Players and coaches in the National Basketball Association can't believe Ralph Sampson turned down a million dollars not once, not twice, but three times before his 22nd birthday.

So here he is, on a warm autumn afternoon, playing a game of one-on-one against a coed about half his size, living what he calls the "free-wheeling" life and fully enjoying his time as a college student.

Sampson says he has no regrets about his decision last April not to apply for the NBA draft. He is looking forward to his senior season at the University of Virginia, one that he hopes will bring that elusive national championship.

"If I could have gone to Los Angeles for sure, it would have been a different story," Sampson said when asked about his decision to pass up the NBA for the third straight year. "As it was, I couldn't be sure. San Diego didn't do anything for me."

San Diego certainly tried to do everything for Sampson. Owner Donald Sterling, although in serious financial trouble, turned down a reported $6 million from Los Angeles owner Jerry Buss for the draft rights to Sampson.

"I heard about it," Sampson said, his lean, muscular 7-foot-4 frame now sprawled on a stool in the Cavaliers' dressing room in University Hall. "I tried to keep up with all the news, get as much information as I could. If the Lakers would have had both picks, I would have strongly considered going there. I feel I am friends with Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), not close friends because we don't see each other that often, but friends. I like the situation there, the type of owner they have, but I just couldn't have been sure where I would have ended up."

Where Sampson ended up, of course, was right back here where he's been so successful for the past three years. While leading the Cavaliers to an 83-18 record, he has established himself as one of college basketball's all-time great centers, averaging 16.2 points, 11.4 rebounds and 3.6 blocked shots per game.

This season, he has a chance to join Oscar Robertson (1958-60) and Bill Walton (1972-74) as the only players ever to win three straight consensus player-of-the-year awards. He already has been compared by many to Abdul-Jabbar, a six-time most valuable player in the NBA. He is a finesse-type player with a soft shooting touch and great timing on defense.

"Sampson is like a concert pianist," said Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry. "He is an extremely fine-tuned, gifted, all-around performer. He makes awesome moves and great plays so effortlessly that a lot of people don't even realize how great he is.

"Ralph is going to be a devastating pro, even a lot better than you think he is," Ferry continued. "He's more physical than some give him credit for. He plays above the rim as well as anyone I've ever seen."

Before Sampson leaves the solitude of campus life he enjoys so much, he has one burning desire: to bow out as a champion.

"I've had three successful seasons here, but I want to win the national championship," Sampson said. "I've been to the final four (tournament) and I've seen the excitement and the thrill of winning. I want to get my body, my teammates and my school into that wonderful feeling."

Sampson's deep feeling of loyalty and respect for his school was one of the major factors in his decision to pass up the instant riches of the NBA.

"It (the decision) was tougher this year than in the past," he said. "I felt a lot of pressure. I really thought I wanted to go pro at one time. Then I broke down the question to the simplest form: what meant more to me, to get a degree or getting the money?

"I thought about the money, getting out in the world and being a professional athlete. But then I thought hard about the grinding life of a professional basketball player, playing 82 games a year. And I thought about having another year to be free-wheeling and having a little more fun.

"Finally, I decided that if I stayed, we could win the national championship, that I could get my degree and that I could experience my senior year at Virginia. The money wasn't that pressing. My family is pretty stable and we really didn't have any great needs in the next year."

Now that Sampson is a senior, he no longer will be faced with his annual dilemma. Now he has no choice. And now, some say, he has no bargaining power. He must either sign with the team that drafts him, at its terms, or play in Europe. Some teams, particularly those who will flip a coin for the No. 1 pick, simply can't afford the multimillion-dollar offers of the contenders in major markets.

"I don't really feel I've lost my bargaining power," he said.

Asked his reaction to Moses Malone signing for $2.2 million a year, Sampson said: "That's a lot of money for a player to get. He must be worth it. He's a great player, a great rebounder and very offensive-minded. He's been in Houston a long time and the team hasn't done too much. If they didn't want to pay him enough, then it was time to move on along."

Some believe that Malone's contract will increase Sampson's worth, but he doesn't see a correlation. "I really don't concern myself with other people's salaries," Sampson said. "I just want my turn and obviously I can wait."

If form prevails in the NBA this season, Cleveland, winner of only 15 games last season, will finish last in the East. Houston acquired the Cavaliers' first-round choice in the Malone deal and most likely will flip a coin with either San Diego or Utah for the right to draft Sampson.

"It doesn't make any difference where I go, as long as I'm playing basketball and being well paid," Sampson said. "Yes, I have a lot of cousins and friends in Philadelphia, but I don't have any preference where I play. It's not what you prefer, anyway. It's a job and as long as I have a suitable contract, anywhere will be fine."

Sampson also is delighted with his current situation. He says if he could live anywhere in the world right now, he wouldn't change his address on The Lawn.

The Lawn, which Thomas Jefferson called his "academical village" when he founded the University of Virginia and helped design its campus in the early 1800s, is made up of 54 Roman-columned single rooms on both sides of a wide strip of tree-lined grass.

The historical Rotunda, a half-scale version of Rome's Pantheon, stands majestically at one end. The circular building topped by a dome with Roman columns gracing the front is the landmark of the university.

Last spring, when Sampson was chosen to live on The Lawn--one of the highest honors that can be bestowed on a student--he said it was one of his goals at Virginia. Many believe it also was a major factor in his decision to return to school. Now, he tries to downplay his address.

"It's just a 13-by-13 room, with a television, a rug, a fireplace, a bed and a study table," he said with a smile. "You still have to go outside to the bathroom."

Yes, the dormitory-style bathrooms, with stall showers, are behind the living quarters, an arrangement that was not unusual when the rooms were built in the mid-1800s. The only heat is generated by the fireplace.

"It means a lot to live there, though," Sampson added, quickly. "You get to meet all the other interesting people who have been chosen to live there. It's an honor. It's nothing classy or plush, but it's nice.

"Dealing with tourists can be a problem. Sometimes when I'm studying or resting, I'll hear somebody stop by my door and peer through the louvered shutters. It startled me at first, but now I'm used to it.

"I've always enjoyed school and campus life. It gets easier every year. I feel very comfortable. People leave me alone more now. They don't bug me as much."

Whether cruising in his 1979 blue Chevy, lounging on The Lawn or playing pickup games in University Hall, Sampson has fit in well at this academically oriented school. He has a C average and will graduate this spring with a degree in speech. Clearly, he has achieved his goal of being more than just a basketball player.