Omar Samhan on Life Before and After March Madness Stardom

The former St. Mary's Gael reflects on NCAA Tournaments past and present and discusses his life now one-year removed from the college game.

It's past midnight, almost 1 a.m..  But Omar Samhan is still wide awake, glued to his TV set. Halfway around the world, he's watching mid-major schools like Butler make improbable runs in the NCAA Tournament.

"(I) filled out brackets and everything," said Samhan, who now lives in Kaunas, Lithuania's second largest city, where he continues to chase his basketball dreams. "So (I've) been watching it pretty faithfully."

So how's that bracket doing?

"Ohio State killed me," he said animatedly. "What's going on?  I was such a believer.  I thought they were going to get it done so they hurt my bracket big time.  Same with San Diego State."

And his national champion pick, Kansas was eliminated yesterday.

It's been a year since Samhan took the national stage with his colorful personality backed by his outstanding game.  At this point one year ago, he was the toast of the tournament, basking in the glow of St. Mary's Cinderella run to the Sweet Sixteen.

"After we beat Villanova before that Baylor game," he began.  "I swear I was more famous than (President) Obama for those four days!"

But as quickly as his star rose, it fell just as fast after the Gaels were beaten handedly by that talented Baylor team.

"It's definitely 15 minutes of fame," Samhan said of the attention he received last March. "It was a rush."

He could have bought into the hype, created by the press who were drawn to his charismatic personality.  But he didn't.  And though his charm and gregarious character may suggest otherwise, becoming a celebrity isn't why Samhan plays basketball.

"I would be lying if I said I didn't like to be in front of a camera or see myself on TV," he said. "But you can't take it that serious. (Fame) does come and go so quickly."

Samhan credits his family, friends and past coaches for keeping him humble.  When he's run his mouth too much, there's always been someone like Gaels Head Coach Randy Bennett ready to stop him right in his tracks.

"I remember during the whole tournament run, coach would just be like 'Hey, you gotta stop talking.  I'm getting sick of hearing you," the former St. Mary's big man said with a chuckle.

He is genuinely happy that the spotlight has shifted onto a new crop of college stars.  Samhan says "it's nice to see other guys step up and see what they can do."  And rather than being content with his collegiate success, he's now intently focused on his next goal.

Making it to the NBA.

"There's always those guys that live off those one or two good years in college," Samhan said. "And I just think that I can still grow as a player and as a person.

"I'm nowhere near where I want to be," he added.

He's taking the unheralded route.  After going unselected following last year's NBA Draft, he managed to make the Dallas Mavericks' Summer League roster.  But with a slew of moves that improved their frontline, Samhan became the odd man out.  So, he signed a contract to play overseas for one of the most esteemed teams in Europe, BC Žalgiris in Lithuania.

"I thought there was going to be a big drop off in talent between the NBA and Euroleague," Samhan said.  "But I think it's a lot closer than people think."

For Samhan, the basketball transition to Europe has been like learning a new language - challenging.  His playing time to start his professional career was sporadic.  Some games, he wouldn't even suit up.

However, that hasn't deterred him from developing his game.  He's still improving his body, which he says continues to change.  And he's learning to look at basketball from a different perspective.

"Obviously if I get to the NBA, I'd want to be an All-Star," he said.  "But I'll have to start off by playing a small role and working my way up."

In addition to his game's tangible aspects, Samhan says he's also grown mentally.  His humility and willingness to do whatever it takes are intangibles that may separate him from other talented players trying to make it to the League.

"In the pros, it's so important to play a role and a play a role well," Samhan said. "And you see these guys in the NBA now and some of them are getting $50 million and they're really good role players...  I think that was the biggest thing I've had to learn."

As far as the differences in coaching in the European and American pro games are concerned?

"(There's) a lot more teaching that happens in the pro level here than in the states as far as the NBA goes," he said, comparing his brief American stint to his current European one. "I don't think there's as much teaching in the NBA as there is here."

But the extent of the teaching does not compare to the college level, where the communication between coach and player is much smoother than it is in Europe. 

"One time, (my coach) told me I had to have 'perspective' in the post," Samhan said. "And I was like 'perspective'?  And he (replied) 'Oh I mean patience.'

"That makes a little more sense," he added, laughing at his mishap in dialogue between he and his Lithuanian coach.

Helping Samhan bridge the cultural gap are some of his American teammates with more overseas experience.  Žalgiris has three Americans on its roster, who are seasoned European professionals that have shown the former Gael the ropes.  But their guidance doesn't guarantee him immunity as  the team's most inexperienced player.

"They try to help me as much as they can," Samhan said of his American teammates. "But if someone messes up the play, I'm getting yelled at way before them every time!"

Transitioning to life off the court in Lithuania has been a challenge too.  Samhan considers himself an open and welcoming person when confronted by different cultures.  But this is the first time the Bay Area bred center has lived away from the Golden State.

"It's overwhelming you know," Samhan said of moving nearly 6,000 miles across the globe. "Just being so far away from your family.  Especially in Eastern Europe, it's freezing!"

Now seven months into his stay, he does feel like he's made the best out of what was once a scary situation.  In fact after his initial culture shock, he's made a keen observation about human nature.

"It's funny," Samhan began. "After (visiting) all the different countries we play in, you realize people are pretty similar.  They like their basketball.  They like to hang out with friends.  (Their pastimes are) pretty much all the same."

Even in a Skype call from across the world, you can hear happiness in his voice. He may not be in the NBA.  But Samhan knows he is blessed to play the game of basketball for a living.

And just as he did in last year's NCAA Tournament, he's soaking his experience overseas all in.

Jonathan Santiago is also a contributor to SLAM Online.  Follow him on Twitter.

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