Ralph Sampson was 1983’s top NBA pick. Where is he now?
If it were possible for a 7-foot-4 man to blend into the background, Ralph Sampson did so one night this past March in Washington. The Hall of Fame basketball player, who had taken a job with the Phoenix Suns earlier in the season, was back in the NBA for the first time since his playing career expired in this city more than 20 years ago.
About a third of the seats at Verizon Center were empty for the game between the Washington Wizards and the Suns. With neither team headed to the playoffs, the only time the crowd mustered much enthusiasm was during the inflatable mascots’ Gangnam-style dance.
The arena was so lifeless a ringing cellphone could be heard in the middle of play.
Wearing a brown suit, Sampson, 52,sat in the second row of the Suns bench, almost unnoticed. At one point, he was the most recognizable college basketball player in this area. This night, he was just another tall guy on the bench.
Other than occasionally patting a player on the back, Sampson said and did very little during the game. Afterward, he signed a few autographs — the sole indication that he once was somebody around here.
Thirty years ago this month, when Sampson was the No. 1 NBA draft pickout of the University of Virginia, many observers thought he would revolutionize the center position. Chamberlain, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar had come before him. The basketball world predicted his would be the fourth head on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore of big men.
But his professional career flamed out quickly because of injuries, and Sampson faded into obscurity. Out of the NBA, he ran into many of the same financial and personal problems other former athletes have encountered.
Sampson, who has eight children by five women, has been taken to court twice for failure to pay child support. He pleaded guilty in a related case involving mail fraud and spent two months in jail in 2007.
Lately, however, his fortunes appear to have improved. Last year, he was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame and hired by the Suns.
Some will argue that Sampson is one of the greatest basketball players who ever lived. Others will say he is one of the sport’s biggest busts. There’s plenty of evidence either way. Whatever you think about Sampson, however, may say more about you than about him.
Back when he was leading Harrisonburg High School to two state championships, Sampson was the No. 1 basketball prospect in the country and the target of an ardent pursuit by the nation’s top programs. All that attention, however, was more a burden than a blessing. “I was really shy and quiet, actually,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I’m from a country town.”
Virginia was not about to let a great player from its back yard escape to Kentucky or, God forbid, North Carolina, and the Cavaliers went to great lengths to woo him. Sampson signed with them before a standing-room-only crowd at his high school.
Sampson was as talented as advertised. He was incredibly agile for his size, and blessed with skills not usually found in centers, such as the ability to dribble in the open court and make long jump shots. His high school coach had “let me do some things on the court that usually 7-foot guys don’t do,” Sampson said.
“Other than Wilt Chamberlain, I’ve never seen a 7-footer, even to this day, do the things that Ralph did athletically,” said Jeff Jones, Sampson’s teammate at Virginia who now is head coach at Old Dominion University.
As dominating as Sampson was on the court, he was shy off it, his diffidence matched by that of his coach, Terry Holland. At a time when the ACC was full of colorful characters (Maryland’s Lefty Driesell, North Carolina State’s Jim Valvano) and dazzling star power (North Carolina’s Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins), Virginia had a reluctant superstar and a gentlemanly coach.
“They weren’t flashy. They weren’t controversial,” said Doug Elgin, the Missouri Valley Conference commissioner who was sports information director at Virginia for three of Sampson’s four years.
But when you’re as tall as Sampson and Sports Illustrated puts you on six covers in four years, it’s hard to keep a low profile.
“It was amazing, just the chaos around Ralph at the time, the attention that he got,” Elgin said.
“Ralph was not comfortable ever being in the spotlight,” Jones said. In his first year, “not only was he not talkative and outgoing with the media, in the locker room he was very reserved.”
Ask fans which game they remember from Sampson’s time at Virginia, and most will point to the heavily hyped Georgetown game. Ask his critics which game most sums up Sampson’s career, and they’ll likely point to Chaminade.
The buildup for the “Game of the Decade” in December 1982 between top-ranked Virginia and No. 3 Georgetown University at the old Capital Centre in Landover focused on the centers. Sampson was taller than Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing, and more mobile and creative on offense; Ewing was stronger, more physical and ruthless on defense.
Although weakened by the flu, Sampson outplayed Ewing. Sampson’s 23-point, 16-rebound, seven-block performance sealed Virginia’s 68-63 win before a national television audience and a capacity crowd. Ewing finished with 16 points, eight rebounds and five blocks.
But the glow of victory wouldn’t last. Less than two weeks later, on the final leg of a nonconference odyssey to Japan, the Cavaliers stopped in Hawaii to play Chaminade, a lowly regarded seven-year-old program not even in the NCAA.
Sampson, his flu exacerbated by the travel, scored just 12 points in Virginia’s 77-72 loss, which to this day is considered perhaps the biggest upset ever in college sports.
“It comes up every year,” said Sampson, who has returned to Hawaii twice to commemorate the anniversary of the game. He adds, somewhat grudgingly, “If one game that was a loss for me created a classic that lasted 30 years and is still going, I guess I can accept the loss a little bit.”
Sampson was one of the most decorated college basketball players ever. He was a three-time Naismith college player of the year; only UCLA’s Bill Walton can also claim that distinction, and no other player has won it more than once. Sampson was the only male player to win the Wooden Award twice. He was a three-time ACC player of the year, matched only by N.C. State’s David Thompson. The only other ACC player besides Sampson to finish his career with 2,000 points, 1,500 rebounds and 400 blocked shots was Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan.
And Sampson didn’t just accumulate individual accolades: During his years, the Cavaliers went 112-23, including 50-2 at University Hall. They spent 49 consecutive weeks in the Associated Press top 10. As a freshman, he led them to the NIT championship.
Before Sampson arrived, Virginia had never won an NCAA tournament game. His sophomore season, he took the team to the Final Four. Despite tempting offers every year from NBA teams to leave school early and become the No. 1 pick in the draft, he remained at Virginia because he had promised his family he would graduate. He led the Cavaliers to more basketball glory than they would experience again and, according to the school’s athletic director, Craig Littlepage, made the university seem more welcoming to African American students.
“What he did, in my opinion, for the University of Virginia was transformational,” Littlepage said. “The fact that Ralph had the kind of career that he had, the program achieved the kind of stature it did and he stayed four years and graduated, sent a signal to a lot of other prospective student-athletes and prospective students, for that matter, that if the University of Virginia was good enough for Ralph Sampson, it must be a pretty neat place.”
Yet, critics are more apt to point out what Sampson didn’t do than what he did. He never led the Cavaliers to an ACC tournament title or an NCAA championship.
“I’ve always been, and Ralph’s teammates have always been, defensive about him and protective of him because he was such a phenomenal teammate,” Jones said. “Ralph didn’t put himself up on some high pedestal and look [down] at the rest of us. We weren’t his supporting cast. We were his teammates. We were his friends. Those criticisms of him stung him, but they stung us, as well, because certainly some of it was unfair.”