his current job at the University of Houston, where he has led the Cougars to two straight 20-win seasons.
His current team, picked to finish sixth in the American Athletic Conference, is 14-3 after Sunday’s beat down of ECU and is poised to make its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2010. It’s a success built on principles Sampson learned from his father back home in Pembroke.
“If you play for Coach Sampson, you have to be a basketball junkie because if you are not and don’t love it, his passion and the time he wants to keep us in the gym, it will wear you out,” Houston senior guard Rob Gray, himself a North Carolinian from Forest City told the Houston Chronicle. “You won’t play as hard and have as much fun because you don’t even want to be there. Playing for coach Sampson, you have to really love the game and love being in the gym.”