Getting To Know: Kelvin Sampson
Rockets lead assistant coach discusses the 'family business' of basketball
HOUSTON - The Rockets introduced a brand new coaching staff this summer, bringing in Head Coach Kevin McHale along with assistants Kelvin Sampson, J.B. Bickerstaff, Chris Finch and Greg Buckner, while promoting former player development director Brett Gunning to the role of assistant as well. To help fans get a better feel for these men both on and off the court, Rockets.com will sit down with each over the coming weeks to discuss their unique backgrounds, philosophies and experiences within the game.
Today, we put lead assistant Kelvin Sampson in the spotlight, giving him a chance to reflect upon the chemistry he shares with McHale and what it means to follow a father's footsteps. Click here to read part I of the series in which we interviewed Chris Finch.
JCF: Was there a specific moment in your childhood which stands out to you as the time basketball really took hold of you and that you knew this was what you were going to spend the rest of your life doing?
KS: I was lucky in that my dad was inducted into the North Carolina High School Coaches Hall of Fame and he’s the best coach I’ve ever been around in terms of almost every facet. When I was a little boy, I would say from the time I was 5 until I was in the seventh grade, on weekends he would take me with him and then after school on weekdays my mom would pick me up and take me to where his practice was or I would catch a ride with someone who would take me to his practice.
So I grew up in a gym and I’ve always been a gym rat. My dad has always been my hero and always been an inspiration for me. So for me, I always felt like it was the family business. My dad was a coach and I think had he been a carpenter or a construction worker or a history teacher, that’s probably what I would have been because I just looked up to him that much.
JCF: Since basketball was always in the cards for you, at what point was it clear that coaching was the way you were going to make your mark in the game?
KS: Well, actually I was a political science major in college. I was always infatuated with law and history. It didn’t matter what kind of history: I loved Civil War history; I loved Revolutionary War history; the War of 1812; World War I; The Korean War; Vietnam; The Persian Gulf – even now, when I go to a book store I gravitate toward the history section. So had I not been a coach I think I probably would have been an attorney – that’s something that really interested me. But while I loved history, my passion was coaching and a lot of that has to do with my dad.
My mother was a registered nurse and I have two sisters that graduated from the University of North Carolina in the health field – one is a physical therapist and the other is a pharmacist; another sister went into education – so they kind of followed my mother, while I followed my father’s footsteps and went into coaching. The reason I mention that is because my sisters and I were lucky to have parents that gave us the freedom to choose what we wanted to do.
But all those Saturdays jumping in my dad’s old car and going to practice with him made a huge impact. When I was a little boy I can remember he’d have his managers babysit me. He’d give me a ball, and you know how a little boy bounces a ball, and he’d look over at the manager and say, “Tell Kelvin to hold that ball!” So if I was screwing up he’d always jump on his manager and I noticed I did the same thing with my son when he’d come to practice with me so that apple didn’t fall far from the tree. And now my son, he was an assistant coach last year at Stephen F. Austin and now he’s an assistant coach at Appalachian State so he’s kind of taken up the family business as well.
JCF: I know from a coaching philosophy standpoint you really value rebounding, toughness, playing hard and grinding – I’m going to go out on a limb and guess those are all things that were passed down to you from your father?
KS: Actually my father wasn’t like that. I don’t know where I got that from. I think that I probably developed that philosophy as a result of the jobs that I was able to get early in my career.
I was a head coach when I was 25 at a NAIA school in Montana … Montana Tech was an engineering school and every degree curriculum required 30 credits of math. The only majors they had there had to do with mineral extraction: petroleum engineering; chemical engineering; mining engineering – so obviously I was recruiting more students than I was athletes. Well I believe that in order to compete you have to have an identity and so early on I knew we weren’t going to out-talent anyone or out-athlete anyone, but we could out-compete them and out-tough them. So I really started valuing rebounding and defense.
And that philosophy continued to develop after I left Montana Tech for the head coaching job at Washington State which was arguably the toughest job in the Pac-10 at the time. I couldn’t get the same players talent-wise as schools could at UCLA and Arizona, but we still had an identity and I felt like that was something we could hang our hat on every night.
But toughness and competing and playing hard is a talent. It always bothers me when people say, “Well, it doesn’t take talent to do that.” Yes, it does – that is a talent and for some players that is their talent. Sometimes kids don’t have the physical tools to jump up 12 feet and touch the square or be able to physically manhandle people inside the paint, but they can compete and that’s just a standard I’ve always held my teams to.
I think the thing my father taught me more than anything else was how to get the most out of your players – that’s something that he was a master at. His teams always competed. I don’t think I ever saw one of his teams underachieve. They played to their ability level every night and I’d like to think that the teams I’ve been involved with over the years have had that same type of mentality.
JCF: Correct me if I’m wrong but it sounds like your philosophy and the things you value are very similar to the ideals Kevin McHale holds near and dear to his heart.
KS: I think that’s right. The thing I love about Kevin is his passion for the game. He and I have been traveling around together a lot; it seems like I’m always in his truck driving somewhere with him. And even in his truck, when he talks about basketball you can tell his enthusiasm level rises. If we’re sitting in a meeting with our whole staff, when he starts talking about basketball he can hardly sit still.
I love being around people who love this game and have a passion for this game. I’m as anxious to see Kevin in action as I am our team. I think it’s going to be a great experience for our team to have a Hall of Famer on the sidelines and to see his passion and enthusiasm for the game.
I have no question that our assistant coaches are going to do a good job, all of us. But Kevin is the leader of this program and his enthusiasm and passion and ability to do it every day is going to be huge because consistency of effort is something we require from our players but it’s just as important for head coaches and that’s something I think is going to be a strength of Kevin’s.
JCF: How well did you know Kevin before you started with the Rockets?
KS: We had a passing relationship before I started here. I would see him at games that he was scouting and we would shake hands or say hello. We had a lot of mutual friends but we never had a relationship per se.
Understand, I was really happy in Milwaukee. I love Scott Skiles and felt a lot of loyalty to him and the Bucks organization. I was happy there and figured that’s probably where I was going to be. But Kevin called me, flew up to Minnesota and picked me up in his beat up truck and right away I liked him. I liked the fact he had a beat up truck and I liked the fact he had just gotten off his brother’s roof because that’s the way I am. There’s nothing fancy about me. I’m just an old ball coach, I like to work hard and I value family. So while Kevin was apologizing for picking me up late I’m sitting there going, “I really like this guy.”
He said he had been up on his brother’s roof trying to help him fix it. OK, here’s a Hall of Famer, one of the top-50 players ever, up on his brother’s roof trying to help him fix it – my kind of guy.
JCF: I think that would sell pretty much anyone.
KS: It sure sold me.
JCF: So what has the dynamic been like since you came to Houston? You’ve obviously had plenty of time to develop relationships with everyone and discuss all sorts of in-game scenarios – what has that process been like so far?
KS: Just being able to sit down in a room and pick each other’s brains has been a real blessing. The thing about our staff is that everyone has something they’re pretty good at. One of the great things about great leaders is that they’re open to suggestions and they want to hear people’s opinions. I mean, why would you hire a staff if you’re not going to listen to them?
Chris Finch comes from a unique background. J.B. Bickerstaff comes from a coaching family that’s been involved in the NBA for a lot of years. Greg Buckner’s mentality and identity as a player has been something that’s going to be really important to us. Brett Gunning and his passion for individual development is fantastic. And the great thing about Kevin is he wants to know what we think about everything. We’ll be in a meeting about something – whether it’s half-court defense or zone offense or out of bounds plays – and he’ll say, “Kelvin, why don’t you get on the board and show us your favorite baseline out of bounds plays? Chris, why don’t you show us your favorite sideline out of bounds plays?” So you just sit there and learn. The day you stop learning in basketball is the day you stop improving. So when you have a head coach who fosters that kind of environment it just makes it fun for everybody because everybody has a say.
Nobody wants to sit down and listen to one guy do all the talking. I don’t think you can grow that way. You don’t need a staff if one guy is going to do all the work. But when you have a staff that’s knowledgeable, experienced and can match your passion, that’s when you have something special and I think we have something special here and Kevin has a unique way of bringing the best out in everybody.
JCF: Well I can’t let you go without asking you about walking. The very first time we spoke, you mentioned that you are a huge walker, so I’m curious to know how you’ve found Houston in that regard because it’s not really known as a walking city – at least not in the traditional sense the way a place like New York City is thought of.
KS: When I was a head coach in college, I would always take my freshmen, especially my point guards, on a 5-mile walk. They’d look at me like I was crazy when I would do that. If I had a kid I thought was a little overweight and I wanted to get some weight off of him, that’s a great way to mentor him, motivate him and build a better relationship with him.
I love to walk – I really do. Chris Finch and I walked 7 1/2 miles together the other day. You just learn so much about an individual. Somebody once said that if you go play golf with somebody, after about four hours you know all you need to know about them. Well I would argue it’s the same thing when you go walking with someone. We’ll go walk an hour-and-a-half or two hours at a 14-minute-a-mile pace and you don’t even realize you’ve been gone that long because you’re asking questions of each other.
Chris is always asking me questions and I do the same to him. I love to hear about the D-league and coaching in Europe – those are things I don’t have any experience with and don’t know anything about, but I love asking him questions about it and we’ve really developed a good friendship by just walking all over.
I live out on Allen Parkway and I think it’s about three miles from where I live to Memorial Park. A lot of people go to Memorial Park to walk around it, well I walk there and walk back so that’s about six miles. But every day we take a different route and Houston is such an interesting city. I love walking around downtown and the Museum District, and I’ll take a different route just about every time so I can go explore different parts of the city.
Traveling around the NBA, I have walking routes in almost every city. It’s a great way to stay in shape physically but it’s also a great way to get to know someone else.
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