Above photo of Carson Hammond by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru
BELTON- For nearly every UMHB men’s basketball game played at the Mayborn Center over the last eight years, with the exception of a couple seasons, Jeff Hammond has sat in the same seat, directly across from the UMHB bench.
From there, the longtime middle school basketball coach has witnessed buzzer-beating game-winners, comebacks, and plenty more.
Carson Hammond once witnessed those moments too, from those same seats, watching his older brother, Braden, star for the Cru from 2014-18. But for the last two years, he has witnessed UMHB’s success from a different point inside the arena: the court.
“I remember last year, in my first game at UMHB, I was having flashbacks to watching Braden play,” Hammond said recently. “It was cool to see my dad sitting back in the same spot after a few years, and I remember watching previous UMHB teams play, when I was in the stands.”
A native of Belton, Hammond transferred to UMHB prior to last season, head coach Clif Carroll’s first. And on Saturday afternoon, prior to the Crusaders’ regular season finale against East Texas Baptist at the Mayborn Center, Hammond will be honored, as it marks his final regular season home game as a Crusader.
But it will not be his final playing opportunity in his hometown. Behind his season-high 18 points on Monday night, UMHB clinched the ASC regular season title, and will host the conference tournament in Belton, Feb. 24-26.
“It’s going to be awesome to host the tournament,” Hammond said. “It should be a great atmosphere and I will be able to have some family and friends in the stands.”
Hammond still remembers the first time he stepped foot inside the Mayborn Center, in 2014, following UMHB’s run to the D-III national title game. Despite spending his entire childhood in Belton, the son of a basketball coach, he had never seen the Crusaders play. But once that contest finished, Braden, on a recruiting visit, was not the only one sold on UMHB.
“I was just a freshman in high school, so at that time, I never thought I’d end up playing at UMHB,” Hammond said of seeing the university for the first time. “But I do remember from the game that I thought the gym and atmosphere was awesome. That was my first time seeing a college basketball game in person.”
At that point, he had not yet suited up for the varsity Belton High School squad. But he soon would, a year later. As a sophomore, he struggled with the rapid pace of the game, a visible jump from middle school, and even JV basketball.
“My sophomore year, I was playing varsity and we were playing against all of the Killeen schools who are really fast-paced,” Hammond recalls. “It was like 100 miles an hour for me.”
As time went on, however, he began seeing things unfold in a slower way, allowing him to see the full better and establish himself as one of the Tigers’ strongest three-point shooting threats.
“But in my junior year, it slowed down and by my senior year, after playing against all the teams that press all the time, it really slowed down. Playing against that athleticism and speed in high school has really helped me in college.”
And so, the decision presented itself for the talented guard: stay in Belton and play with UMHB, or take an opportunity elsewhere. Hammond chose the latter.
“I kind of wanted to get away and grow up on my own a little bit,” Hammond said. “So that kind of pushed me to leave Belton for a little while. But I’m happy to be back.”
His journey from Belton to Snyder, Texas, and back home to Belton spanned two years, in which he competed against stacked junior college teams across the state, playing at Western Texas College. UMHB head coach Clif Carroll had his eye on Hammond for quite some time, going back to the days when he was still in high school. So as the end of his sophomore year approached, his next stop would be one of two places: Sul Ross State or Ozarks. UMHB was not in the picture.
“Coach Carroll recruited me a little bit out of high school at Sul Ross,” Hammond said. “So by my sophomore year at WTC, it was between Sul Ross and Ozarks, where [UMHB assistant coach Thomas] Orr was at. So Coach Carroll got the job here, and Coach Orr got the job less than a week later. The two guys that were recruiting me came to the same place, and it was where I was from. It was the perfect situation.”
It took little time to realize just how special his new team was. Hammond averaged 11.6 points per game, scoring a season-high 18 points three times, and saw the floor in all 20 contests as UMHB rolled to a perfect 13-0 conference record.
“Last year was really challenging early,” Hammond added. “We were trying to learn Coach Carroll’s system. It’s been really cool to see how much we’ve grown over the last two years.”
For Hammond specifically, that growth may have been revealed more in the mental side of the game than the physical. He has seen the speed of the game slow down for him this year, just as did when he entered his senior year of high school. And according to his father, evaluating his son from his coaching background, Hammond’s basketball IQ has improved while back in Belton.
“Carson has become a very smart basketball player,” Jeff Hammond said. “His basketball IQ is very high. We talk basketball a lot and what impresses me the most is that he remembers everything. I will pull up film from previous games and he will tell me “dad I don’t need to see it, I can tell you what happened.”
As he has reached the final week of his final regular season, Hammond’s focus is centered around one thing: extending the season by continuing to win. Minutes, stats, and accolades are not what drives Hammond nor the team as a whole.
“Even in the summer, I knew, with all the recruits coming in, that I wouldn’t have the same minutes as last year, or the same role as last year on some nights,” Hammond, who speaks with the maturity of a senior, said. “So I’ve accepted it, because it’s my last year, and I’m just focused on winning. I just want to win as many games as possible.”
“I have watched him play all of his life and he plays and he is having fun,” Jeff added. “I love that he loves the game as much as he does.”
That passion has been present over the last several games. Last Thursday at Howard Payne, Hammond dished out a season-high five assists. And this past Monday, he led the Cru with 18 points at Concordia.
When he takes the floor for his final regular season game as a Crusader, the thought that less than a decade ago he walked into the arena as a high school freshman might cross his mind. And there his father, one of his biggest supporters, will be, as he always has been.
“It means a lot, having him there,” Hammond, who plans to become a college coach after graduation, said. “He’s always been there for me.”
“I always enjoyed watching my kids from BCYC through Middle School and High School,” Jeff Hammond said. “The best part was coaching them. Having them play at the college level is great, especially since I get to watch most of the games in person. It’s icing on the cake.”
Riley Zayas covers UMHB athletics for True To The Cru and The Belton Journal. He can be emailed at email@example.com.