Ralph Sampson's son is a standout high school player, but his game is different

"He's still got some growth and development ahead," said Ralph Sampson of his son, Bullis senior Robert Sampson, who is more at home on the perimeter.
"He's still got some growth and development ahead," said Ralph Sampson of his son, Bullis senior Robert Sampson, who is more at home on the perimeter. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Josh Barr
Friday, February 12, 2010

If you did not look carefully, or were not alerted by someone already in the know, it would have been easy to miss the 7-foot-4 man settled quietly into the bleachers, watching his son play high school basketball.

But catch just a glimpse of Bullis senior Robert Sampson's face, and it is easy to figure out why one of the greatest college basketball players ever is in attendance: Robert's father is former University of Virginia great Ralph Sampson.

Watch the game for a few moments and one other thing is clear: Robert's game is quite different from that of his father and his older brother, Ralph III, the starting center at the University of Minnesota. Ralph Sampson patrolled the paint, was named college player of the year three times and was selected an NBA all-star four times; Robert Sampson is more of a perimeter player.

"I loved playing facing the basket, too, but sometimes people wouldn't let me," Ralph Sampson said.

Although Robert Sampson is tall -- at 6-8, he's the tallest on the Bullis roster -- he gives up more than half a foot to his father. And while the legend of Ralph Sampson already was growing when he was a high schooler in Harrisonburg, Va., Robert is playing at his third school in three states in three years, a high school career spent in relative anonymity.

After spending his first two seasons in suburban Atlanta, where he played on a team with his older brother, Robert, their mother Aleize and a younger sister moved to Las Vegas a little more than a year ago, in the middle of Robert's junior year of high school. (Ralph and Aleize are divorced and Robert and his siblings live with their mother.)

Recovering from two broken fingers, Sampson enrolled at Henderson International School and joined the school's basketball team for its final seven games. Henderson International is better known in basketball circles as the school attended by the members of the nationally ranked Findlay Prep basketball team. Sampson said he considered trying to join Findlay's team, but wondered if it would be a good situation for him.

"I don't know how much playing time I would have gotten if I had stayed and played for Findlay," he said.

At the same time, on many mornings before school and again in the afternoon, Sampson was traveling to a private training facility for individual instruction from coaches who normally work with elite NBA prospects and players.

"I was trying to make sure everybody knew who I was by the end of my junior year for AAU season" in the summer, Sampson said. "I'm trying to get ready for college."

After less than one year in Las Vegas, the Sampsons were ready to move back east, to the Washington area to be closer to family here and in central Virginia. One of Sampson's cousins had attended college with a nephew of Bullis Coach Bruce Kelley's; the connection made, Sampson enrolled at the Potomac school in September.

"I had an idea of how good he is, but we got him sight unseen," Kelley said. "I didn't get a chance to see any video or anything; he only played seven games last year. Then his first week here, he went to St. Mary's on an official visit and we did have a lot of [college coaches] calling."

Sampson said that St. Mary's and Seton Hall have offered him scholarships, with several other schools continuing to show interest, including Clemson, Georgia Tech, Alabama and Minnesota.

Still, with only a few weeks left in the season, it has been difficult to gauge just how good Sampson is. After scoring in double figures in three consecutive games in mid-December, Sampson missed six of the Bulldogs' next seven games.

"I started feeling sick and weak," he said. Doctors didn't clear him until mid-January, and it took time to regain his form and conditioning. Then, after scoring 13 and 10 points against St. Albans and St. Stephen's/St. Agnes, respectively, Sampson has been idle as the Bulldogs' past two games have been postponed by snow.

"Because of his size, we automatically assume he wants to be a post player and we forced him to play the post when, in reality, he's a decent outside shooter and ballhander for his size," sophomore guard Joe Hazel said.

Ralph Sampson, who lives outside Atlanta, has not been to a Bullis game since December; he chuckled at the thought of going to the rest room during a scrimmage against Gonzaga and bumping into former Maryland star Buck Williams, whose son, Malek, is a reserve for the Eagles. Though he has not been to games recently, Ralph gets tapes of them and offers his advice to Robert over the phone. He had hoped to be there Friday, but the Bulldogs' game against Landon has been postponed. With three regular season games remaining, Robert is averaging 9.6 points per game.

"He's still a young guy, he's still got some growth and development ahead," said Ralph Sampson, noting that Robert will not turn 18 until June. "His body is just beginning to catch up to his attitude. He knows he's good, but sometimes when you're tall your body takes time to develop."

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