Jamal Shead was unsure, torn between joining his friend Isaiah Stevens at Colorado State or going to play for Kelvin Sampson at UH.
But everything changed after his friend Tramon Mark committed to Houston, as Shead found clarity for himself…and for Mark.
A week later, Shead rushed up to Mark at a Nike Elite Youth Basketball League event, telling him he was also going to Houston.
“I told him that we were going to be roommates,” Shead said, “and I was committing in four days.”
Mark did not believe him at first, but when Shead sent him proof of his commitment, Mark realized that the duo could be part of one of the best backcourts in the country.
“When he told me he committed,” Mark said, “I was like, ‘OK, we’re going to have something going here.'”
Tramon and Jamal first met at an AAU Tournament when they were elementary school kids, but there was immediate friction between them.
“I cried because he had the number 23, and I wanted it,” Shead recounted about wanting Michael Jordan’s number.
“We’ve been locked in ever since,” Mark laughed in response.
It would be more than a decade after those first AAU tournaments before they reunited on the court meaningfully. During that time, Shead and Mark would be opponents in middle and high school and bench-riding teammates before the guards finally made it their team.
“We couldn’t wait to play games. We were grinding every day in the offseason,” Mark said. “We just couldn’t wait for the season to start, and now we’re here.”
In their first full season as starters together, Shead and Mark have navigated the tricky waters of stardom and NIL riches while spending over 1/3 of their season at #1 in the AP Poll. Just six percent of AP votes all season have had UH outside the top five in the country.
In the last month, just .04% of votes (1) have the Cougars outside the top three. This team of Tramon and Jamal and their friends are at the top of college basketball.
“That’s stuff you talk about when you’re a kid,” Shead said, “like, ‘We’re going to go to Houston and be the best team in the country.’
“It’s surreal. It’s awesome that I really get to do it with him, and we came in together, and we’ve been locked in for so long.”
Mark and Shead took their official visit to UH together in 2020, though with different hosts. In the following months, they would coordinate when they went to UH, whether to watch games or see a practice.
Just as Shead planned, the two would be roommates. That worked out until the very first practice when Mark showed up late. In the first few minutes of practice, Shead was already running a shuttle after throwing a turnover when Mark walked in late. Kelvin Sampson asked who was roommates with Mark, and Shead raised his hand. Sampson put Mark on the line to run, scolded Shead for allowing his roommate to be late, and then put him on the line, too.
The mistakes, the verbal undressings, and the endless running are all a part of the learning process for new arrivals. That’s how Kelvin Culture begins for freshmen.
“I’d say when I first got here, I didn’t really know what I was doing,” Mark said. Then, nodding his head, Shead went further.
“I was just more following him around. We both were looking dumb, but I was following him around.”
Through the ups and downs of a freshman season in Houston, the duo found comfort in each other’s presence.
“There was no real need for words of affirmation. We were just always together,” Shead said. “We’re going through everything the same way. We’d suffer in the same way.”
Though they shared (and still share) almost every moment together on and off the court (without a car, Shead spent a lot of time riding shotgun with Mark), it took until last November for the stars to align for the duo to start together for more than a few games.
While Mark played significant minutes off the bench on the Cougars’ Final Four team in 2021, Shead only played sparingly and was most useful to the team in practice. However, the experience of being on an elite team with veterans like DeJon Jarreau and Quentin Grimes was a crucial experience for guys who now serve as veteran leaders on a squad with four freshmen.
“It was great for me,” Mark said. “Jamal got better…We all got better, and we were just trying to, you know, help the team early.”
The following year, Mark was set to enter the starting lineup alongside Marcus Sasser, while Shead’s role would increase off the bench. But again, the chance to play together was delayed when Mark injured his left shoulder in the preseason and later had to undergo season-ending surgery after playing just seven games. Of course, Shead was there to check up on his friend, who was back in his hometown of Dickinson, before returning to UH to rehab.
“I was Facetiming him daily just to make sure he was straight,” Shead said. “He came in every day with the best attitude. He was just the best teammate every day.”
With the season-ending injuries for Mark and Marcus Sasser, Shead was thrust into the starting point guard role. On a shorthanded squad, the sophomore emerged as one of the toughest point guards in the country, playing all 37 games and starting the final 30. Finding his voice as an emotional leader while serving as the point of attack for one of the nation’s best defenses, Shead led the Cougars past the rest of AAC for the regular-season and tournament titles.
But the NCAA Tournament served as Shead’s coming out party. Against Illinois in the second round, Shead scored 18 points and had three steals in a 15-point win. Days later, he turned in the best performance of his career in an upset win over top-seeded Arizona in the Sweet 16, leading all scorers with 21 points to go along with four assists.
For Mark, it just fueled the fire for him to come back and play with Shead.
“I couldn’t wait to come back when I saw him doing that,” Mark said. “I kind of knew he was going to have to do some things for the team for us to be in a good spot, and he did. He was one of the best point guards in the country.”
Now in 2022-23, the childhood friends have started every game together, playing the team’s first (Shead) and third (Mark) most minutes. Spending countless days together, whether in the gym or in their dorm, has proven invaluable for them in games. The security of having a childhood friend as a teammate and the acute knowledge of each other’s tendencies has proven to be a unique advantage for the duo.
“I’m never really scared going into any game,” Shead said. “I’m playing with my brothers. It’s a real confidence booster.”
“Picking up on little things that we pick up from each other, It’s just good knowing that going into a game,” Mark added. “It makes the game a lot easier on all of us.”
When one has an off night, the trust built over a decade-plus enables the other to say whatever is needed to get them on track.
“I feel like I could say anything,” Mark said. “Especially on the court for us to win the game.”
“We’ve got to talk to each other in certain ways sometimes. If I’m BS’ing out there being lackadaisical, I need him to tell me,” Shead said. “He’s not afraid to talk to me; I’m not afraid to talk to him.”
Sunday, Shead matched Mark’s Memphis buzzer beater from two seasons ago with one of his own. After that, the two focus on another AAC Tournament title, getting a #1 seed, and marching through the tournament and back to this year’s Houston-based Final Four.
Now, four conference titles and seven wins in the NCAA Tournament later, the partners-in-crime have accomplished almost everything they said they would. But reminiscing over this season’s AAC regular-season title, Tramon and Jamal relish that they could finally do it together.
“Being in this moment, especially with him, It’s amazing, man. It’s something that I never really thought could happen,” Shead said. “I can always look back and (say) ‘I won a conference championship with my brother.'”
“We’re going to talk about this forever,” Mark said.
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