Major college athletics in the United States may have reached a watershed of pathos, bitter ironic humor and ignominy this evening.

The guerrilla war of recruiting for 7-foot-4 basketball prodigy Ralph Sampson reached a suitably Kafkaesque pass as the Harrisonburg High senior finally announced his choice of colleges.


"I guess I'm probably going to Virginia next year," the shy, 18-year-old Sampson said softly into a battery of microphones at a mass press conference for 100 reporters.

"If I have any doubt and change my mind, it will be Kentucky."

Jaws dropped. Harrisonburg Coach Roger Bergey held his head in his hands.

Surely this was the perfect, bizzare conclusion to one of the ugliest episodes in the splotched and checkered history of brazenly big-time college sports.

Sampson, pressured for more than two years by universitites, gradually narrowed his choices from 200 schools to 16 to seven and finally, two months ago, to his personal Final Four.

Since then, the young giant with the soft touch and "NCAA Championship" written on him has become increasingly unable to make his decision-torn between UVA, UK, North Carolina and Virginia Tech. Plus, it should be noted, Maryland, the one college that has hectored him constantly for the last month, refusing to take 100 polite "no's" for an answer.

"This morning I was still undecided. In the last two days i've changed my mind at least 50 times," said Sampson, who called today's press gathering of the tribes to finally rid himself of his albatross. "I sat down and talked with myself . . . I even wrote the names down once or twice to see how they looked."

Ralph was up all night, walking," his mother Sarah Sampson said. "He took out the garbage at 2 a.m. He walked to his girlfriend's house in the middle of the night.

"When his sister left for Atlanta this morning, she asked him, 'Well, Ralph?' and he said, 'I still don't know.'"

After a day at school during which he peeked through windows and sneaked out back doors to avoid reporters and possible lurking assistant coaches, Sampson fled this afternoon for sanctuary to his mother's personnel office at a factory.

The pressure was building. By mid afternoon enough television crews were in the Harrisonburg gym that the total value of their camera equipment, according to one North Carolina TV reporter, was "well over $600,000.:

"I'm beginning to question my country's values," Harrisonburg assistant coach Tim Meyers remarked. "We had a TV crew with a private jet do two round-trips up here from Raleigh, N.C., in one day - just doing updates on Ralph not making a decision yet.

"Jimmy Carter gets criticized for taking a helicopter trip. That can't touch this kind of waste."

Sampson knew, before he left school this afternoon, that two coaches were poised at exactly 6:30 p.m. to call the four colleges and give them his final word. His personal deadline was set. The formal announcement would come at 7.

When Sampson left his mother after 5 p.m., "he still hadn't made up his mind," she said. "He spent the afternoon answering my phone. We just talked a little."

Sampson's mother had only one request. "I told him that if it was Virginia, why not wait a day or two to sign to see if anything comes up to change his mind . . . you never can tell."

Just minutes before 7 p.m., Coach Bergey called Virginia Coach Terry Holland with the momentous decision.

"The big guy's made up his mind. It's UVA," said Bergey.

"Are you joking me?" answered Holland, a shy, soft-spoken intellectual of a coach who pressured Sampson perhaps less than any competitive recruiter.

"No, I'm not kidding," said Bergey.

"Can I kiss you?" asked Holland, as cheering broke out behind him in the Holland home.

"No, I have to make another call (to a losing coach)," Bergey replied.

Moments later, Sampson ducked his head as he walked through the 7-foot-high gymnasium doorway with "Go Blue Streaks" written above it. Then he passed under the wall placard reading "Sportsman's Creed: Be A Good Sport."

When he murmured "Virginia" into the microphones, a huge cheer went up outside the gym as a dozen or more UVa. students, listening to their radios, hollered.

Sampson's apparently simple decision quickly became complex as the press badgered him, bearing down on his carful use of the words "maybe" and "probably."

Nevertheless, Sampson's indecision plainly showed and his voice sounded weak, as if reflecting vexation and almost depression.

"I was nervous before . . . didn't know what to do .. . okay, now," he said in fragments. "I don't want to make anybody unhappy. I haven't signed yet. But it'll probably be Virginia . . . Yeah, hopefully in a couple of days. I'll only be going to college for two years, probably, then the pros. All the schools know that's the deal for me."

What are your academic interests, yelled a questioner.

"I don't have any yet," answered Sampson.

A member of the Harrisonburg faculty shook his head.

"You would describe Ralph as a wonderful boy who is a rather weak student. He comes to class and just keeps his mouth shut," he said. "I hate to think of him at Virginia with a future doctor on one side of him and a future lawyer on the other. I hope they promised to take care of him, 'cause he'll certainly need it."

That voracious, roving monster called celebrity has turned one of its thousand piercing eyes on this town of 14,405 and its gigantic child. It has been an experience Harrisonburg never expected nor learned how to digest.

"VPI said it spent $10,000 just on recruiting Ralph," said Sampson adviser Bergey. "That's big business. Some people have come clean across this country just to sit down with this young man . . . or with me."

Bergey reportedly has been offered an assistant's job at several schools, most prominently Maryland.

"I tell 'em 'no package deals," declared Bergey, wearing hush puppies and argyle socks with his canary yellow blazer. "I tell 'em to call me the day after Ralph signs when there's no connection between us anymore."

What does he think were the motives of Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell?

"That's a very interesting question," Bergey said. "We better not dwell on that . . .

"I'll be interested to see if my phone is still ringing tomorrow."

Recruiting, and the media carnival that surrounds it, has reached such a threshold of distastefulness that even a conscientious set of rules-like those that Harrisonburg High fought so hard to maintain-cannot keep a 7-foot-4 teen-ager from spending the wee hours pacing the streets of his small town.

Perhaps the appropriate symbol of this day's shenanigans was a TV blowdry sportscaster who at 5 p.m. could not wait for the final deadline.

Standing in the gym parking lot, he dramatically read his script: "Ralph Sampson decided today to attend . . ."

He read that script four times-each time with equal drama. And each time he inserted the name of a different college.

"Take all four," he said, "then pick the right one."

There was no time to wait.

The private jet was waiting for the film. CAPTION: Picture 1, Ralph Sampson; Picture 2, Ralph Sampson