Ten minutes before game time, a man named John sold two tickets for The Game of the Decade for $10.
So much for hype. It was time to play basketball.
The noise made you breathless.
The crowd was orange and blue. Oh, those faces, youthful if not quite innocent. "It's gonna be rowdy," said Lloyd Williams, The Hoya. "That's what everybody comes for. Catching a good buzz."
There were middle-aged men in psychedelic orange corduroy pants and matching cowboy hats. There were 20-year-olds with their cheeks (not the presentable kind) painted the colors of pompons. There were priests with down vests. And there was a guy who drove 26 hours straight from Mississippi and then called to ask if there were press credentials available.
And there were parents, those who nurtured the dream and the talent. Dorothy Ewing, who came from Jamaica years ago and worked long and hard enough to send for husband Carl and the rest of her family later. Sarah Sampson, who taught her son a hook shot when he was in high school. Both came to see their sons play ball and play well. "I don't want to see Patrick play a bad game or Ralph play a bad game," said Mrs. Sampson. "I want them both to have a good game."
Mrs. Sampson hadn't spoken to her son for two weeks. He doesn't have a phone, so he won't be bothered. He gets messages to his parents through his sister. Sometimes before big games, "he'll stay up and cook," she said. "And he dreams a lot. He can cook. Last year, he had a big game, he fixed lasagna. But he had a mental block. He called me and asked how to make it. I said, 'Do you have the hamburger?" He said, 'I have the lasagna but nothing to go in it.' I could see he was tight."
Sometimes, he dreams. "He had one dream for instance, a nightmare. He thought he was in his apartment. He woke up hollering. He kept reaching for the wall and he couldn't reach it. Every time, he reached, the bed moved. He kept hollering for the coach but he could never get the coach's attention."
When he woke up, he was afraid everyone had heard him hollering.
When he was 2 months old, he was 2 feet tall. Now he's 7-4 and eminently human.
Her son gave up talking about big games, his first year in college when he came home to Harrisonburg to play James Madison. "He didn't do a thing," she said. "He wanted to play well. He wanted to score 50 points. I don't think he scored five."
Mrs. Sampson, who is 5-10 and played center on her high school team, had a pretty fair hook shot. "I'm like Ralph, I don't like to talk about myself. My friends say I was good." Was Ralph Sr. influential in his son's athletic development? "Heck, no," she said. "He had no interest in sports."
One day when her son was in high school, she told him, "If you don't make a hook shot, you can't play."
Ralph went out to the play-ground and developed one. "I don't think if Ralph is on with his hook shot that Patrick can stop him," she said.
Ewing and Sampson were roommates for three days last summer in Chicago for the Playboy all-America photo session. He called one night and said, " 'Guess who's my roommate?' " she said. "So I knew. Ralph said he talked so much, he was about to tell him to shut up. He said he was a real nice guy."
But Sampson never talked about playing Ewing. "The only thing he ever said was, 'He's a sophmore. I'm a senior,' " Mrs. Sampson said.
Ninety minutes before the game, the Virginia players sat, unnoticed, watching St. Anthony's High School, where John Thompson used to coach, play basketball. They wore jeans or cords and no socks. The Hoyas strode in. Patrick Ewing, in a three-piece suit, led his team up the stairs to the concession stands, where they bought hot dogs and Cokes.
There is something about Ewing's bearing. He seems always to summon himself up, especially for those big occasions. His high school coach, Mike Jarvis, says he got that gift from God and his mother. "She is the one most responsible for him developing that gift," he said. "The fact that she has so much strength herself, such drive and ambition to accomplish the right things, to be educated, to be something special. She came over here from Jamaica and worked in the hospital, as she still does, and raised enough money to send for the rest of the family."
Jarvis says Ewing doesn't do anything special before a big game. No dreams, no lasagna. "I would only know if he wasn't nervous," Jarvis said. "He is normally nervous. He is nervous before every game. If he was laughing or relaxing, then I would know he was really nervous."
Jarvis spoke with Ewing on Monday. Neither mentioned Ralph Sampson's name. "The only time he mentioned Sampson was last summer when they spent time together," he said. "He said he respected him very much. He marveled at the way he could get up and down the court. He didn't think anyone else could get up and down that fast. He said it was nice to be able to against him."
8:40 p.m. The noise was throbbing. The beer was being swilled and spilled. For at least two hours, all the talk would give way to an undifferentiated cry. Abe Lemons, the former coach at the University of Texas, who would be a television announcer for the night, stood at courtside, holding a cigar in one hand and making a point with the other.
Could any finite event possibly live up to the expectations that had been created for this one?
"It'll be a miracle if it happens," he said. "One disappointment might come out of it. It might not be a confrontation. It might be between the teams. I think they'll all be glad when it's over with and they can get back to reality. Tomorrow, if Georgetown wins, what changes? If Virginia wins, what changes? It's like the day after Christmas. So after you open your presents, what then? You get to play with them."
This time, they were everything you always wanted.