This is it for Ralph Sampson. No more choices, no more college. Like it or not, in a few months he will become a millionaire professional basketball player. No graduate school, he promises.
And Sampson will tell you he is better for having remained at the University of Virginia four years. A better basketball player, a better student and, more than anything, a better person--well-rounded, sociable and grown up.
"Staying four years has been worth it a lot, because of what I've gotten out of school, socially and the classes," Sampson said this week.
Many people thought Sampson, Virginia's 7-foot-4 center, would never reach his senior year. Many said he should have taken the $400,000 offer from the Celtics after his freshman year, or the $800,000 from Detroit or Dallas after his sophomore year, or the $1 million from Los Angeles or San Diego last year.
It was argued that not only would he be rich, but he could learn more basketball in one 82-game NBA season than in three more zone-sagging years of college competition.
Sampson had other ideas. He said he was more concerned about growing up than he was about learning to cope with the NBA. He said he thought it would be much easier to grow with people his own age at Virginia than in the airport-to-arena-to-hotel shuttle of the NBA.
"Being around here for a longer period of time, people get to know you better and respect you more," said Sampson, college basketball's player of the year the last two seasons.
"When I first came here I made a statement that I would stay for two years, and I think people looked at me and (on campus) said, 'Well, let's see what happens after two years.' I was shy when I came here, coming from a small town. The way it was when I got here had to change. I've grown most as a person."
Doug Newburg, a reserve guard and one of Sampson's closest friends at Virginia since the first day, says, "Ralph has grown up so much in college these four years it's unbelievable.
"The first year or so that I knew Ralph, I don't remember him ever being happy," Newburg said. "We'd walk around campus and everybody had something to say, an autograph for him to sign. He didn't know what to do. Since then, he has learned how to deal with a nation watching him. He knew he couldn't go through life in a cage, guarded and defensive. He needed that maturation process. He needed to grow up.
"That personal development is worth more than the Celtics or Lakers could ever pay him."
Anyone who watched Sampson as a freshman, and now as a senior, can see the development of personality.
Before meeting with four reporters Wednesday, Sampson walked into the sports information office as if it were a second home, teased everyone and plopped in the director's chair with a fistful of fried chicken.
He feels equally comfortable when he walks across campus toward his room on The Lawn. The fun of being a senior in college is worth it for Sampson, who will graduate with his class in May before taking up postgraduate studies in the NBA. But did he wait too long?
"We'll never know how he would have done in the NBA after a year or two of college," said Bob Ferry, general manager of the Washington Bullets. "He has grown from a skinny kid to a muscular man and his game has become more polished. But who's to say you don't develop quicker playing 82 games per year as opposed to 35 in college? Players improve in the NBA, too. Overall, I'm sure staying in school had to have its merits.
"I think Ralph felt, whether he came out or whether he stayed, he could bet on having a great pro career. He plays above the rim as well as anyone I've ever seen."
Then, there's the question of money. Wouldn't Sampson have been better off bargaining after his junior year?
"Well, I don't know what kind of bargaining position you're in anyway when you have to deal with a coin flip," Sampson said, referring to the NBA's system of choosing which of the league's two worst teams will select first.
"You're bargaining with heads or tails. You don't know (where) you're going to end up in, so how are you going to bargain with somebody? You have to make that decision before you put your name in the draft. You'd have to try to get a contract with both teams. But you can't do that because you can't talk to the teams (without forfeiting remaining eligibility).
"Challenging that (legally) came across as an option I could have taken, but it would have been long and drawn out and I didn't want to get into all that. The coin flip is a little shaky. If I had the chance to play in the NBA, I wanted to know I was going here or there. But because of the coin toss, and not knowing where, I have no regrets."
If the NBA season ended today, Sampson would be drafted by the Houston Rockets. There would be no coin flip because Houston also owns the pick of Cleveland, the next-worst team. Houston and Indiana (the third-worst team) have indicated they are willing to pay Sampson approximately $1 million for his rookie season.
"He probably will never get the money he would have gotten if he had come out last year," said Marty Blake, the NBA's director of scouting. "But it won't make that much difference in the long run. He's stronger, he'll be a much better player now in the NBA. It was a very wise decision."
"I know Ralph isn't dumb, so if he stayed he must have known the money would be waiting for him," said Boston's Larry Bird, who himself turned down the NBA after his junior year at Indiana State. "The big thing is Ralph did what he wanted to do, so it's foolish for us to second-guess him. It's his life, so he has to be right."
Sampson says he's ready for the NBA, but just hasn't thought about pro ball much with Virginia trying to win the NCAA title.
Some of his senior year has been frustrating. Sampson is averaging 18 points and 12 rebounds, but often his teammates have been unable to get him the ball in key situations because of a myriad of zone defenses that are illegal in the NBA. He also takes a terrible pounding.
"I take a beating now and then, but it doesn't really bother me in the long run," Sampson said.
"In the NBA, with man to man and no zones it will be a different type of game. It will be fun, especially if I'll be able to be a forward on the team or come out and face the basket. I'll be able to do some things I can't do in college that I think should be a part of my game."
A 7-4 forward?
"Forward, center, guard, whatever?" Sampson half-joked. "It will really be interesting to find out what I can do."
Most of all, Sampson said, he wants to get as much out of the first few years in pro ball as he feels he's gotten out of college.
"It's a good feeling not to have the fear, like other seniors, about where I'm going to work," he said. "I don't know exactly where, what city, but I know pretty much what. I'll have to adjust to a lot of things, like any senior just getting out of school. It will be a job, for sure. But if you like your job, that can make it a lot easier. And that time is about to come."