Kelvin Sampson leapt to his feet and pumped his fist as his basketball team won a game Tuesday night.
Sure, it was the stoic NBA regular season, and there's always another game the next day, and emotion is passé in the pros. But forgive Sampson, Kevin McHale's chief assistant with the Houston Rockets.
After all, it is March. And March always mattered to Sampson. Always mattered to OU fans, when Sampson coached the Sooners to 11 NCAA Tournaments in his 12 seasons.
Sampson stood on the hardwood of Chesapeake Energy Arena last week and reminisced about his collegiate days, which ended in shame; Sampson was fired after two years at Indiana, for making impermissible phone calls to recruits, the same infraction he committed at OU.
Sampson says he most misses college basketball twice a year: Oct. 15, the start of practice, and Selection Sunday.
“It's like Christmas,” Sampson said of the day NCAA Tournament assignments are announced. “You know you're in, but you don't know who you're playing or where you're going.
“I miss Sunday night, when after all the media stuff is over, your video guy, if he's done his job, which our always did, has a catalog of every game that's been televised. You start watching and say, ‘Hey, I think we can beat this team.'”
Sampson didn't always win in the NCAA Tournament; his record at OU was 11-11. But Sampson's 2002 team made the Final Four; a year later, the Sooners reached the East Regional final before falling to Syracuse and Carmelo Anthony.
“I never got over the feeling of how final a loss was in the NCAA Tournament,” Sampson said. “You get on the bus, realize there's no game tomorrow, no practice tomorrow. You miss those things.”
Sampson's collegiate career ended for infractions that no longer are crimes.
The NCAA last autumn approved legislation that allows coaches to send “unlimited phone calls and text messages to men's basketball recruits,” according to the NCAA's own website. The deregulation extends to social media, starting June 15 after a recruit's sophomore year. Private messages on social networks also will be deregulated.
Public messages through social networks will continue to be prohibited because of the rule preventing institutions from publicizing their recruiting efforts.
A lot of good that does Sampson. He has on occasion lamented the irony that the NCAA now embraces what cost Sampson his job at Indiana.
“I made a mistake,” Sampson said. “There's a lot I'd like to say … I always felt that was a rule, most coaches did what they had to do. But I made a mistake. I have to take full responsibility.”
Lots of coaches probably did skirt the telephone contact rule. No doubt some did not.
But the rule was changed not to level the playing field. The rule was changed to help coaches counter the tendency of outside influences on recruiting.
According to the NCAA website, the board of directors “believed that allowing earlier and more frequent contact between coaches and recruits will help build stronger relationships and reduce some of the influence of third parties on the recruiting process.”
More irony. Sampson always talked about relationships.
“I miss the relationships.” Sampson said. “I don't miss recruiting. Recruiting's a little different than it was in 1994. I don't know if you're coaching a different kid, but you're recruiting a different kid. Once you get 'em, you can coach 'em.”
Ten years ago, Sampson was nowhere on the NBA radar. The NBA was nowhere on Sampson's radar. He was a college coach through and through, from his Heart, Hustle, Hardwood mantra to his constrained offenses.
But in summer 2002, Sampson was on the staff for the U.S. team in the World Championships, along with George Karl, Gregg Popovich and Mike Montgomery.
“I started thinking about it then,” Sampson said. “I just wondered. I didn't know how I would get there. I don't know that I was ever mesmerized, but it did intrigue me.”
Reggie Miller was on that U.S. team, before he was injured. Sampson watched how Miller prepared for each game and every practice. Sampson wrote down notes to take back to his Sooners.
When Indiana fired Sampson, Popovich allowed Sampson to hang out in San Antonio with the Spurs staff. That led to a job on Scott Skiles' staff with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Sampson has been mentioned for head coaching jobs in Cleveland, Detroit and Houston. When the Rockets job went to McHale instead, Sampson joined his staff.
McHale, a Hall of Fame player with the Celtics, ran the Minnesota Timberwolves organization for several years but has coached only an interim basis.
McHale is great with players, but Sampson has helped immensely with X's and O's.
“Good guy,” McHale said of Sampson. “Fun to be around. Knows the game. Lots of basketball experience. Been fun for me.”
The college game looks overcoached. The NBA appears undercoached. But Sampson says that's not accurate.
“NBA coaches make more decisions in a week than I would in a month” at OU, Sampson said.
Should you practice? Should you watch film? How much film? What film do you watch?
Sampson said that at OU, he and trainer Alex Brown would meet in September and map out a full season's practice schedule.
Now, Sampson and McHale sit together on the team plane after a game and decide the next day's agenda.
“I felt like I knew the college game,” Sampson said. “I always felt like I was pretty good at managing the college game. But I was blown away that first month I was in San Antonio with Pop and those guys.”
Sampson said some things are the same. Reaching players. Knowing who needs a pick-me-up. In the NBA, constructive criticism needs to be more private. Pride plays a bigger role in the pro game.
But some things are different.
“As soon as the game is over tonight, you have to let it go,” Sampson said. “I was never good at that in college. Here, you have to let it go. You've got a game tomorrow night, fly out to Los Angeles. Gotta prepare your team.”
And if that preparation leads to victory, forgive Sampson for giving it the old college celebration.
Kelvin Sampson at OU
Season — W-L — Big 12 — NCAA
1994-95 — 23-9 — 9-5, 3rd — First round
1995-96 — 17-13 — 8-6, 3rd — First round
1996-97 — 19-11 — 9-7, 6th — First round
1997-98 — 22-11 — 11-5, tie 2nd — First round
1998-99 — 22-11 — 11-5, tie 2nd — Sweet 16
1999-00 — 27-7 — 12-4, tie 3rd — Second round
2000-01 — 26-7 — 12-4, tie 2nd — First round
2001-02 — 31-5 — 13-3, 2nd — Final Four
2002-03 — 27-7 — 12-4, 3rd — Regional final
2003-04 — 20-11 — 8-8, 7th — NIT
2004-05 — 25-8 — 12-4, tie 1st — Second round
2005-06 — 20-9 — 11-5, 3rd — First round