The early guess here is that Ralph Sampson, a sophomore now, will play one more season at the University of Virginia. As part of the deal, he sometimes will be the world's tallest forward. For this extra year of pain and suffering, other ACC teams can point a trembling finger of blame at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. As for the idea of a 7-foot-4 all-America center playing forward, that belongs to Terry Holland, who, like all ACC brains, may be insane -- but he sure ain't crazy.
The night of Jan. 14, Sampson and his Virginia playmates beat Maryland at College Park. Ten miles away that same night, Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers beat the Bullets at Capital Centre. This geographic conjunction of gifted 7-foot basketball players reminded Holland of third-hand word that came to him during the summer. The virginia coach says someone -- he forgets who -- told him Abdul-Jabbar would like to talk to Sampson if Ralph wanted to hear from him.
The day of Jan, 14, Holland called Paul Westhead, the Laker coach, and asked if it were, in fact, possible that Abdul-Jabbar had said such a thing. Westhead said, "Kareem would tell you straight out if he did say it." One more phone call, this one to No. 33, produced an invitation from Abdul-Jabbar to Sampson, asking No. 50 to breakfast the next morning at the Sheraton-Lanham Hotel near Cap Centre.
"We just talked a little bit," Sampson said early this week. "Not on an intense basis. We had a nice, good conversation about any and everything."
"They talked about the games and the problems," Holland said, meaning the problems of being the centers of all attention. "When we had word that Kareem would be willing to meet with Ralph, I thought it would be good for Ralph, particularly with the way Kareem has come out now as a person."
Happily, the news here is that Sampson, too, is coming out, not only growing as a player but moving more surely through the traps adolescence puts out for boys who would be men.
Red Auerbach may not understand this. When Sampson said no to the pros last year, Red said, in effect, what's the kid doing in college if he wants to be a basketball player? Slurring Sampson, Virginia and everyone who believes that college athletics is a good thing, Auerbach said Sampson ought to stay in school only if he wanted to be the world's tallest brain surgeon. Otherwise, the old Celtic coach said, Sampson is wasting his time.
Level heads, including the one attached to Sampson's shoulders, heard Red's ragings and translated them as the irrational poutings of a man who wanted to hire a 7-4 center cheap. Very softly, Sampson has pointed out that Red never mentioned big money -- except when he told the press how much Sampson was passing up.
What Red doesn't understand is that a year of a teen-ager's life lasts approximately forever. Time stands still because, paradoxically, so much is happening. For instance, if you ask Sampson to put a date on his meeting with Abdul-Jabbar, he says, "A long time ago." At 20, two months is "a long time ago."
From 19 to 20, a kid grows in lots of different ways. For one, Sampson has moved from a shy freshman's suspicion of reporters to a willing, if yet uncomfortable, coexistence. Carrying a pound bag of M&Ms, a quart of orange juice and a bag of corn chips, Sampson showed up for a press luncheon on campus this week. For 45 minutes, he answered questions, including this from a sharp-eyed observer who watched the kid put together a roast beef sandwich, "Ralph, do you eat M&Ms on your sandwiches every day?"
More important than dealing with the public, Sampson no longer is a stranger in his own locker room. "He's much looser with us now than he was last year," said Jeff Jones, a junior guard. "He'll play practical jokes with the guys, the way everybody else does. He'll be throwing things at people. The other day we had a TV crew in the locker room, filming a show. Ralph was hamming it up pretty good."
The Auerbach meetings were a lesson enriching in more ways than one. Sampson learned that the old master is more bluster than substance. Knowing this of the pros, Sampson will be well prepared when it comes time to talk money again.
And however much Sampson denies it, he is thinking of the money.
"I don't even know when the hardship date is this year," he said, speaking of the deadline for underclassmen to submit their names for the NBA draft. "It's after the NCAA tournament some time, that's all I know."
A year ago, it seemed foolish for Sampson to pass up a chance to play for the Celtics. He would be doomed said the wise guys (blush), to playing for the expansion Dallas Mavericks.
Today, playing for Dallas doesn't seem all that bad. The Mavericks have two No. 1 draft choices in each of the next three drafts; then they have three No. 1s in 1985 and two more the next season. That is 11 -- repeat 11 -- first-round draft choices in the next five seasons.
"Dallas is stockpiling all those No. 1s," someone said to Sampson the other day. "If you went there, the Mavericks could build a great team. Have you paid any attention to that?"
Sampson glanced sidways at the reporter.
"No," he said at last. "I'm not worrying about it."
What's to worry?
Sometime soon, next year if not this, Ralph Sampson is going to get his multimillion dollar contract.
Abdul-Jabbar has told him there's no rush.
"Karreem told him his value would only go up if he stayed in school," said Holland.
The coach then said, "But Ralph said to me, 'That's only for one more year, though. Isn't it strange how my value could go up for three years, but when I graduate it goes down because I won't have the leverage of going back to school?'"
Sounds like a man, not a kid. A man planning one more year at Virginia.
One more year may be just enough, anyway. From his freshman season to this, Sampsonn has improved astonishingly. Jeff Jones said, "As much better as Ralph's stats are this year, he is double that much better in everything else. He is consistent, competent, patient. He hasn't blocked as many shots, but he has intimidated everybody."
No one could understand a year ago why Sampson never got the ball down low. This season Virginia never runs its offense without moving the ball to the big guy. Jeff Jones, the guard, said there is a simple explanation.
Sampson gets the ball more this season because Virginia has quit just lobbing the ball in and letting him fetch it out of the sky.
"We throw the pass straight to him now, right through all the hands and arms of two or three people guarding him, and make him make the play," Jones said. "We make him catch it. We just throw it at his hands, instead of lobbing it and giving the defense time to get there. He's flashing across the lane better now, too, and we're getting the ball to him there. And he's using his rear end better to keep defenders off him so he can get the ball and do something with it."
Jones, a coach's son, is saying Ralph Sampson has become a basketball player, not just a 7-4 kid with grace and touch.
"What we did," said Holland, "is get some films of Kareem playing at UCLA and with the Lakers. Ralph, like all big high school players, had been taught that the way to keep the ball away from anybody is just hold it up over his head. Against super athletes that won't work. Even the little guards will jump up there and take it away. So we showed him film of Kareem protecting the ball by tucking it in to his belly and using his body and elbows to keep people off him."
And what did Ralph think of the Kareem."
One thing more. Was Holland serious -- or seriously silly -- the other day when he suggested Sampson might be the first 7-4 forward?
"Yes. That'll be the next step for him. And if that would be a positive step in keeping him here at Virginia, we could work that out."
Another big smile.