In some states you can call Dial-A-Prayer.

Now, in Virginia, you can call Dial-Ralph.

The trademark of Ralph Sampson's career, ever since arriving at his current atltitude of 7 feet 4, has been a sad sort of grotesque humor. Now, Sampson's bizarre basketball odyssey has reached new heights -- of the absurd.

This Sunday at precisely high noon, anyone who knows the proper telephone number can dial a tape recording and get the correct answer to the biggest multimillion dollar mystery in sports: where will Sampson play next year?

On something called The Cavalier Sports Line, the Virginia sophomore will read his decision.

Everywhere he has gone on the Virginia campus this week, Sampson has been followed by prayerful petitioners who care profoundly whether he remains at The University for another year of Chaucer and thermodynamics, or decides to take the filthy millions of the NBA and turn pro.

"It's sickening," says Sampson.

How true.

In all of America's games, the most depressing arena may be big-time college sports. Within this shabby realm of pressure recruiting, altered transcripts, illiterate student-athletes, fixes, double standards, double-knit insincerity and generally debased taste, the worst offenses probably occur in basketball. It's the red-light district of our sport.

To come in prolonged contact with this domain is to risk a pernicious rusting away of character and a contamination of the spirit.

This brings us back to Sampson. His game has such an ingrained ugliness that, despite his best efforts and those of his school, he constantly seems in danger of being discredited.

For three years, Sampson has been the textbook case of an average young man -- overmatched by the circumstancers of his talent and fame -- who seems in danger of losing his way. cPsychiatrists claim that the one conspicuous symptom of neurosis, of unresolved internal conflict, is the inability to make a decision. Perhaps no athlete has such agonizing trouble saying "yes" or "no" as Sampson.

As a junior at Harrisonburg (Va.) High, Sampson narrowed his college choices from 200 to 16. In his senior year, he pared the list to seven, then to four. Finally, he announced he would unveil his "pick" at a press conference attended by 100 reporters.

An hour before the deadline, with media filling a whole gymnasium bleacher, Sampson choked. He told his mother he couldn't decide. She told him he would, too. And quick. So, in the last 30 minutes, Sampson chose. Sort of.

"I'm probably going to Virginia," said Sampson. "If I change my mind, it will be Kentucky," he added, as his coach covered his face in shame.

Last year, Sampson was at it again, enraging the Boston Celtics by going through the whole "hardship" charade, then backing out on a $3 million offer.

"The university brainwashed him with all that stuff about the wonders of an education," stormed Red Auerbach.

"Red's lying about what they offered me," said Sampson.

Sampson's reputation as a jock coquette, an immature young man who loved flattery, attention and mystique, was growing.

Now, that image is reaching its peak.

Once again, Sampson is apparently doing his best, or worst, to keep the maximum number of people on edge, and make them look like fools as they woo him.

For months he has made his coach, Terry Holland, look ineffectual. Holland has been unable to recruit bluechippers because they don't know where Sampson will be when they arrive.

Sampson has also shown the NBA in all its greed and desperation.

Two NBA teams -- Dallas and Detroit -- supposedly have to flip a coin next month to decide which has the draft rights to Sampson. Some people wonder if this "flip" has already taken place. It would be difficult to believe that Sampson would make the irreversible decision to forgo his amateur status without knowing which city would grab him.

Yet Sampson has visited with representatives from both Detroit and Dallas, listening to their "offers" as though this coin flip were still in the future.

The final piece of this puzzle is that no one wants to tell Sampson the real limits of his talent. Certainly the NBA doesn't. Virginia coaches admit Sampson needs to gain weight, but they don't want to make sensitive Ralph too upset.

The true example of talent ruined which Sampson should study is Darryl Dawkins. After six years in the NBA, Dawkins still is worse than a mediocre center -- perhaps the No. 15 big man in the league. Chances are, he'll never get much better. The die is cast as soon as the thought becomes anchored that "I have to play this way to survive." For the scrawny Sampson, life in the NBA at this stage of his career would be just that -- survival, rather than dominance.

The crux of the Sampson Case is that the situation may be unredeemable.

Sampson has had good counseling from parents and coaches. He has gone to a high school and college that cared about him as a person.

Despite this, Sampson remains a fellow with a problem. Either he's become a congenital tease, absorbed in grabbing the spotlight. Or, more likely, he's a youngster so conflicted that any serious decision leaves his mind in a pretzel.

Call the Cavalier Sports Line yesterday and listen to Sampson:

"I haven't decided yet. . . I don't have all the questions or information yet. . . I hope to get some in the next 24 hours. . . I haven't attended classes all week because I knew that's all anybody would ask me. . . There's a lot of things pro and con on both sides of the coin. . . I don't understand when I'll do it. . . Yeah, it'll be on that tape on Sunday," he says. "Of course maybe it'll be on the tape before noon."


"People have been getting on my nerves," said Sampson. "Lately, I've been short and decisive with people."

Sampson short and decisive? That will be the day.