Omar Samhan sits folded in the seat next to me, our roller coaster car clearly designed for something less than his 6-foot-11, 275-pound frame. He wears the same goofy grin while joking with the ride’s operator that he does while holding court in a post-game press scrum, and he carries with him an infectious charisma. There’s absolutely no denying the kid within Samhan, and his dynamic personality made him one of the NCAA Tournament’s most captivating stories. Yet layered beneath is a hell of a basketball talent still searching for a home.
It’s not hard to see why reporters flock to Samhan at the end of every game. In a sea of athletes who have been trained to say nothing at all, Omar’s candor is beyond refreshing. He’s somehow both larger than life and completely down to Earth. “You know, you get these universal answers [from athletes] that nobody likes reading and nobody likes to hear, but people just say them because they’re uncomfortable,” Samhan said. “They’re scared of what people will think. At the end of the day, the media want you to be honest with them. It’s one of those things where you’ve just gotta liven up a little.”
That Omar does. So much so that while the St. Mary’s product has become a figure of renown for his sound bites, his game is somehow overshadowed. “After the first two rounds of the tournament, people were like ‘He’s such a good interview,’ he’s this, he’s that,” Samhan said. “Hold on, hold on. I scored more in the first two rounds than anyone in the history of the tournament. I averaged 30 through two games. It was one of those deals where it was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” If only we were. Omar led the Gaels through an insane tournament run, but the national media’s spotlight seemed to focus more on one-liners than drop-steps, unaware that such disregard is a punch line in itself.
Samhan isn’t in Vegas as a sideshow. He’s not here to entertain, even though he does. He — like so many other undrafted players and second round prospects — is fighting for his NBA life in Summer League, close enough to smell the hardwood but far enough from it to bow to uncertainty. “It’s tough to be in the middle ground, and it pisses me off to be honest that I am in the middle ground,” Samhan said, unearthing a bit of the fire normally reserved for the court. “I feel like I’ve done enough to be over the hump at this stage in my career and I’m not. It’s frustrating. For sure. It’s just the reality.” Omar sports self-awareness well.
“The funny thing is that everyone says my game is where it needs to be,” Samhan said. “It’s more my body. Keep working, keep getting in shape. I’ve lost 60 pounds so I wonder what else I have to do. I’ve lost 60 pounds so you know I’m serious. You know if I had an NBA trainer to work with everyday, I could lose another 60. I think [teams] today are looking for athletes. They’re not looking for skill guys anymore.”
Omar’s not wrong. Asking for a legitimate center with a refined post game is exceedingly greedy in today’s NBA. There aren’t enough guys with the size and work ethic to resurrect one of the league’s disappearing trades. Yet Samhan, who has something of an arsenal in his back pocket when positioned on the low block, has a hard time getting a serious look from NBA teams due to his relative lack of athleticism. As a player, he’s certainly not without flaws, but Omar clearly has NBA-caliber skills in a league where potential triumphs over actual basketball erudition.
“It’s a lost art,” Samhan noted. “It’s funny: Guys like [Kevin] McHale are doing our games and I got a chance to listen to some of the stuff he said after the game. He was impressed with my footwork, and he’s a guy I copy all the time because he had great footwork. A lot of these guys that have great footwork like that, they’re coaching now, and they’re recruiting guys that don’t have great footwork. I don’t understand. Why are you signing guys that don’t have great footwork when that’s how you made your money? It’s a lost art. It’s just not as respected as it used to be.”
I asked Omar to take me through a the finer details of a post-up possession. Perimeter players are considered virtuosos for their performances, but even at their best, interior scorers are generally regarded as lumbering and unspectacular. There’s an inherent unfairness to NBA flash, where productive bigs like Samhan are overlooked despite the incredible precision, patience, and technique in their craft. “I have an initial move that I want to do, either to go baseline or go middle,” Samhan said. “After that, it just kind of flows. I like to play with my defender in there, especially since I’m not that athletic. I like to get ‘em jumping and faking back and forth.”
“The thing that really helped my game was that I got a chance to meet Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O’Neal. This was last summer, before my senior year. They told me to attack the [defender’s] top foot. If one foot’s higher, attack it, because it’s going to be harder for them to open it up. There are little tips you learn over the years to outsmart people. I did it at the college level, and now I’m learning at the NBA level because guys are bigger and stronger, and you have to outsmart them even more. It’s a process. Once you get position, that’s when the creativity starts flowing.”
Summer League is the perfect place to display that creativity, even if Samhan is in a less-than-ideal position. Despite looking absolutely dominant in the tournament, Samhan was still forced to use the Vegas Summer League as an extended tryout for NBA clubs unconvinced of his professional utility. Omar certainly has holes in his game; he’s not terribly quick on his feet, and in a pro game so reliant on pick-and-roll coverage, that could be damning. Still, prospects have been given a proper shot with far bigger weaknesses, yet Samhan’s deliberate style is a convenient way to discount him. Omar has averaged 10 points and 7.3 rebounds in about 26 minutes per game in Vegas. Against quasi-NBA opponents. Playing NBA-style basketball. While “overweight,” and “unathletic,” and “unable to defend quicker players,” and evidently undeserving of the opposing draft picks he’s out-playing.
“I’ve definitely held my own and done well,” Samhan said. “I don’t think these guys are better than me. I’m playing against guys like Jordan Hill who was drafted #8 overall, and I’m like ‘This guy’s not better than me.’ I’m even happier in how I played in that sense.” For the record, Omar dropped 17 points on the far more athletic Hill, while shooting 67% from the field. All hail the power of athletic potential.
Samhan is a passionate and fiercely competitive player. Yet off the court, he’s rarely caught being completely serious, even when demonstrating some of his marketable NBA skills (toughness, shooting ability, defense):
Video by Kyle Weidie.
Before Omar and I had contorted our way into the coaster’s car, everything in the loading station came to a grinding halt. The ride was dead, and yet Omar, standing head and shoulders above everyone around him, hadn’t even begun to ride.
Samhan understands his current place on the NBA spectrum, but he’s not thrilled about it. He’s just doing what he can to grab a roster spot, even if Summer League (and the NBA dynamic) presents a bit of a culture shock. “It’s hard,” Samhan said. “It’s definitely hard. People keep moving in Summer League. Already we had a guy come and leave, new guys come, it’s a lot of changes, and it’s not what I’m used to. Especially being at a school like St. Mary’s. If you go to Kentucky, if you go to Kansas, if you go to North Carolina, Duke, you’re playing to play in the NBA. You’re playing for yourself in a sense. Coach K and those guys do a great job getting people to buy in, but at the end of the day those guys are trying to be pro athletes. At St. Mary’s, we were trying to win.”
“A lot of us don’t have a future in basketball, we just have today. It’s a unique chemistry that you can’t get anywhere else, and to go from that extreme to where I am now has been tough.”
It also doesn’t help things that the Dallas Mavericks, the team Omar is playing for in Summer League, have essentially given away his roster spot during his time in Vegas. Dallas signed former Spur Ian Mahinmi and traded for Tyson Chandler and Alexis Ajinca on Tuesday, adding three bigs to a frontcourt that’s now looking a bit crowded. “I thought I had a good chance of making the team…” Samhan said,“…until they went out and signed 30 centers.” He doesn’t have many NBA options at this point; Omar’s impressive showing in Vegas has secured him a basketball job for next season (he’s already received an offer to play overseas if an NBA gig doesn’t materialize soon), but it’s not a sweet victory. Omar Samhan is an NBA player, and what’s perhaps a bit worse: He knows it. It just doesn’t seem like many NBA decision-makers do.
So Samhan, who really only stops smiling when faced with the possibility of not living out his dream next season, does the only thing he can do: He continues to work hard in a city that demands he do otherwise. Really, Vegas is the perfect place for Omar to carve out some sort of NBA future. He certainly partakes in the fun and decadence the city has to offer, but dig deeper and he’s still the one trying to get work done in the world’s largest playground. “I think it really tests guys,” Samhan said. “Everyone wants to go out and have fun, and there’s a bunch of women here and everything else. It should be held in Fresno, California or something like that, but it’s good. I mean, you get to see who’s really serious, and who’s going to show up everyday in a hard place to show up everyday.” Even the roller coaster at New York, New York can’t quite seem to pull it off, as we continue to wait and wait while the ride’s operators suss out the technical difficulty.
Luckily, I have pretty good company: An athlete extremely conscious of what the professional sporting sphere really means, and particularly in tune with how the media operates. As a former broadcasting and journalism major at St. Mary’s, Samhan responds as the athlete that he would want to be interviewing. In a sense, he’s an intermediary between journalists and the professional athletic stereotype, and with that in mind, I asked for his help.
Most athletes are, as Samhan noted, afraid of truly speaking their minds. So they turn to canned answers as a media mulligan. The typical post-game interview is riddled with cliché, an indecipherable and unusable code that’s no fun for anybody. Omar was nice enough to provide real translations for some run-of-the-mill athlete clichés:
Both teams played hard? “We suck.”
We’re taking things one game at a time? “I’m lying to you. I just wanna win the championship.”
I’m just happy to be here? Omar laughs. “Well if they say that, then they’re probably not very good.”
Anything for the good of the team? “That’s a lie. Especially in the NBA.”
It’s not about the money? “That’s the biggest lie. It’s all about money for the teams and for the players.”
Omar also understands the growing influence of direct athlete-to-fan interaction, and that regardless of what the media says about his game or personality, he does have some control over how his brand is established and consumed. “I like to put some stuff out there, too, and it just appeals to the fans,” Samhan said. “People joke that I’m the most well-known guy at Summer League, even though I went undrafted. All of that is because I like to be involved with the fans. On my Twitter a few days ago, I put up my BBM — BlackBerry Messenger — just for whoever, for fans to hit me up so we can talk. I talked to a lot of guys about the LeBron trade. There’s probably 400 people that added me on BBM, but it’s cool.”
That incredible accessibility has helped turn Samhan into a people’s champion, and his refusal to put up a front for the media no doubt helps to reinforce his authenticity. Though Omar is undoubtedly a character, he’s not playing a role. There is no show, there’s just Omar. He is who he is: brash but self-deprecating, loose but focused, powerful yet, somehow, powerless.
The first minute and a half of the coaster ride is spent climbing a giant hill for a signature drop. Even the surest riders get a bit anxious, as the attraction’s adrenaline-infused payoff is delayed by the long climb. Being in limbo is kind of cruel in that way, but you know what? It hardly stopped Samhan from being Samhan. Even if he has to make the slow climb before finally starting his NBA ride, it won’t matter in the long run. The rush is coming.