It was a standard one-on-one full court drill during a Virginia basketball practice. Dean Carpenter dribbled across center court and cut left. The towering freshman stripped him of the ball, took about four giant steps and SLAM. DUNK.
He turned and trotted back to center court. Now it was Jeff Lamp's turn. The ACC scoring champion faked to his right and went left. He, too, was stripped of the basketball.Four more steps and SLAM again.
"Get someone else out there on defense," Coach Terry Holland said. "Give Ralph a rest."
Ralph Sampson -- all 7-foot-4 of him -- walked to the sideline and smiled. His defense made him happy. At 18, more than anything else, basketball makes him happy.
The middle-aged couple was walking out of the restaurant when he walked through the door. The woman stopped, stared upward, mouth open, and asked: "Do you play basketball?"
Quietly, almost in a whisper, he said: "Yes ma'am, I do."
"Who are you?"
"I knew it, I knew it. Who else could you be bein' that tall?" Then, walking through the door, she said to her husband: ". . . did you see him? Did you ever see anything like that?"
Gawkers do not bother him.Ralph Sampson is used to them. He smiled at the woman.
They brought the Ralph Sampson road show to Northern Virginia last night to Robinson High School where about 2,500 people each paid $3 to see it.
Sampson's team, the Blues, lost the intra-squad game to a team headed by Lamp-lee Raker and Mike Owens, 94-80. Few cared about the score. In fact, with the Blue team trailing by 21 points at halftime, Holland ordered the scoreboard adjusted to start the two teams even.
"I've always like to think I could change a game with a half-time adjustment," he said, laughing.
Holland had good reason to be happy. Sampson, sluggish in the first half, finished with 18 points and 15 rebounds. The other starter on his team, Jeff Jones, led all scorers with 26. Raker shot 10 for 12 from the floor and had 20 points. Owens tallied 16 and Lamp, not really looking to shoot, 14. This is not a one man team.
"We did a lot of things well," Holland said. "I think we're right where we expected to be. Ralph didn't do much the first half. He passed up too many shots. But he adjusted at halftime."
Sampson, saying he was "tight" the first half, was satisfied with his performance. "I thought I was pretty good," he said.
Pretty good for Sampson is excellent for most.
"I never thought of myself as being better than anyone but early on, like about 10th grade, I guess, I knew I could do things the others couldn't," Sampson said. "I knew I had things they didn't. And I already knew I was tall."
Ralph Sampson can do things few basketball players have ever done. He is a legitimate 7-4. He can shoot an 18-foot jumper with grace and ease and hit it consistently. He can dribble the ball between his legs without breaking stride. He is quick. He is very quick.
"No doubt about it," Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell said. "He can do things I've never seen a guy his size do."
"He's the best college center in the country," said an assistant coach at a school with a top center in its lineup. "He is awesome."
Because Sampson is so good great things are expected from the University of Virginia's basketball team this season. It is no putdown to such players as Lamp and Raker, the best Cavalier players the last two seasons, to say that.
Holland knows it. He also knows he has something special. "Right now, our problem is deciding whether to try and make Ralph concentrate on doing one thing great or just letting him continue to do everything," Holland said. "He can do anything well, he's good at just about anything he's tried out there.
"But the question is, do we want to make him stay around the bucket and just be great in there? Do we want to limit him? Somewhere along the line, we'll just have to make a decision.
"Maybe he can be great at everything. Right now, that's the approach we're taking."
Sampson clearly has all the physical requirements -- except bulk. He weighs 210 pounds, which, at his height, makes him stick-like. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is 7-2, weighs 270 and is slender. Sampson's legs in shorts look like a pair of elongated pencils.Opponents are going to push him, shove him, beat on him.
"My players ain't gonna stand around and gawk 'cause he's Ralph Sampson," Driesell snarled. "He's gonna get pounded, I guarantee you that. He's gonna take some lickings before this season is over."
Sampson is basically a nonviolent person and a nonviolent player. He is an artist, not a brawler. He speaks softly, slowly, thinking about his answers, sometimes using one word instead of a sentence. He knows he will have to mix it up on the court.
"I've thought about that," he said, sitting in a booth in a Charlottesville restaurant and digging into an enormous piece of chicken. "I'll just have to do the best I can this year and hope I put on some weight next year. I think I can handle it, though. I hope so, anyway. I've never minded contact. In fact, like it.
"But I know when we go to other places to play, the people will be against me. They'll say things to me. I just hope it makes me play better. All I want to do is be the best I can be."
Because there are many who think Ralph Sampson could be one of the best of all time, the recruiting war staged for him was one of the most intense ever. Coaches began courting him and newsmen began hounding him as a junior at Harrisonburg (Va.) High School and did not let up until he finally said "Virginia," at a news conference last May.
At the time, Sampson said he would probably stay at Virginia two years, then turn pro. Some, perhaps as a form of sour grapes, noted that UVA was lowering its academic standards in order to raise its athletic standards.
Kentucky, the second place finisher in the Sampson sweepstakes, wailed that only his mother, who wanted him at Charlottesville, an hour from home, had kept him away from Lexington.
Certainly, things would be different for Sampson had he chosen Kentucky. Already there has been a squabble over the fact that he was placed in a single room in his dormitory while many freshmen were forced to live in triples because of overcrowding.
Sampson admits dorm life does not particularly appeal to him. "I like to have room," he said. "A living room, a couch to sit on, a refrigerator nearby. It will be better next year when I can live off campus."
Generally though, Sampson has adapted to college life fairly well. He is taking five courses and made Cs and C-pluses on his midterm. He is receiving tutoring in just one course -- biology -- which makes a typical freshman in many ways.
"The stuff about the room, I didn't worry about it," Sampson said. "It wasn't my problem. I expected school to be tough here, I knew it would be, so that hasn't surprised me, the only thing that surprised me is the reading. There's a lot. I mean I've been reading about two hours a night just to keep up. There hasn't been time for much besides studying and basketball since the first two weeks.
"I'm pretty happy here, though. I'm trying to learn the system. I'm working hard at my game. I'm ready to start now."
Terry Holland knows that when the games start the pressure on everyone connected with Virginia basketball will be like nothing he or any of the players on the team has ever experienced before.
Even before practice began, Holland took steps to protect the team, especially Sampson, from the glut of media attention. Practices, once open to the public, are now closed, though Holland makes exceptions.
There are strict rules on when players can be interviewed and for how long. Most of the rules were designed to protect Sampson. But other players admit they are glad the rules are there, because those reporters not talking to Sampson invariably like to talk about him.
"I don't like to talk about basketball with strangers that much to begin with," Lamp said. "I mean, there's only so many ways to answer the question, 'how's the big guy look?'"
"I agree with Jeff," said Owens, a senior from Kensington, Md., who guided Sampson around campus on his official visit a year ago. "You get to the point where you catch yourself getting ready to snap at people because you've heard the question so many times. It gets monotonous after a while. The same questions over and over."
Owens probably knows Sampson as well as anyone at the school. "I can tell, I think, when something's bugging him," Owens said. "He's very quiet by nature, maybe a little bit shy. That's why I think it's good that most of the time when he's around campus he's with somebody else on the team. We try to help him.
"Like when people come up and ask for his autograph or ask him if he's Ralph Sampson, we try to joke about it. I mean, who else could he be? Sometimes, Ralph just tells them no, he's not Ralph Sampson. Then they really get confused."
There also is the question of how the pre-Sampson players such as Lamp, Raker and Owens are going to react to being shoved from prominence by Sampson.
"There is going to come a night where Ralph only scores four points or something and there are still 14 reporters around his locker," Holland said. "That isn't going to thrill him and I doubt if the other kids will be enthralled by it either. But they'll know it's not his fault. I don't see it as a big problem."
"As long as the team is getting attention, it's okay," Raker said, "and with the team we've got, we should get attention."
"Ralph can do nothing but help me," Lamp insisted. "He'll make me a better player because I may not have to do as many things as in the past. As for the publicity, it really doesn't matter to me. I try not to read the papers anyway."
So far, there have been no problems. But it is early. No games have been played. And, as Athletic Director Gene Corrigan said, "In the old days people around here started thinking about basketball around Oct. 1 because our football team was so bad.
"Now our football team (5-3) is playing well and people are talking about it in November. That's been great in terms of taking pressure off the basketball team."
Pressure. It is a buzz word, as in "can he handle the pressure?" The pressure of being 7-4. The pressure of being touted as one of the greats before ever playing a college game. The pressure of constant stares, constant questions and constant comparisons with Jabbar, with Chamberlain, with Russell.
"It's like saying a joke is the greatest joke ever before you've told it," Holland says. "Then, no matter how good the joke is, it may fall flat because you've given it such a big buildup."
Sampson says he can handle the pressure because he does not feel it. He does not worry about what others expect of him.
"Everyone thinks there should be pressure. I don't feel any pressure," he says.
While Sampson is certain he can handle the situation, others at UVA concede that he probably does not yet realize what he is going to be dealing with.
"Being 18 and more famous than the president isn't exactly easy," Owens said. "It just isn't easy to have people scrutinizing every move you make."
"When you're 7-4, you are destined to live life in a fishbowl," Holland said. "It cannot be avoided. He's going to be stared at, poked at and pointed at. We've talked about it. We talked about it a year ago. I told him that if he came to Virginia there would be tremendous pressure on him and on the program.
"And he knows the real pressure hasn't even started yet."
Right now, life is fairly easy for Sampson. He is a freshman on parade and it doesn't bother him. In fact, he likes much of it.
Virginia will play four exhibition intrasquad games around the state before the season opener Nov. 30. Last night's game at Robinson High School was the first. Saturday's game in Charlottesville will be sold out. There will be a homecoming at Harrisonburg High. If Sampson is to be at Virginia for only two years, the university certainly intends to display him while he is wearing orange and blue.
Sampson isn't worried about whether he is being put on display or not. He says he doesn't really care one way or the other. All he wants to do is play basketball, practice basketball and think basketball.
"It is the most important thing in my life," he said. "When I'm sitting around I daydream a lot about basketball, about different moves I can make, different things I can do to get better." He leaned forward out of his relaxed slouch.
"On a scale of one to 10 I guess it's about 10, maybe 11 in terms of importance. I want to play pro basketball someday. I'm happiest when I'm playing, that's what I love to do more than anything else. I like playing and I like being good."
It has been that way for Sampson since he was 15. He has never had a girlfriend. He does not date now.He does not know what he will do when he stops playing basketball. "That's why I'm here in college," he said, "to find out what else I want to do after . . ."
But now it is before. There is only greatness to think of and Sampson admits he thinks about it for himself and for his team. "This team can be as good as it wants to be," he said. "If we play up to our potential, we can win the ACC or the NCAA. It can be done. I'd like to be a part of it."
If it does happen, Sampson will be more than a part of it. He will be the main cog. He knows it. Holland knows it. Lamp and Raker know it. The others will be a part of the drink but as Reggie Jackson once said of himself, Sampson will be the straw that stirs it.
Already, he is almost a mythical figure in Charlottesville. There is a Ralph Sampson T-shirt. University Hall already is being called Ralph's House. And a local restaurant has already named a sandwich "The Ralph Sampson."
"I don't know what's in it," Owens said. "But it's huge."
Ralph Sampson on Ralph Sampson: "I think, I hope, this would be a girl describing me. I think she'd say I'm quiet, sometimes shy. Easy to get along with, doesn't get mad too often. Sometimes fun to be around. And, she'd probably say I'm tall." He grinned.
"It would be nice if people could just think of me as a person. That's what I'd like for people to think of me, not as Ralph Sampson, basketball player but as Ralph Sampson, person."
But he knows he is not just a person. He is Ralph Sampson.