It might have been the moment a small child offered him a bright red rose in exchange for one dull Mexican peso that Samuel Salih realized basketball was just a game.
He was playing professionally in Teavana, Mexico City, using the game he’d played since he was 3 years old to make ends meet.
The boy who peddled flowers to giant celebrities on his downtrodden street wasn’t much older.
Salih’s deflating encounter opened his eyes to a harsh reality: every rose does have its thorn.
“Guys were trying to make a living. You looked around and saw the poverty and how people were living,” Salih said. “It was sad. It humbled me. I grew up in Homewood and thought we had it bad. We didn’t have it so bad after all. We as players had it pretty good.”
Salih’s brush with reality stayed with him as the former Allderdice and Knoxville (Tenn.) College standout forward merged into coaching. It provided perspective as he moved from stop to stop, program to program and various levels of skill and diversity.
You might say his coaching career has come full circle as he begins his latest venture with the Greensburg Central Catholic girls. Salih started as an assistant at Vincentian Academy in 1996.
The bookend stops at private, parochial schools are in some cases stark contrasts to other places he’s been, seen and lived. But his philosophies have stayed the same.
Humility does not change because the scenery does.
“You see the haves and the have-nots,” said Salih, a behavior specialist at Adelphoi Village in Millvale. “I try to teach the kids that they can make the most of anything. It is never as bad as it seems. And for the kids who have it so well, be grateful for what you have.”
Salih lives in South Greensburg. He and his wife, Tonia (Patterson), a former basketball player at Greensburg Salem, were married in March.
“She likes to talk about my games, and she’ll do that here I’m sure,” Salih said. “But it’s not constant basketball. She says she gives me my 15 minutes of fame to talk after a game, then it’s done.”
Like GCC’s program, Salih is no stranger to the postseason.
Salih was an assistant with East Allegheny and star Brooke Stewart during a WPIAL championship run in 1999. He was head coach of the South Fayette girls for six years before returning to Vincentian as a head coach.
“I have been around the game a long time and have seen a lot of great players come through,” said Salih, who also has an extensive AAU coaching background and runs down a laundry list of coaches that mentored him like he’s announcing starting lineups with a spotlight in a darkened gym. “I remember seeing Kamela Gissendanner (of Clairton) and Charel Allen (of Monessen) battling it out in a packed playoff game. The girls game was growing, and it was coming to the forefront. It has come a long way.”
He moved to Wisconsin in 2007 and coached the girls at Class 5A Oregon High School for three years, winning a regional title, before a short stint at Madison-West, where he coached boys and girls.
In 2014, Salih returned to Pittsburgh to help care for his mother, who had become ill. Soon after, he latched on as an assistant with the La Roche women’s team and head coach Gissendanner, who played at Penn State and in the WNBA.
Salih, 49, became interim head coach last year when Gissendanner left to coach LaSalle. She has since returned to La Roche.
“Coaching there was an unbelievable experience, and I loved every minute of it,” Salih said of La Roche. “I learned so much about the college experience. Kam was a Division I player and ran our program that way. And it was fun.
“We have some hard-working kids who want to have success (at GCC). I want to be fair, firm and fun. If it isn’t fun, why would they want to come here and work?”
He exudes a quiet confidence and, despite seeming out of place one minute and perfectly at home the next, Salih appears to be the right guy to take the torch from Joe Eisaman, who resigned after five seasons.
“I have a lot of respect for coach Eisaman. He did a great job here,” Salih said. “I just want to pick up where he left off. Section, WPIAL and states: that’s the mentality. As Mike Tomlin says, the standard is the standard.”
Salih is believed to be the first African-American head coach in GCC history.
“We’re not going to run from that pressure,” he said. “Look at me. I’m a 6-4 black man. I can’t hide from anyone. I am honored they welcomed me here and gave me this opportunity.”
GCC, which has dropped to Class A, returns a solid backcourt core in seniors Anna Eisaman and Bella Skatell and junior Melina Maietta.
“Coach Salih is a very welcoming guy,” said Skatell, who recently committed to Mansfield. “I have played a lot of travel sports and been around college coaches like he was. I think we all respect him and can adjust to his style just fine.”
Salih likes energetic, upbeat practices. He even gets involved, like in a recent open gym when he drove the lane with Maietta, unsure what to do at first, guarding home. Salih still plays in a 45-and-over league in Mt. Pleasant.
He will preach defense first, scoring second.
“A lot of college coaches say kids are coming in without basic fundamentals,” he said. “It shouldn’t be that way. We’re going to teach these girls to play hard on defense, and the offense will come. You can win simply by outplaying the other team.”
Having seen so much over the years, Salih has a genuine appreciation for the high school game.
“I really enjoy coaching at this level,” he said. “I know to stay in my lane. I am returning to my roots.”