Inside Former Saint Mary’s Star Omar Samhan’s Egyptian Odyssey
Literally and figuratively, Omar Samhan is a world away from where he was four years ago this month.
It was back in 2010 that Samhan dominated seventh-seeded Richmond and second-seeded Villanova down low with a combined 61 points and 19 rebounds, guiding an underdog Saint Mary’s squad to its second Sweet 16 ever. His play and, more important, his gregarious nature - he took playful shots at ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and was dubbed “The Sandman” - transformed him into the “dominant player/personality” of the opening rounds, according to CBS Sports’ Ray Ratto.
Fast-forward to the present. Samhan now makes his home in Egypt, far from the spotlight he inhabited in March 2010. It’s the latest stop in a whirlwind, worldwide trek that has also taken him to Lithuania, the Philippines and Germany.
Thankfully, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed when it comes to Omar Samhan: He’s as gregarious and as engaging as ever.
“I thought I’d have a 12-year NBA career rather than playing in all these countries,” Samhan said over the phone from Alexandria, which lies on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. “Bouncing around the world, seeing all these countries, it’s not ideal. Everyone back home asks me, ‘What’s wrong, why aren’t you in the NBA?’ But in terms of growing and learning about basketball, it’s been priceless.”
And if things break the right way for Samhan, Egypt won’t mark the end of his basketball journey. On the contrary, it could be where it begins in earnest.
Why Egypt, you may ask? Samhan’s father, Hasaan, grew up in Cairo, and Omar has aspired to represent the national team as far back as his Saint Mary’s days. Up until late last year, he simply never had the time to commit to it.
“In college coach [Randy] Bennett wanted us [with the team] during the summers,” Samhan said. “Then I played 11 months in Lithuania [in 2010-2011], so for that one month off you don’t want to play. You want to go home and see your friends and family. This year and last year is when it made sense for the first time.”
For a variety of reasons, too. Having played professional ball continuously from 2010-2013, Samhan was comfortable enough financially that he could take this season off and commit all of his time to training with the Egyptian national team - many of whose other members have also temporarily put their respective club careers on hold.
It’s all in an effort to prepare themselves for the FIBA Basketball World Cup in August, in which Egypt will be appearing for the first time in 20 years.
“I think that all the guys are playing harder than normal just to be in supreme shape,” said Samhan, who pointed out that three of his teammates are the sons of players from Egypt’s 1994 FIBA World Cup team. “Not just for job offers but because we haven’t been in it for 20 years and we don’t want to look horrible. Everyone on the team has gone out of their way to prepare.”
Samhan also rationalized that rather thank accept a contract offer from a European, Asian or D-League team this past offseason, his best bet to prove his worthiness of an NBA roster spot (particularly after tearing his ACL two years ago) would be to round himself into proper shape for the FIBA World Cup and then play well against noted big men from Brazil (Nene), Spain (the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka) and France (Ronny Turiaf) - all of whom Egypt is matched with in the tournament’s group stage.
“Ideally I’d play well against those other bigs, get invited to an NBA training camp, play well there and get the roster spot I’ve wanted all along,” Samhan said.
What a lot of people probably don’t realize is that Samhan isn’t an ex-NBA reject, per se. He enjoyed a solid showing in the 2010 summer league with the Dallas Mavericks, including holding former Kentucky standout and first-round draft pick Demarcus Cousins to two points in a game against the Sacramento Kings. Rather, he chose to take his talents overseas.
“I had an unusual situation: They invited me to training camp and I said, ‘No,’ ” Samhan said. “My team in Lithuania [BC Žalgiris] offered me a $1.4 million deal. I had to pick that week, and Dallas’ training camp wasn’t until November. [Team GM] Donnie Nelson told me, ‘I think you can make the team but I can’t guarantee it.’ So I never really got cut or a chance to go.”
Samhan returned to the U.S. after spending the 2010-2011 season with Žalgiris - which culminated in a Lithuanian national league title - and caught on with the Houston Rockets during the NBA lockout. Alas, Samhan’s lack of a prototypical “NBA body” prevented him from landing a roster spot, although not without him gaining his fair share of admirers.
“When they cut me in Houston, [head coach] Kevin McHale told me, ‘You’re a very smart player, very skilled’ and to keep working and try and get my body in the best shape possible,” Samhan said. “We play very similarly; I don’t fly around the rim but I still do well against these teams. There are great players that don’t look the part but they still did it. If I can get the body better I have a chance.”
That aspect of Samhan’s game took a hit in February 2012, when he tore his left ACL while playing for Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters in the Philippines. When he returned to action in 2013 for Germany’s Ratiopharm Ulm, “there were games I wasn’t back yet all the way.” It took a return to his Saint Mary’s roots that got him on the road back.
Samhan has gone out of his way since graduating in 2010 to stay close to his “Gaels family,” as he calls it. After all, it’s because of Saint Mary’s that the world at large knows who he is.
“Whenever I go anywhere, the first thing people say has to do with the tournament or the Villanova game,” Samhan said. “In Lithuania, when people would ask me to sign stuff, they’d pull out Saint Mary’s or NCAA March Madness shirts. People in Egypt come up to me and ask about it. I never thought it would last so long.”
Prior to the Gaels’ most recent Senior Night game on March 1st, he called and spoke to each senior personally. He still regularly speaks to Bennett and fellow former Gaels such as Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills. And whenever Samhan returns to his hometown of San Ramon, CA, he finds a way to work out at his alma mater - whose Moraga campus is just a 24-minute drive away - with his old coach and current Saint Mary’s players. Which is exactly what he did last summer after wrapping up his injury-hampered 2013 season.
“I came home from Germany, and the next day I was at their open gym,” he recalled. “Later on, coach Bennett made me practice with the guys before going to Egypt, and it made me hungry again, like it was college. ... I got that hunger back doing two-a-days. I was working like I was young again, the knee wasn’t on my mind. After that, I played well in a tournament in Dubai against a top center right away.”
Samhan remains the same crafty, back-to-the-basket force that we all first took notice of in 2010. What anyone who catches Egypt in action at the FIBA World Cup will likely be surprised to see is the sight of Samhan putting up shots from behind the arc. And with regularity, too.
“Coach Bennett used to make us shoot 3s after practice, and I started making them at a high rate,” Samhan said. “When I was a junior he said, ‘You’ll never make one of those for me, but keep working on it and you’ll be asked to do that as a pro.’ The Philippines is where I started letting it fly, and here [in Egypt] they draw up plays for me to shoot 3s. It’s getting to where I’m very comfortable shooting them, and there’s not many [big men] that can do it.”
It’s just another aspect of his game that Samhan hopes to show off for any league personnel in August. Another aspect of his game that Samhan hopes will help him realize his NBA dream. Not that he’s too hung up on the destination. Just as he has for the past four years, he’s too busy enjoying the journey.
“It starts with a dream,” Samhan said, “and the rest will follow.”