In his first season as Oklahoma coach, Kelvin Sampson was named 1995 Associated Press national collegiate coach of the year. Shortly thereafter, he received a phone call from Stu Jackson, general manager of the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies, who were about to make their NBA debut.
Jackson didn't offer the head coaching job to the 39-year-old Sampson, who said he thought Jackson was simply trying to gauge Sampson's interest in being an NBA coach. A few years later, the Sacramento Kings inquired about Sampson.
Now 57, Sampson once again is being sized up by an NBA team. Unlike Sampson's previous flirtations with curiosity, presumably he would pounce at the opportunity to coach the Brooklyn Nets.
An assistant with the Houston Rockets the past two seasons, Sampson served as interim coach while head man Kevin McHale tended to his ailing 23-year-old daughter, Sasha, who died of complications from lupus on Nov. 24.
The Rockets went 7-6 under Sampson's guidance. “I thought Kelvin did a tremendous job, I really did,” McHale said upon his Dec. 8 return.
College coaching has been in Sampson's rearview mirror since 2008 after recruiting violations at OU and Indiana resulted in the NCAA imposing a five-year “show-cause” order on Sampson, essentially blackballing him from being hired at the major-college level until at least 2013.
Despite the turmoil the ended his college coaching days, Sampson never left the game. Just two weeks after being forced to resign at Indiana, he was hired in an advisory role with the San Antonio Spurs. Two months after that, he was hired as an assistant to Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles. Three years after that, Sampson joined the Rockets.
A stern disciplinarian while in charge at Montana Tech, Washington State, OU and Indiana, Sampson was noticeably calmer while directing the Rockets.
“When I left college ball, I think I was prepared to coach a team, but I don't think I was prepared to help the team win,” Sampson said, sitting on the Houston bench three hours before the Rockets' 120-98 loss to the Thunder on Nov. 28 in Chesapeake Energy Arena. “I didn't realize the difference between coaching college and coaching the NBA. It's a totally different animal.