Ralph Sampson has done this before. He has played basketball games, like the one he played against Louisville today, which go beyond sports cliches.
Try extraordinary, devastating or amazing. Each falls a tad short of describing the 35-point, 12-rebound, five-blocked-shot day he had in leading fourth-ranked Virginia to a 98-81 rout of seventh-ranked Louisville before 9,000 in University Hall.
Today, Sampson was Dr. Jekyll, wonderful in every way. He was aggressive from the start. He moved, he chased when he had to. He even ran the fast break a couple of times. All of which makes some of his recent Mr. Hyde performances, most notably his embarrassing day against North Carolina two weeks ago, all the more mysterious.
"I just felt good today," said Sampson, who tends to shrug off such questions. "We were rested and we were psyched up. We had been fighting things a little in our offense. Today, the game flowed from the start."
It flowed largely because Louisville (16-3) likes to take a team out of its offense by never letting it set up. That means its guards often come out as far as 30 feet to pressure the ball. Guards out that far leave room in the lane. When Sampson has room, the party's over.
"Once he gets it inside, what can you do?" said Louisville's Charles Jones, a good player who looked incompetent against Sampson, who at 7 feet 4 is eight inches taller. "I spent most of the day peeking over his shoulder. It's a pretty helpless feeling."
It had been Virginia (17-2) that had been feeling helpless in recent weeks. The Cavaliers did your basic round-the-world-in-18-days routine in December, and had played with a haggard look most of this month. That had been especially true of Sampson, who had been sluggish, bad-tempered and, yes, ordinary.
But today, with a little rest, Sampson put on one of those made-for-national-TV spectaculars he has occasionally shown the world the last four years, performances which have made his bad nights that much harder to fathom.
"I think Virginia's got the best team I've seen," said Louisville Coach Denny Crum, whose team trailed by 30 points and was behind, 92-65, with five minutes left. "They've got four starters back from last year and they've got him."
Virginia never trailed. But the Cardinals, who have as much talent as anyone, were hanging close at 26-20 with nine minutes left when Sampson took over.
First he took a lob from Othell Wilson (12 points, six assists) for a jarring dunk for 28-20. He deflected a shot by Jones, raced to the other end and made a soaring hook shot from the right side.
Crum tried a timeout. It didn't matter. Sampson blocked another shot by Jones, got the ball down low and dunked again. It was 32-20 and the Cardinals would never get the lead under double figures again. Before the half was over, Sampson had made another hook, a short push shot and a three-point play off another lob.
It was 54-37 at intermission and the only questions left were the final margin and Sampson's statistics.
"At first they were sagging on me, but then they moved their defense outside and I had a little more room," Sampson said. "The guards did such a good job handling the ball it made it easier for me."
Sampson with room to maneuver is a remarkable sight, especially when he wants the ball and his teammates are looking for him. In the second half, he brought the house down with a one-handed catch and dunk of another pass from Wilson; had two more dunks on follow shots, and climaxed his performance by blocking a shot, running the middle of the break and passing to Rick Carlisle (13 points) for a dunk.
That basket made it 72-42 with 16:39 left and brought hugs all around. It lacked only a call from the White House for an official pronouncement that Virginia and Sampson are definitely on the mend.