Former Cougar looks to build community, brotherhood
As a program, Houston men’s basketball has had a disconnect—a lack of true camaraderie and kinship—among current and former players. Cougar alumnus and former UH guard Lanny Smith intends to change that.
You might remember Smith as one of the only four players in UH history to score over 1,000 points and have over 400 assists in his career.
He was projected to be drafted to the NBA, but broke his foot senior year and after having three surgeries, he was told he’d never play again.
He wasn’t always certain of where his basketball career would take him, but he was certain of one thing: at some point, he’d return to his stomping grounds and do something that had nothing to do with stepping back onto the hardwood floor.
He wanted to reintroduce brotherhood back into Houston basketball.
“Where we are right now, we’re behind other major universities where they have that family atmosphere,” Smith said. “At those universities, former players are very much involved with the program. They go back and share experiences with the current guys, and for me, that’s very important.”
As a former Houston Player of the Year honoree, Smith said he’s constantly questioned his decision to play at Houston. He was even recruited by current head coach, Kelvin Sampson, who offered Smith a scholarship to the University of Oklahoma during his junior year, which he turned down.
But big-name universities didn’t appeal to him. He wanted to help bring UH back to prominence, where he believes it’s supposed to be.
“This is a program that has such a rich tradition,” Smith said. “We’re talking about what Guy V. Lewis did here with five Final Fours, the guys that they put in the NBA, being ranked in the top 10 in the country year after year… I wanted to be part of bringing that back.”
So, that was his vision. That was the dream.
While a majority of the top basketball players in Houston left to play at other schools year after year, Smith said he wanted to be a part of building and growing something here at home.
“I wanted to be one of the building blocks,” Smith said. “I had a relationship with coach Michael Young, Clyde Drexler and all those guys when I was in high school, and they kind of influenced me as well. Seeing what they did here, I just wanted to be a part of that tradition.”
Smith eventually learned that the tradition, however, had been broken a long time ago.
“When I was playing here, we didn’t really see any other former players,” Smith said. “Damon Jones, who played here and went on to play in the NBA, he’s a friend of mine and he’d come back whenever he was in town and sit down with us, talk with us, we just needed more of that.”
That’s where it started.
“I didn’t see that cycle of guys coming back to support and be around the program,” Smith said. “I knew then that whenever I was done, I was going to make sure that I was one of the guys who came back.”
His teammates, on the other hand, simply carried on what they had seen, or more-so, what they had not seen.
“They didn’t see guys coming back to visit them.,” Smith said, “They didn’t see guys coming back to support them. So, I think they just continued that streak of ‘When I leave here, I’m gone, and that’s it’. It’s sad, but that’s the reality of where are now.”
Being from Houston, Smith felt he had a responsibility to do things differently.
“I think I have a little more ownership in the fact that I played here and graduated from here.” Smith said.
Not only does Smith look to build a lifelong tradition of connection and brotherhood, he wants to reinforce the dignity of being a Houston Cougar.
“It helps when the current guys understand that ‘Hey, there’s a pride about wearing this jersey, about what I represent’,” Smith said. “Understanding that it’s not just about me, it’s about the guys before me, who paved the way for me.”
Senior point guard L.J. Rose said he noticed the lack of player involvement after transferring to Houston.
“Coming from Baylor, I definitely noticed the difference,” Rose said. “At Baylor, a lot of those guys would spend their summers working out with us. That isn’t the case here.”
Rose, who said he watched Smith play during his time at Houston, said it means a lot to him and his teammates to have the support of a former player, and especially one who has gone through same thing he has gone through with his foot injury.
Smith is pleased to see that Sampson is making an effort to establish an ingrained culture of welcoming former players back into the program.
“The people that deserve the credit for what has been accomplished here in the past are the former players — it’s people like Lanny Smith,” Sampson said. “These former Cougars are our eyes and ears too, the more the connection they have to us, the more this program keeps going.”
That is all Smith has been wanting.
“That open door hasn’t always been there,” Smith said. “(Sampson) sees the importance of creating that culture again, and I think some of the former players will be pleased about that.”
Now, he’s ready to do his part, whether by making telephone calls and reaching out via social media, Smith is ready to do whatever he can to keep things going in the right direction. He believes it’s necessary to get more guys his age to come back and help keep it going.
“That’s what I am going to do to: keep building,” Smith said.