Six games in, Sampson found himself filling in as head coach.
Sampson, a graduate of Pembroke High School and Pembroke State University (now UNC-Pembroke), was handed the clipboard last Saturday after Rockets head coach Kevin McHale took a leave of absence to deal with a family matter in Minnesota. There is no timetable for the return of the second-year coach and Hall of Fame player.
The Rockets (4-4) are 2-1 since Sampson stepped in. In his first game at the helm last Saturday, the Rockets beat the Pistons, 96-82, snapping a three-game losing streak.
Sampson, who was a longtime college coach before moving to the NBA, admitted that it felt odd to be working as a head coach again for the first time since 2008.
“I was nervous at first,” he said to the Associated Press. “I kept tonight in perspective. I kept thinking of Kevin and his family and what he’s going through. That’s something far more important than me coaching a game for the first time in (almost) five years.”
Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin said it was a bit strange to play without McHale in charge of the team, but felt Sampson handled the responsibility well.
“It was definitely different,” Lin said. “He’s our leader. He’s our voice. But Coach Sampson did a good job coming in, and we played hard.”
Sampson said that the fact that there weren’t high expectations for the Rockets entering this season has made the transition to filling in for McHale an easy one.
“I don’t think it’s that challenging,” he said. “We have a young team and we have a new team. I think it would be a lot more challenging if we were … the No. 1 ranked team in the league. That might be a little more challenging. We’re still growing.”
The Robeson County native came to the Rockets after spending three years as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks. Before his move into the NBA, Sampson coached Division I hoops for nearly 30 years. His biggest success came during his 12 seasons at Oklahoma University (1994-2006) where Sampson earned two National Coach of the Year Awards and led the Sooners to the Final Four in 2002.
Sampson and the Rockets, coming off a 100-96 win over the New Orleands Hornets on Wednesday, return to action today for a 10 p.m. tip-off at Portland.