Not all laughs for St. Mary’s Samhan
HOUSTON – Moments after professing his love for Taylor Swift and declaring he’d succeed Barack Obama as U.S. President, the most charismatic character in college basketball approached Baylor guard Tweety Carter and put up his dukes.
”You wanna fight me?” Omar Samhan asked as he danced around the concourse of the Reliant Center like a boxer. ”You wanna go?”
Puzzled, Carter shook his head no.
”Cool,” said Samhan, laughing as he extended his hand. ”Let’s shake it out. I’m Omar Samhan.”
Then the 6-foot-11, 260-pound Samhan bent over and hugged Carter, who stands just 5-11.
”I’m not sure if that made him mad or not,” Samhan said later. ”Whatever, man. I’m just trying to have fun.”
Not many players are relishing the NCAA tournament experience quite like Samhan, who propelled St. Mary’s into Friday’s Sweet 16 showdown with Baylor by averaging 30.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in the Gaels’ opening-round victories over Richmond and Villanova.
As successful as he’s been on the court, the 6-foot-11, 260-pound Samhan also is making a name for himself off of it, thanks to the colorful – and candid – quotes he continues to serve up to the flock of media members who know better than to leave his side during an interview.
Of Friday’s matchup with Baylor center Ekpe Udoh, Samhan said: ”Ekpe can jump and I can’t. He’s fast and I’m not. He’s strong and I’m not. I’ve just got to try to block him out and put a butt into him.”
Samhan also guaranteed No. 10 seed St. Mary’s will win a national championship but, to get there, he realizes he’ll have to face some quality post players instead of the ”no-name guys” that tried to stop him in the first two rounds.
He’s told amusing tales about the holes in the low-top, black adidas shoes he’s worn the last two seasons, and he hates being referred to as a Cinderella because it ”implies luck.”
On Thursday Samhan laughed when someone tried to compare the Gaels’ program to Baylor’s.
”I have to get my own ice after practice,” he said. ”Half the guys on our team don’t have cars. We live in Moraga. Tell Baylor they can’t even start that argument.”
St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett can’t help but chuckle when he hears about Samhan’s latest one-liners or potshots. Sure, he wishes Samhan would tone things down at times, but he also realizes that Samhan has worked his ample posterior off for four years to be on this platform.
”He hasn’t done anything over the top,” Bennett said. ”He’s having fun with it. He’s enjoying himself. This is the same happy, friendly, good-natured kid we’ve seen at St. Mary’s for years. Now the rest of the world is getting to know Omar Samhan, too.
”And believe me, that’s a good thing.”
Long before he was hailed as an All-American candidate or a future NBA draft pick, Omar Samhan was often called something much less-flattering:
”Yeah,” Samhan said, ”I had man boobs. I got picked on. I got teased. I tried to laugh it off like it didn’t bother me, but it wasn’t very fun.”
Especially at age 15. That’s how old Samhan was in the ninth grade, when he said his weight ballooned to 315 pounds. Samhan was athletic but out of shape. He said he didn’t have any true friends. He went to homecoming dances without a date and stood against the wall because he didn’t have anyone to dance with.
Not that he would’ve known how.
”That was the worst part,” Samhan said. ”No girls.”
Frustrating as things were socially, Samhan’s athletic endeavors weren’t going much better. From the time he could dribble a basketball, Samhan had told his mother, Marianne, his goal was to be an NBA player. Yet he never logged a single minute of action for his freshman team at Monte Vista (Calif.) High School in the Bay Area.
”Even when we were up by 30, I never got in,” Samhan said. ”After the season, the coach told me I’d never get off the bench on the JV team, either. He just didn’t believe in me.”
Luckily, John Raynor did.
Raynor is the coach at San Ramon Valley – the rival high school where Samhan transferred following his freshman season. Raynor is well-respected in West Coast basketball circles, having coached former Stanford star and NBA player Mark Madsen.
In Raynor, Samhan found a tough-nosed coach who taught him the game. In Samhan, Raynor had a prodigy that would exceed even his own expectations.
”We used to have a saying in our program: Nothing changes if nothing changes,” Raynor said. ”Omar would always repeat that back to me. He was an extremely hard worker. He was dedicated to making himself a better player.”
Known for his charisma – his nickname is ”Mad Dog” – and work ethic, Madsen often made return trips to San Ramon Valley High to play in pick-up games during the offseason. Samhan remembers one instance when Madsen dived for a loose ball as it headed out of bounds.
”He landed face first in the bleachers,” Samhan said. ”Everyone was just cringing. I was like, ‘You’re playing against 10th graders. Why are you taking a chance on hurting yourself, diving like that?’
”He said, ‘If you really love basketball and you’re truly a competitor, you’ll play the same way every day. I play the same way against you as I play against Shaquille O’Neal in practice. If you’re going to be a hard worker, work hard every day.’ ”
”That conversation,” he said, ”changed my life.”
Taking Madsen’s words to heart, Samhan began to make tremendous strides. He averaged 21.9 points and 13 rebounds as a senior and signed a national letter of intent with the University of San Francisco. But as Samhan worked to attain a qualifying score on his SAT, San Francisco rescinded his scholarship and gave it to another player.
High school graduation came and went and so did the summer. By the time September rolled around, Samhan still didn’t have anywhere to play college basketball.
Eventually, though, Samhan found a home at St. Mary’s, which is just 17 miles from Samhan’s native Danville, Calif. Bennett said he was familiar with Samhan because he routinely stopped by the St. Mary’s gymnasium to work out.
”And then he’d stop by another gym,” Bennett said, ”and then another one. You’d hear stories about him working out all over the city. He was passionate about being good. Those are the kinds of kids you want in your program.”
Excited as St. Mary’s was to sign Samhan, it was no secret that his weight issue made him a risk. By the time he enrolled at St. Mary’s in January of 2006, Samhan was 315 pounds.
Strength coach Gene Mirra said he was shocked when assistant coach Kyle Smith showed him a picture of Samhan a few weeks before he arrived on campus.
Coach Smith came up to me and said, ‘I’ve got a project for you,’” Mirra said. “He showed me a picture of Omar on his cell phone and I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t look like a basketball player. He looked like Grimace from McDonald’s. “He wasn’t just big. He was fat.”
Mirra said Samhan dipped almost everything he ate – pizza, potato chips, you name it – in ranch dressing. His diet consisted of junk food and he always consumed large portions.
”He had no idea how to eat properly,” Mirra said. ”But once we got him going in the right direction, he became extremely dedicated.
”I can remember him telling me, ‘When I’m done with all this, I’m going to be ripped.’ Four years later, he’s definitely not far from it. You can actually see his abs now.”
Indeed, Samhan – who redshirted in 2005-06 – has lost about 60 pounds during his time at St. Mary’s. His efforts are clearly paying off on the court.
Samhan will take a 21.5-point per game scoring average and a 10.9 rebounding mark into Friday’s game against Baylor. This season he became the first West Coast Conference player to lead the league in scoring, rebounding and blocks since Bill Cartwright did it for San Francisco in 1978.
When Samhan arrived on campus more than four years ago, it took him 8 minutes and 30 seconds to run a mile. Now he can do it in 5:30.
”He works so hard and pushes himself so much that we’ve actually had to tell him to shut it down for awhile,” said Smith, the assistant coach. ”We don’t want him to get shin splints or stress fractures. In the offseason, he’ll literally work out on the court, go lift weights and then come back on the court to work out some more.”
Samhan’s drive has earned the respect of his teammates.
”People have no idea what this guy puts himself through,” junior forward Phil Benson said. ”The only person who can stop Omar Samhan from pushing himself beyond the absolute limit is Omar Samhan.”
He’s got newspaper clippings on his office wall and fields interview requests about his former star nearly every week. Still, even though everyone wants to talk about Omar Samhan as a player, John Raynor is even fonder of him as a person.
One of the main reasons is because of a card Samhan gave Raynor after a high school basketball tournament six years ago.
”The games were played over Father’s Day weekend,” Raynor said. ”When the tournament was over, Omar gave me this handwritten card that said how much he appreciated me spending my Father’s Day with the team and how much it meant to them.
”For a kid to just do something like that on his own, without anyone telling him to do it … it just tells you everything you need to know about Omar Samhan.”
Touching as that story may be, Samhan’s soft side isn’t always on display. At St. Mary’s, he’s received technical fouls for trash-talking with opposing players. His body language and occasional taunting sometimes gets under the skin of fans during road games.
A newspaper once labeled Samhan as the ”Most Hated Man” in Spokane, Wash., which is the home of the rival Gonzaga Bulldogs.
”He’s the guy everyone loves to hate, but also the guy everyone would love to have on their team,” Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating said. ”When I look at him I see a kid who is passionate about playing and passionate about winning.
”His wears his game on his sleeve sometimes. Some kids that do that are brash and arrogant. This year’s NCAA tournament has allowed him to prove that he’s not like that.”
No, Samhan said his goal is simply to have fun. When St. Mary’s made the NCAA tournament two years ago, Samhan said he felt bad about giving brief, one-sentence answers during interviews – especially considering he’s a communications major.
Samhan vowed then that he would show his true personality if he ever found himself in the national spotlight again.
Just as he did last week after St. Mary’s defeated Villanova, Samhan was hamming it up again in Houston on Friday. He said he didn’t want to do any radio interviews because ”no one will be able to see my pretty face.”
In the locker room, he joked about his future after basketball.
”If we make the Final Four I’m running for president,” he said. ”What’s Obama got left? Two years? Perfect.”
Samhan’s mother watched her son enjoy himself and that brought a smile to her face.
”Ever since he put those Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman posters up in his room in the fourth grade, this has been his dream,” Marianne said. ”He’s always wanted this and now it’s happening for him. He’s like, … Wow. I’m doing it.’ He’s enjoying every single moment of it.”
So, too, are the fans at St. Mary’s, who mobbed Samhan and his teammates when they stepped off the bus in Moraga earlier this week after earning their Sweet 16 berth. Samhan was so worked up after signing autographs for an hour that he went into the gym and shot baskets at 3 a.m.
People in cars drove by his apartment the following day and they honked their horns, and the owner of a local sandwich shop attempted to give Samhan and his mother their meal for free. When he stopped at Safeway to buy groceries, a 3-year-old girl passed by him and said, ”Omar!”
”That’s a big deal,” the girl’s mother told Samhan. ”She doesn’t even know her preschool teacher’s name.”
Reporters howled as Samhan told the story, which will soon be heard by folks across the country who had never even heard of Samhan until a week ago. Perhaps that is why Madsen took time Thursday evening to send Samhan a message on Facebook.
Now a coach with the Utah Flash of the NBA’s D-League, Madsen said he preferred to keep most of his letter to Samhan private.
”I mainly just wanted to tell him that I was proud of him,” Madsen said. ”His personality is drawing people into the game. He reminds me of Shaquille O’Neal, because he’s sharing the game of basketball with people who may have never cared before, just by being himself.
”It’s great for the game of basketball to have Omar Samhan in our sport.”