You can go for nobility and run around it.
Start with a scene at The University, how beautifully idyllic it is, how well he seems to be fitting in, how much Mr. Jefferson would have liked him. Or start with hard-core basketball, give his stats, quote some high poobahs about his potential and go down memory lane with him about why he turned down an alleged $3-million offer from the Boston Celtics to stay and play for room and board at Virginia. Or start with a psychological tap dance about being a prodigy, a legendary symbol, A Franchise. All parts of it. But you really can't start with any one of them because the single most compelling aspect of Ralph Sampson is that he is . . .
You are forced to note first that though he puts on his pants one leg at a time, he pulls them up so damn high, and even more than his height has shaped his talent, it has defined his essence; while basketball is counted in minutes, life goes on uninterrupted seven days a week, 365 days a year, and through it all, win or lose, he is . . .
"A legitimate 7-4," people have written, as if anything less, like 7-3 3/8 would invalidate him. Try as he might to maintain a state of normalcy, a state of anonymous grace, how can be another face in the crows when his face is so far above it? You wouldn't be here if he was 6-11. You're here because he is . . .
Sit him down in a restaurant and ask him what adjectives he might use to describe himself, give him the whole, wide, wonderful world to choose from, and the first thing he says is, "tall."
You begin this story any other way, you're cheating.
Every so often they come along, people of extraordinary talent or style whose contributions irrevocably change the rules of the game. Not necessarily prodigies or geniuses, but movers. In popular fields, people like Elvis Presley, Fred Astaire, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Robinson. In the narrow field of basketball there was Wilt Chamberlain, the first of the wholly athletic 7-footers, and if there is to be a next one there it might be Ralph Sampson. Right now he is operating on the intimidating promise of potential, but should he suddenly become the awesome force so many have predicted it would not be inconceivable for him to force a rules change, maybe even something as radical as raising the height of the basket.
He may be that special.
"I don't want to be different," he says. "I want you to think of me as normal. I have two eyes, two ears, nose, mouth, like everyone else. I have normal feelings. I get hurt inside too."
A standard plea of the exceptionally gifted, but compounded in Sampson's case by his height, his alpha and omega. To think that being 7-4 doesn't intensify cultural isolation is naive liberalism. For all the fame and money it will bring him, there must surely be times when he thinks of himself as The Elephant Man.
According to his freshman sociology teacher, Sampson's paper on family interraction focused primarily on his length at birth.
According to his speech teacher, Sampson's freshman speeches were mostly on the theme: I'm normal. Just approach Me and You'll Find I'm Normal.
According to his teammates, last year it was virtually impossible for Sampson to go anywhere on campus or in town without being gawked at. "Most people are so overwhelmed by who he is and what he is that they don't treat him like a normal person," says Louis Collins, Sampson's roomate and teammate. "It was ridiculous. People actually came up to him and measured themselves against him," says Doug Newburg, another teammate. Consequently, Sampson rarely left his single room on campus for anyplace other than class or the gym. "He stayed in his room too much," says Sampson's coach, Terry Holland, shaking his head sympathetically. "Even on weekends he didn't go out unless his friends all but dragged him."
Sampson is not particularly talkative on this issue. (Away from his family and close friends he is not particularly talkative on any issue, and he is unwilling to engage in public introspection.) But he does say: "When I first came here I thought people would react funny -- slightly -- so I just stayed in my room more than I normally would. I got stares and faces, you know, enough to make me back off and not extend myself to meet a lot of people." Somewhat predictably then, he was characterized by outsiders not only as quet -- which he readily admits -- but as moody, even sullen.
"I would read stories about him," Holland says, again shaking his head, this time in sad wonderment, "and I'd read about a completely different kid that I knew, and I'd say to myself: 'What a shame.'"
Carol Jablonski, a 6-footer, and the daughter of a former professional basketball player, has twice taught Samspon speech courses and has become not only his favorite teacher, but something of his Dale Carnegie. (It is noteworthy that the people Sampson voluntarily discusses decision options with are women -- his mother, his sisters, and now Jablonski.) She is one of those with what seems to be a special feel for Sampson's situation. "He was an 18-year-old from a small town with long-standing relations there, coming into a different culture where he wasn't known as a person, but as a symbol," she says. "It kind of pushed him back into himself. He spent the first year coping, getting the lay of the land."
As Sampson drew strength from Jablonski, so did he draw it from his coaches. Holland, a graduate of Davidson, is himself 6-8, no stranger to gawkers. Like Holland, Craig Littlepage, one of the assistants, was a starter on a ranked college team, Pennsylvania. Like Holland, Craig Littlepage is a tall (6-7), sensitive, intelligent graduate from a fine academic school. Like Holland, Littlepage seems particularly sympathetic to Sampson's situation. "The first thing you have to understand is, because he's 7-4, and has attained a degree of superstatus, he's somewhat defensive and cautious; in that respect he's typical of most large people," Littlepage says. "It's not unusual for a person of size to feel uncomfortable with the constant scrutiny, to feel like he never really fits in. It can get to the point where you don't even want to go out in public. It wears on you, and Ralph is one of those it wears most on."
Impacting on Sampson's adjustment to Virginia last year was the unexpected slide of the team during the second half of the season and its poor showing in the ACC tournament (prior to the cathartic NIT championship). Late in the slide, some Virginia players -- not Sampson -- were quoted finding fault with Holland's handling of the team, and Holland was wounded by the sudden controversy. Holland, who is uncommonly honest and direct, responded initially with a brief (two games) but uncharacteristic ban on reporters in the locker room. Even after it was lifted an aura of tension hovered over the team like a low fog, during the ACC tournament. Throughly discomforted by controversy, Sampson was almost reclusive during that time, a time that Jeff Lamp, Virginia's leading scorer, described this way: "Everything happened at once. We started losing and we started feeling the pressure from the fans and media. We had all these expectations put upon us and we just assumed they'd come true because everyone said they would. When they didn't, we didn't know how to react."
The NIT championship, which should have been such an uplifting ending to a glass-house season, was scarcely savored when Virginia faced the threat of losing Sampson -- in the NIT consistently a dominating center -- to the pros. As the public pressure from Red Auerback built, with Auerbach continually pressing to negotiate through the media, Sampson became, to use a teammate's word, "distant." His teammates left him alone, not wanting to magnify the stress.When he finally decided to remain at Virginia the players had been so emotionally drained they couldn't feel elation, only relief.
The young are the most elastic.
Give them time to themselves and they come back fresher, stronger, like grass after a good watering.
The beginning of the fall semester brought a new, more comfortable, more secure, more expansive Sampson. The signs of growth are everywhere.
On campus. You see him around. After moving into a two-bedroom apartment with Louis Collins -- a decided extrovert whom many credit with bringing Sampson out of his shell -- Sampson has settled into a daily routine of driving his van to campus and staying there all day. Visible in the cafeteria in Newcomb Hall. Visible walking The Grounds. Walking in groups, unlike last year. Walking unselfconsciously, with his head high, even smiling at people who are looking at him. Ralph has found himself a home," says Collins. "He's saying -- 'Hey, I can kick off my shoes and put my feet up now."
In class, Carol Jablonski says that last year Sampson used to sit hunched over in front of the class listening attentively; this year, while no less attentive, he sits in the back of the room and even cracks jokes. "He seems pleased with himself," she says. "I'm seeing him having ordinary conversations with other students now. People are starting to tease him. I've heard some call him, 'Shorty,' and he loves it.There's an ease in his giving and receiving. He really has an impish sense of humor."
At practice. Rather than being a follower, he has become an open leader, a holler guy, according to Craig Littlepage. "A year ago he was just a rookie," Littlepage says. We had to ask him what he felt he could do on the court. He was sort of standoffish verbally. This year he's taking the initiative. He's patting guys on the back, encouraging them. He's asking us how can he help with recruiting, can he escort a recruit around campus? He's giving us a much better idea what's on in his mind."
With the press. Though it is question and answer rather than flowing conversation, Sampson is at least willing to talk now. He's not as tense as he was last year, not nearly as cold. Psychologists say that Step One is to be comfortable with yourself, and Step Two is to be comfortable with others.
All over. "He's changed a lot, and for the better," says Doug Newburg. "He sometimes had terrible moods last year, and I haven't seen that at all this year. He's come so far out of his shell. He carries himself differently. He clowns around in public -- he's not worried how he looks. Last year we thrust leadership on him, and maybe we shouldn't have, maybe he was reluctant to express himself, maybe he thought people here might be jealous of him. This year he's willingly become the leader, and the change is so good for the team, because let's face it, wherever we're going, he's going to take us."
It's too easy to pass it all off simply as maturing. Of course a person matures from 19 to 20, just as he matures from 15 to 16 and from 24 to 25. It doesn't stop so you can carve it in stone. He has been in Charlottesville a year now. People are used to seeing him. He can go to restaurants, to discos (and he does) without everyone pulling an E. F. Hutton. He has friends. He and Collins have a close group called The Crew, and like all college students they have their own secret code words, like calling one girl, A. K., because they think she looks like Albert King. In every sense he seems to have settled in.
It was something of a gamble on Holland's part. Ralph Sampson came to Virginia not just a big man on campus, but the biggest man on campus.Bigger than life. Bigger than the program. Had his ego even remotely approached his size he could have trampled Virginia basketball with a single footprint. Instead, he has fit in snugly, without even stretching the leather.
"I know it sounds funny, but it's almost like he's just another student now," says Holland
"I feel comfortable," says Sampson.
He is smiling, and blushing. He is happy.
What do you want to know about Sampson?
Favorite food? Chocolate cake.
Favorite clothing? Sweatsuit.
Heroes? Russ, Wilt, Kareem.
Is he domestic? He cooks and sews. Last month he made steak, baked potato and salad for a party of eight. He has sewn his clothes. Or as Sam Clancy, his teammate for the 1979 Pan Am Games, says, "Being 7-4, Ralph ain't gonna walk in nowhere and buy no pants."
What kind of student is he? Very punctual. Very attentive. This term he's taking advanced courses (two each) in speech and psychology, and a phys. ed. course; the speech and psychology load tells Jeff Lamp, himself a psychology major, "that Ralph really wants to improve himself." And Dr. Clayton Lewis, who was academic advisor to Virginia's athletes last year, says, "Ralph is an intelligent young man. There's no doubt he can get Bs and Cs here." Last year he had a C-plus average.
Is he well liked? Certainly seems to be. One word you hear the secretaries in the sports information office use is "charming."
How did he react when he learned that The Ralph Sampson Sandwich featured at a hangout in town was made of turkey? He laughed.
Enough diddling around -- why did he turn down the Celtics?
First of all -- and you may find this difficult to believe -- nobody who was involved even peripherally truly believed that Sampson would go. And all of them based their opinions on their reads of Sampson's personality.
Roger Bergey, Sampson's coach at Harrisonburg High School, said at the time, "Hey, Ralph comes to play. Maybe he wouldn't enjoy sitting on some NBA bench for 82 games, playing three minutes a game for three years. He's not on the street begging for food you know." Craid Littlepage allowed that "Ralph might rather be the franchise," and later said, "He's a young guy in every sense of the word -- a teen-ager; maybe it was an attempt on the part of a 19-year-old to say, I want to grow up first." Along that line, Jeff Lamp said, "I think Ralph wanted to stay a kid for a while, and who can blame him?" And Terry Holland beat the same bushes, saying, "I think Ralph wants to live as close to normal as he can. He realizes that with every year that goes by he's going to be cheated of some of that. I think he felt he wasn't ready to leave here yet. I think he really likes it here." Even Red Auerbach, who claimed conspiracy and said that Sampson "was brainwashed by the University," though that the alleged brainwashing was on an emotional level. "They convinced him he was too young, too immature, that he ought to stay," Auerbach said. "All that other happy horse - - - -."
Sampson buys each piece of that.
"I wasn't ready to go, I don't think," Sampson said recently. I didn't feel like sitting on the bench. I liked being a college student."
And he adds some other pieces too. He has relatives in Boston and previous visits there shaped his feeling that Boston isn't a good place for blacks to live, a feeling Sampson says was strengthened after his reading of Bill Russell's autobiography "Second Wind." Sampson further says that "My mom thought Auerbach didn't come straight out with her, and I didn't like that."
Finally there was the matter of money, and this is somewhat confusing. In an extended interview in Charlottesville recently, Sampson indicated that beyond all the personality issues, it was the money that kept him from going pro. Although he was surprised that the pros had shown interest in him after only his freshman year, and his inclination was not to go, he told his mother that for him to even consider going the Celtics had to give him at least $850,000 a year, and he wanted five years. What seemed to disturb Sampson the most was that the Celtics never made him a flat offer he could grapple with.
"I don't remember Auerbach ever telling me a straight-amount," Sampson said in that interview. "He said -- 'You'll have a contract like Magic's.' I don't know what Magic's contract is. He never would tell me Larry Bird's contract. Not that I really wanted to know, but I'd like to get what he's getting -- I think I'm worth it. Red was playing games. Red was playing Red Auerbach, thinking I'm Red Auerbach, I'll get what I want."
Sampson began to cackle.
"It didn't work out that way."
Auerbach says, "He had a chance to walk away with $3-million cash -- minimum -- in the bank."
Sampson says he never got a figure.
"Red's lying," Sampson says. "Very much."
But it has been suggested that by emphasizing the monetary factor now, Sampson may be playing a game of his own, seeking to counter Auerbach's claim of the $3-million Celtics' offer and the beneficence of the entire package, which Auerbach sang in such golden notes it seemed a lifetime vacation in Acapulco with God as a houseboy. Sources say that during Sampson's only meeting with Auerbach and Celtic owner Harry Mangurian money was not a critical issue. Mangurian is said to have come straight out and asked Sampson -- "Is there a definite price for which you would go?" And Sampson is said to have answered -- "There's nothing for sure."
We are left somewhat confused then, just as Auerbach must have been.
In fact, Auerbach says now, "I don't think I ever had a chance with the kid. I had the feeling he'd made up his mind before I got there. I was just blowing smoke." Pretty good phrasing from Mr. Excuse Me While I Light My Victory Cigar.
What apparently concerned the Virginia people most during the Celtics blitz was how Sampson would arrive at his decision. They were well aware that when Sampson chose to attend Virginia over Kentucky he called a press conference to announce his choice but later admitted he "didn't know it would be Virginia until a half hour before I told the people; I almost called it off, but my mom said I brought all the people out so I might as well tell them."
Holland, who likes Sampson very much and who by now may know Sampson as well as anyone outside his family can, maintains he still isn't sure how Sampson decides things. "He hardly ever asks questions," Holland says. "I almost had to beg him to meet with Auerbach, just to see what the Celtics were offering, to see if it was important to him. I always worry whether Ralph is getting enough information. I guess he just gets people to provide him information without asking for it. Although you'd never know it, I've come to realize that Ralph has his ears open all the time."
Holland isn't the only one baffled by the process. Sampson's mother Sarah has said, "Ralph doesn't do much talking. Not to me, not to anyone. I used to call him up, but if he's not in a talking mood you could stand and hold the phone for hours." Charles Moir, the Virginia Tech coach who also recruited Sampson heavily in high school, says, "No one had a read on him during the recruiting. I didn't. Terry didn't. I'd never recruited someone like this before. Most of them ask questions; they're eager for you to get to know them. It was strange sitting in Ralph's house because he hardly said anything. We'd walk away never knowing if we'd made any progress."
Sampson rarely solicits advice. He will talk things over with his mother and sisters -- his father Ralph Sr. is said to be as quiet as his son -- but he will not necessarily side with them. So much does Sampson value independence of thought that neither will he offer unsolicited advice, not even to his family. The living embodiment of Polonius to Laertes: "This above all: To thine own self be true." Ultimately, Sampson communes only with himself before making a decision. Once made, it is irreversable. "But if I'm worried about them at all," he says, "I'd just call them off at the last moment."
What isn't generally known about the Celtic decision, however, is the part Carol Jablonski's speech class played. In a Persuasion class soon after the NIT Jablonski was trying to illustrate the concept of cognitive dissonance -- a way of rationalizing to bolster your belief in a decision you've made. Dissonance is at its greatest when a person must irrevocably choose between two attractive, seemingly equal options.
"The best example I can think of," Jablonski told her class, "are the options facing Ralph between staying here or going to the pros."
The Celtics had not yet even made an offer, but the concept so piqued Sampson's interest that he and a classmate, James Dudley, asked to work on setting up a speech about the pros and cons of going pro. Sampson would not take a position; he left that to Dudley, who was in favor of Sampson staying in school. But Sampson researched such things as the average lifespan of a pro career, the salary structure, the lifestyle change from college to pro. (Oh, how life imitates art.) While researching, the offer actually came. The day Sampson and Dudley presented their findings was the day Sampson went home to Harrisonburg to meet Auerbach and Mangurian. Although Jablonski couldn't be sure, her gut feeling was that the information Sampson had gathered in research had convinced him to stay in school.
"I think Miss Jablonski's real smart," Sampson says. "I think she knew what I'd do. My mom didn't want me to go pro, but she lets me make up my own mind. I had my mind pretty made up, but I had to look at it. I had to listen to them.I wanted to learn."
Soon after the meeting, with the rest of the Virginia community sitting on porcupines during the wait, Sampson went to see Dr. Clayton Lewis, the academic advisor.
"Advise me," Sampson said.
"On how to spend $600,000 a year in Boston, or on what English course to take?"
"Can I bet on it?"
"Get all you can."
When Todd Turner, then the sports information director, issued a statement in Sampson's name that Sampson intended to remain at Virginia, Auerbach told people it was the stupidest decision he'd ever heard, that the Virginia people had better be ready to take moral and financial responsibility if an injury cost Sampson his professional career, and Jeff Cohen, the Celtics' assistant general manager, said, "This is The Twilight Zone."
Holland has this theory about Sampson:
"As soon as it's a sell, you can see him turn off."
File that for the next time.
And now we are supposed to put it in perspective.
We are supposed to tell you why it all matters, why here, on the lush and stately grounds of a school founded by Thomas Jefferson and proudly (and with some self-importance) advertised on car window decals as The University, a school attended by Woodrow Wilson and, however briefly, Edgar Allen Poe, a school where William Faulkner was once writer-in-residence, why we are making such a fuss over a sophomore with a kitten's fur goatee and a smooth Harry Belafonte face who plays basketball.
What can we tell you about Ralph Sampson that you don't already know? That in order to protect him against future financial loss through disability his parents borrowed money to pay the estimated $15,000-$20,000 premium cost on an annual personal insurance policy worth $1 million, issued by Lloyd's of London through Bradshaw Associates? That he has gotten past the sweaty palms stage when he speaks, albeit briefly and mostly from rote, at banquets and summer camps? That if you want to get on his good side, "you have to be a girl, ha-ha," and if you want to get on his bad side, "you just keep pressing" him? That he is perceptive enough about the push-me, pull-you with the press to say, "Reporters shy away from me. Nobody asks me about my girlfriends, or if I'm involved. Because of the type of person I am, I might give them the runaround; I might not talk to them again because I can be nasty if I have to?" (For the record, he has a girlfriend, whom he would rather not name, and they have, he says, "a good relationship.")
Do you want all that?
Isn't what you want to know -- well, let's turn it around, let's let him ask it for us.
"I guess if I was interviewing me," Ralph Sampson is saying, "I'd ask -- 'What's going on in your head?' I'd have to answer -- 'Not much.' But I mean, if I'd never talked to a guy like me, I'd have to wonder -- 'What's he thinking?'"
And now he is grinning. Standing up, up to his full height, seeing over the moment and not saying a word, just grinning. CAPTION: Picture 1, Ralph Sampson; Picture 2, Cavalier sophomore Ralph Sampson, "bigger than life," has "fit in snugly, without even stretching the leather." By Richard Darcey -- The Washington Post