Memories of dad help make University of Houston’s Justin Gorham a rebounding machine – Houston Chronicle

Justin Gorham sets up in the corner, takes the pass and drains a 3-pointer, as his University of Houston teammates, seated nearby, jump to their feet in celebration. Not long ago, Justin would have thought twice about taking the open shot, probably even passed the ball. You could have shot this, you could have shot that, Gerald Jerry Gorham Sr. always would say to his youngest son.

On another night in early January, Justin, a 6-foot-7 senior forward, scoops up a career-high 19 rebounds as if collecting candy out of a busted piata. Underneath the basket, tangled with three other players, he perfectly times his jump and clutches the ball in midair. If you can touch the ball, you can catch the ball, Jerry often told his two sons.

Basketball has long been a part of the Gorham household. Justin, who goes by J.J. to those closest to him, began to bounce a ball by the time he was 4. Older brother Gerald Jr., nicknamed Bear, played until halfway through high school.

They would talk basketball in the car on those back-and-forth, 45-minute drives to AAU practice between the family home in Columbia, Md., and Washington, D.C.

At the dinner table.

At doctors appointments.

Basketball was their thing together, said Tonya Gorham, their mother.

Justin, one of the top rebounders in the country, is finally getting to fulfill his dream as a starter for Houston, which, as the No. 8 college basketball team in the nation, has a chance to make a deep postseason run in March.

If only Jerry were here.

A childhood photo of Justin Gorham and his father Jerry.

As Justin wrapped up his junior year at Calvert Hall High School in Towson, Md., the family received devastating news. Jerry, the seemingly healthy 6-foot-3 rock of the family, was diagnosed with duodenal adenocarcinoma, a cancer of the upper small intestine. He underwent chemotherapy and had surgery to remove a tumor.

A total shock, Tonya said.

Scholarship offers, mostly from mid-major programs along the East Coast, had started to come in for Justin. Jerry did his best to stay active during the recruitment process.

Then things started to happen really quick, Gerald Jr. said.

Jerry was no longer able to attend Justins high school games. For years, Jerry never missed a game, whether as a spectator or Justins AAU coach. Once he stopped coaching as Justin entered high school, Jerry would take a seat on the last row of bleachers. He would set up a tripod to tape every game.

Now it was up to Tonya to FaceTime the games so Jerry could watch back home.

Everywhere I played basketball, my dad was with me, Justin, 22, said.

That became tougher as Jerrys cancer came back. Then Justin did something unexpected. He listened to a recruiting pitch from Towson University, a five-minute drive from Calvert Hall. They werent even on the radar, Tonya said. Justin took a second visit to the school and eventually committed.

It shocked us all when he made the decision, Tonya said. We were floored. What? He wanted to be close.

Just a 30-minute drive from home, Justin could check in often with his family. When time allowed, he alternated with Tonya and Gerald Jr. and accompanied Jerry to his four-hour Wednesday chemo sessions.

With Jerrys health in rapid decline, the Gorham family and Towson coaching staff made a push to schedule a scrimmage. By the time it could be organized, however, Jerry had become too weak to travel.

He never got to see Justin play college ball, Tonya said.

Justin Gorham signed with nearby Towson State to be close to his father Jerry as he battled duodenal adenocarcinoma, a cancer of the upper small intestine.

On the day Towson was to start preseason basketball workouts, Justin got a text message from coach Pat Skerry.

You dont have to come to practice today, Skerry wrote.

I didnt know what was going on, Justin said.

Gerald Jr. drove to campus to pick up his brother. When they arrived home, where Jerry was in hospice care, cars were parked out front. That night, the boys joined Jerry and Tonya in their bedroom, just like when they were kids and would climb into bed on Saturdays and watch a movie. As it got late, the family began to fall asleep.

I think my dad was realizing that time was coming, Gerald Jr. said. You could see the peacefulness in his eyes.

Jerry exchanged goodbyes with his oldest son.

I love you! I got us! Gerald Jr. told him.

I love you! Thank you! Jerry said.

Jerry turned to Justin.

He was so proud of him, Gerald Jr. said, pausing, as his voice began to crack with emotion.

On Oct. 8, 2016 less than 17 months after his cancer diagnosis Gerald Wesley Gorham Sr. passed away peacefully surrounded by his family. He was 53.

A few days later, the entire Towson mens basketball team showed up at Jerrys viewing.

We just tried to do whatever we could do, Skerry said. Obviously, that was very difficult. Hopefully, we were able to provide him enough support. Thats not easy for anyone to go through, especially a young kid.

A few weeks later, Justin played in his first college game against George Mason in Fairfax, Va. Family and friends came out in support.

That one was emotional, the first one without his dad there, Tonya said.

The next game had special meaning, too. The opponent, Morgan State, was Jerrys alma mater. Members of Jerrys fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, and other college friends showed up at SECU Arena. It was the same the next game at Maryland, with a dozen supporters rallying around the Gorham family.

When possible, Justin would go home and spend time with Tonya and Gerald Jr. A lot of the time, though, he would immerse himself with late nights in the gym. He said basketball was his saving grace.

It would take a lot off my mind, Justin said.

I think basketball was his way of getting through the hard times, Tonya said.

At Towson, Justin played in 31 games (two starts) as a freshman, averaging 2.8 points and 2.9 rebounds. He appeared in 32 games as a sophomore, starting the final nine games, and averaged 9.8 points and a team-high 6.7 rebounds. But Justin had bigger goals.

After two years, mom, I think Im good, Tonya recalled his telling her. I think Im ready. I want to transfer.

Landon Bussie, now the head coach at Alcorn State and then a Prairie View A&M assistant, helped Justin Gorham land at UH thanks in part to his close friendships with the Gorham family and Cougars assistant Quannas White.

With only a few months to find a school, one of Tonyas closest friends and the boys godmother, Natalie Frazier, happened to be the aunt of Landon Bussie, an assistant coach at Prairie View A&M. Bussie, who has known the Gorham family his whole life, had the perfect program for Justin.

Bussie called a close friend, Houston assistant coach Quannas White, and asked if the Cougars had a roster spot open. Bussie was familiar with UH coach Kelvin Sampsons reputation for winning and player development.

Perhaps most importantly, Bussie knew what Justin was going through. Bussies own father died when he was a sophomore in college, and he eventually moved closer to home.

Of course, I wanted him at Prairie View, Bussie said. I had to do what was best for Justin.

After getting his release from Towson, Justin joined Tonya and Gerald Jr. on a vacation cruise to the Bahamas. He waited on a call from Houston.

He stayed in his room the first day because that was the only place he could get Wi-Fi, Gerald Jr. said.

The call finally came but went to voicemail. Justin did not hear it until the cruise returned to port.

With interest from Houston, Justin began to study his potential new school. Later that summer, Gerald Jr. walked past Justins room. He was watching game film of the Cougars entire 2017-18 season.

He had watched so much film that he was familiar with the returning players, Gerald Jr. said. Hes had his eye on Houston since then.

Tonya recalled the familys watching Houstons 64-63 loss to Michigan on a buzzer-beater in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

Its fate, said Gerald Jr., 28, a loan officer in the D.C. area. I look at it like a sign from God.

Only one thing remained: Justin and Tonya went on a visit to the UH campus in May 2018. Tonya was impressed with how upfront White was in answering her questions. She said Sampson sealed the deal with talk of a family atmosphere, academics and playing for a challenging program for which Justin would have to earn his spot.

Justin officially joined the Cougars on June 27.

After sitting out a season, Justin played in 30 games as the backup to forward Fabian White Jr. during the 2019-20 campaign. It was a struggle at times for Justin to find a consistent role and minutes. Houston repeated as American Athletic Conference regular-season champion but never got to play in the NCAA Tournament, which was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Justin was expected to serve in a backup role again this season until those plans were scrapped when White suffered a torn ACL. White, a key member of the Cougars back-to-back AAC title teams, sent Justin a text informing him of the injury.

He told me, Its your year, man, said Justin, who added: I knew what type of expectations came with being the starting four-man. It was definitely motivation for my offseason workouts, just thinking of the bigger role I was going to be in.

How that has unfolded has been the biggest storyline of the season for Houston, which is 16-2 and in position for a third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

Sampson calls Justin this seasons identity guy, the embodiment of toughness for one of the most physical teams in the country. Hes not afraid, Sampson said. Hes not backing down from anybody.

At the very least, Justin is having an all-conference season, averaging eight points and the type of rebound totals not seen in decades at Houston. Justin is averaging 10.2 rebounds per game, which leads the AAC and is on pace to be the most by a UH player since Louis Truscott averaged 11.3 in 2002-03. Justins 4.69 offensive rebounds per game are second nationally.

Even more impressive: Justin has posted double-digit rebounds in nine consecutive games, the longest streak for Houston since Hakeem Olajuwon grabbed 10 or more in 15 straight games straddling the 1982-83 and 1983-84 seasons.

He just wears guys down, senior guard DeJon Jarreau said.

I dont know what we would do without him, sophomore guard Marcus Sasser said. If we miss it, 50 percent of the misses hes going to get. It relieves a lot of pressure off us.

I like rebounding, Justin said. Youve just got to play with that swagger. Its always good to play with swagger. Swagger that no one can keep you off the offensive boards.

The rebound totals resemble something out of a video game: 16, 19, 15, 17. He had 103 rebounds during a recent eight-game stretch. To no surprise, Houston won all eight games. Sampson jokes that Justin loves rebounding like most people love ribeye steaks with a little fat on them.

Rebounding is heart, and nobodys heart is bigger than Justins, Sampson added.

Justin Gorham's tattoo honoring his father.

The talent to be an elite rebounder has always been there. Justin averaged nearly seven rebounds off the bench as a sophomore at Towson. During his junior season at Calvert Hall, Justins tip-in at the buzzer helped secure the Baltimore Catholic League championship.

Obviously, hes never rebounded at this level, but hes never had it shoved down his throat like he does every day either, said Sampson, whose team is fifth nationally in rebounds.

When COVID-19 forced a pause and canceled three games in December, the Cougars quickly arranged a game with Alcorn State. On the opposing bench: Landon Bussie, in his first year as Braves coach.

Im so excited and happy for him, Bussie said. I just didnt want him to start his damage off against us.

No such luck. Justin had 16 rebounds, including 11 offensive boards, in an 88-55 rout.

In a breakout season with so many moments, what might Jerry be most proud of? Justin is averaging eight points, and his overall shooting percentage has risen from 34 percent last season to 48 percent this season. Hes shooting 42.9 percent from 3-point range.

He would be proud of me, Justin said. He would be tremendously happy to see how far my jump shot has come and that Im shooting the ball.

Gerald Jr. watches every game Justin plays. He tries to watch them through Jerrys lenses. He remembers Justins first college game at Towson and the first game he started. Nowadays, he finds himself hitting the rewind button during games. Just like Jerry would probably do.

I know in those moments I dont have any children this is the proudest Ive ever been of somebody outside of myself, Gerald Jr. said. Its those moments Im fighting tears. Thats how proud I am of him.

During pregame introductions, Justin runs onto the Fertitta Center court. He gently kisses his fingers and points above.

On Justins right leg is a tattoo he got before leaving home for Houston. It depicts a large hand holding a tiny hand. Beneath are silhouettes of a man and a little boy walking side by side. Gerald is written at the top in cursive, with Justin at the bottom.

Its like hes there with me holding my hand throughout everything, Justin said. When I play, I just really play for him. Hes the one that got me to where I am right now.

Jerry is here after all.

joseph.duarte@chron.com

twitter.com/joseph_duarte

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Memories of dad help make University of Houston's Justin Gorham a rebounding machine - Houston Chronicle

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