Once a month or so Ralph Sampson does something that makes our minds dance, makes us again consider the infinite possibilities of basketball. His coach, Terry Holland, senses Sampson might be the first high-rise forward, as Magic Johnson was the first genuine 6-9 lead guard.
"The one thing he needs work on is facing the basket," Holland said. "it's the one thing we haven't been able to help him with so far, to give him some (outside) freedom, because we need him so badly on the boards. But if we can get a big man to go with him. . ."
Holland's eyes widened at the thought.
A 7-foot-4 forward?
"We're sure gonna take a look at it."
Today, Sampson made a few jaws to slack in awe during one possession early in the second half. What he did was embarrass a very good center, Maryland's 6-8 Buck Williams. Specifically, in one horrible trip down-court, Williams tried nearly every shot he possesses -- and got every one slapped back in his face.
First, Williams tried to draw Sampson away from the basket by trying a 12-foot jumper from the right of the free-throw line.
Maryland kept control of the ball. Williams got it down low and tried a jump-hook.
Williams grabbed his own miss and went up again.
Again Maryland got the ball. And Albert King dared dribble into Sampsonville. Briefly. As Sampson began to move toward him, King fed Ernest Graham. He missed, but at least kept Sampson from swatting the ball.
Of course, Sampson grabbed the rebound -- and flipped a hard outlet pass to Othell Wilson, who soon sank an open jumper from the right baseline that increased Virginia's lead to six points.
"Buck looked dazed, like he was sick almost," said Virginia's Terry Gates, who had a close look at the sequence. "He kept on coming. That's what you have to do. It shows what a great player Buck is. But now he knows what can happen even to the very best.
"Even Buck has to face that."
Until today, Williams had more than held his own against Sampson, scoring at least as many points in three prior games and twice getting more rebounds. This afternoon Williams missed eight of nine shots. His six rebounds were about half his usual total. Sampson had 17 points, 11 rebounds and nine blocked shots.
After the 11-point loss, Williams was seething.
"I wasn't able to take it to him," he said, "partly because of fouls and partly because I couldn't get the ball where i wanted it."
Sampson was partly responsible for that.
"He likes to move across the lane a lot," Sampson said. "I tried to deny him that. Also, I was somewhat surprised the way Maryland played offense. Usually, they have Albert high and Buck low. Albert either gets off a shot or feeds Buck inside.
"Today, they tried to get Buck the ball from the wings. And our guards did a nice job of keeping it away from him."
Could this be the pivotal battle in the land of the giants, the one where Sampson finally gained the sort of advantage his eight inches command?
"It could make him wonder," Sampson said.
Somebody wondered if williams perhaps was telegraphing his shots, because Sampson blocked him two other times.
"He likes that little jump-hook." Thinking ahead to a possible rematch in the ACC tournament semifinals, Sampson said: "I'll let him go out to 10 feet or so (unguarded). He has to make two jump shots before I follow him. He's gotta prove he can make 'em. At halftime today, he had just one shot. We pretty much had control inside by then."
Sampson had excuses for not out-playing Williams earlier, an ankel injury one game and an upset stomach another. Williams was ill today. Gates was right when he said Williams looked sick.
"But don't say my stomach was hurting or the officiating was bad," Williams said. "Next time I'll get my shots where I want them. I'll get some passes off the break. And I'll watch the refs, be more careful about foul trouble."
In addition to allowing their teams more defensive flexibility with superior shot-blocking, Sampson and Williams are talk-alikes at times. They usually do not say one more word than necessary, and both almost always agree with a statement by saying, "Very true."
Sampson's game has progressed nicely this sophomore season. His maturity is evident off the court as well as on. He was very unsure of himself as a freshman, but today Sampson eyed both the herd of reporters and a nearby spread of cold cuts in the dressing room and cracked:
"This is not a press luncheon." Then he threw his head back and laughed. Of the difference between what Maryland did today and how Notre Dame and Wake Forest defensed him during upsets this week, he said: "Maryland played me pretty straight up. Buck and me. He pushed me a lot and I pushed back."
Although the numbers suggest otherwise, Williams sometimes played defense quite well against Sampson, keeping him from his favorite positions on the floor and nudging him off balance as he turned to shoot. Williams and Taylor Baldwin each fouled out largely trying to check Sampson.
As though Williams did not have enough incentive already for a re-match against Sampson, the Virginia students added still more when he fouled out of the game, by chanting: "The Buck stops here, the Buck stops here."
"I'll remember that chant," he said. "I'll remember it Friday night (if Virginia and Maryland each win their first-round tournament games Thursday). I'll remember it the rest of my life, because I'm never gonna forget this game. I guarantee you it will be the last game I ever play like this."