For Ralph Sampson and Terry Holland, this is the final final exam--and another B just won't do. Unless Virginia wins the NCAA championship that begins in two days, each will be haunted, if not scarred, for quite some time. I'm rooting for them to succeed. Hard.
They have been good for sport, grown into nice role models in a hard-crust environment. By not signing a near-blank check the pros fluttered in front of him after the last three seasons, Sampson has shown other prodigies that it's possible to major in basketball and minor in life. Still, the lure of The Lawn may have sapped some of this Sampson's strength.
Holland is a tweedy athletic intellectual most comfortable at a college that has academic priorities--and enforces them. His understated clothes hide an uncommonly fierce fire, for Holland's temper twice has cost the Cavaliers dearly in the NCAA playoffs. But has Holland pushed Holland enough off the court? Can a man who reads more than scouting reports, who is familiar with a few Alberts in addition to King, capture his profession's ultimate prize?
Facts: the most fluid giant ever to grace a court, the Abdul-Jabbar of the East, has never won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and only been as far as the NCAA regional finals once.
Nearly every game, Sampson shows some new skill that dazzles us and also puzzles us. Once in the ACC shootout last weekend, Sampson started upcourt as a 7-foot-4 point guard, the middle man in a fast break. Near midcourt, he drew the ball back off his hip and flicked a quick-draw pass to a teammate 15 yards away.
Nobody 7-4 should have Magic genes.
Against Maryland in Cole Field House, North Carolina's 6-6 Michael Jordan once flashed into the free-throw lane, caught a pass and, still in the stratosphere, twisted his body and tossed the ball into the hoop. A generation ago, nobody tried that move and only Elgin Baylor might have dreamed it possible.
Sampson aped it two games ago.
But just about the time we drag our jaws off the floor in wonderment comes the thought: what in the name of Naismith is Sampson doing outside more than an eight-foot arc of the basket? Some things are obvious. As bearnaise sauce is the only justification for jogging, anyone Sampson-large should not stray among mortals on the court.
He seems to have visions of being the world's tallest small forward. If the Indiana Pacers draft him, if they mortgage Fort Wayne to sign him and team him with Herb Williams and Clark Kellogg, that might actually come true. Not at Virginia.
Players so tall and skilled very often are to be pitied as much as envied. Expectations are as enormous as they are. With Sampson, so many forget that Bobby Knight four years ago all but called him unprepared in lots of ways for basketball at the highest college level. He's made remarkable strides off the court.
Virginia should be proud of that.
But perhaps Sampson has become a reasonably well-rounded, reasonably glib, reasonably inspirational collegian at the expense of being a collegiate athletic immortal. Maybe if he'd gone to one of the factories where players are not encouraged to look more than 94 feet at a time Sampson would be dashing for his second national title.
His supporting cast very likely would be better.
Privately, Virginia officials insist the Cavaliers are capable of making the final four without Sampson. And Thomas Jefferson was a second guard. If Sampson had been unavailable for the ACC tounament, Georgia Tech would have been a slight favorite in the semis. Assuming Virginia had upset Duke in the first game.
To win the national championship, a team usually needs three pro prospects. Not all must be high draft choices, but they must be projected as being able to make at least a modest living at the game. Georgetown had two first-rounders last season, Patrick Ewing and Eric Floyd, and another, Eric Smith, savvy enough to be given a chance by Portland.
North Carolina had three first-rounders, James Worthy, Sam Perkins and Michael Jordan, and some marginal pros and still won by just one point. Who besides Sampson does anyone see in pro duds?
In truth, there are three or four teams in the NCAAs this year with more superior players than Virginia. Man for man, Carolina is better. Same for Houston and Louisville.
Virginia has had Sampson three years.
Sampson has been the best NCAA player.
Virginia should have won three NCAA titles.
That's not even close to logical; it's also what usually decent minds have decided.
Virginia is 110-21 with Sampson. It has beaten most of the very good teams at least once during his four years. Sampson has been close to awesome at times, with 40 points and 15 rebounds as a sophomore against Williams and a list of deserved honors that fill an entire page.
He also seems to melt in the tensest times.
The ACC championship was right there to be plucked Sunday in Atlanta. Virginia lost; Sampson was scoreless the final seven minutes and had the ball stripped from him, by a runt, with 37 seconds left and his team down three points.
Later, more logic was fractured.
Sampson said his teammates couldn't get him the ball.
Holland said his teammates actually tried too hard to get him the ball.
If teams have any sense at all in the final moments, they try to make certain that Sampson does not beat them. If they don't crowd all five players and two recruiters around him with the game on the line, they should. Instead of questioning Sampson's courage, critics better go after Holland.
With the most dominant player since Bill Walton as a selling point, Holland seemingly should have been able to coax, to pull a few names out of a sneaker, Jordan and Chris Mullin, to Charlottesville. With time only for a three-point shot against North Carolina State and Othell Wilson having fouled out, Virginia's best three-point shooter on the court was--incredibly--Ralph Sampson.
In four years, Sampson and Holland have given much that is admirable. They deserve more than to limp away from this season branded as losers. A hoop junkie with a soft spot for Wilt Chamberlain wants the Cavaliers cutting nets, and cutting up, in Albuquerque April 4.