Justin Gorham, UH’s ‘heart and soul’, comes to form in senior season
A season ago, senior forward Justin Gorham was trying to find a place to carve out his role with the Houston men’s basketball program.
He was in a crowded position group with Chris Harris Jr., Brison Gresham and Fabian White Jr., which, to no surprise, led to his minutes being limited throughout the season. Even then, the Cougars’ coaching staff had expectations for the Columbia, Maryland, native.
“When you are going to find how good Justin is, (will be) next year when he is a senior,” UH head coach Kelvin Sampson said after a practice during the 2019-20 campaign.
What always stood out to Sampson and his staff was Gorham’s work ethic. Even if an assistant coach only had space for a workout at 7 a.m., it did not matter for the 6-foot-7-inch forward. He was eager to improve throughout his redshirt year.
Fast forward to 2020-21 and Gorham has become one of the key identity players of the team, tracking down rebounds like an average person might hunt down a couple of ribeye steaks as Sampson once put it.
After a win against Wichita State back in January, in which the forward finished with a 14-point, 10-rebound double-double, the UH coach gave Gorham even bigger praise.
“He is the heart and soul of this team,” Sampson told reporters after the performance. A title that belonged to 6-foot-5-inch guard Nate Hinton just a season ago.
High school impact
Almost six years before Gorham was causing all sorts of havoc for opposing teams in a UH uniform, he was a junior for the Calvert Hall High School basketball team.
His program, ranked No. 1 in its district, was playing in the Baltimore Catholic League championship game held at Towson University.
As the seconds trickled down in the game between Calvert Hall and John Carroll, Gorham and his fellow teammate, Nico Clareth, forced a turnover with 15 seconds left on the clock.
With Calvert Hall trailing by one, the team went to Clareth to take the final shot. When the ball left his hands, however, it was Gorham that went to work.
The shot bounced off the rim and went towards the left. At the same time, Gorham timed his jump just right to meet the ball on top for the buzzer-beating tip-in.
Among those watching the game was Towson head coach Pat Skerry. For him, that tip-in was one of his first looks at what Gorham was all about. A memory that still sticks with him after nearly five years.
“That exemplified who he is and his game,” Skerry said.
Roughly 18 months later, Skerry got the chance to see Gorham’s rebounding prowess up close. He joined Towson as a freshman in the 2016-17 season. In his first season with the Tigers, he made 31 appearances but made only two starts.
Similar to UH, however, the coaching staff knew what they had in him.
Skerry believed Gorham’s potential was through the roof. He envisioned Gorham eventually reaching all-conference first-team status. He saw him as a Dennis Rodman and Kenneth Faried type of guy.
During his time with the Tigers, Skerry got to see more than just Gorham’s motor. Unfortunately, it was through much adversity.
Just in his first weeks as a college athlete, Justin’s father, Gerald “Jerry” Gorham Sr., died from advanced cancer in his small intestine.
“That was hard man,” Skerry said.
Even in 2021, the Towson head coach feels fortunate to have met Justin’s father during the recruiting process. It was no surprise to him why Justin’s motor had always been so strong.
Justin’s Towson teammates all rallied around him after the tragedy.
“I thought (Jerry was) incredibly strong, the type of family you want to have,” Skerry said. “Good values, hard-working, a loving, welcoming home. The type of family that you want to be around … Jerry was a great guy. Great, hard-working.”
In his second year with the Tigers, Justin faced adversity again. This time on a much smaller scale. Early during his sophomore season, he suffered an ankle sprain that nagged him throughout the campaign.
Justin, however, played through it. He ended the season averaging 9.8 points and 6.7 rebounds, both significant increases from his freshman year.
“He’d be an all-conference type player had he stayed with Towson,” Skerry said.
The soon-to-be UH player, however, had different plans.
Shortly thereafter, he announced he was transferring over to the Cougars.
Under Sampson’s program, Gorham has shown he is a rebounding magnet on a bigger stage. Locking down double-digit boards in a majority of the games he has played in. He held a streak of nine games, in which he finished with at least 10 or more rebounds.
Of those nine games, he finished with 15 or more rebounds in three of them. He also recorded five double-doubles along the way.
“I always knew he was an unbelievable rebounder, and now that he is getting the chance to do it, he is really showing it,” Skerry said. “He was a skilled forward who was a double-double machine.”
One of the things that caught the attention of the coaches at UH about Gorham was his toughness. To Sampson, that has always been his greatest asset.
Assistant coach Kellen Sampson, who Gorham spent a good amount of time working with during his redshirt year, once talked about how the UH program embraces “blue-collar” players.
Athletes that are not afraid to get dirty, as the younger Sampson put it, and play a style that meshes with a grit and grind mentality. Gorham has fit that mold perfectly.
“He embodies everything we value,” Kelvin Sampson said. “He is a high character kid.”
Gorham’s rebounding, however, is all on him. The older Sampson does not even bother setting a goal. He believes that would be an insult to his forward. Gorham’s motor takes care of crashing the glass.
Gorham’s teammates love it, too. It alleviates plenty of pressure off their shoulders.
“I don’t know what we would do without him really,” sophomore guard Marcus Sasser said. “Any time we shoot the ball, I just know that if we miss it, 50 percent of the time … he is going to get it.”
There are a few people that hate Gorham’s rebounding prowess — UH’s opponents.
The more offensive boards he clamps down, the more frustration builds within the opposing teams. Senior guard DeJon Jarreau often sees their foes often fussing against each other every time No. 4 comes away with the ball over a scrum of players.
“He just wears guys down,” Jarreau said. “His energy is great. He comes to do it every game. He does it in practice. What he is doing is not a fluke. He works at it and takes pride in it.”