Every year it seems Ralph Sampson has to make the most important decision of his life. Four years ago, it was selecting a college. Each of the last three years, it's been whether to turn professional. And now, Sampson must decide who will represent him in negotiations with the Houston Rockets, who have indicated they will pick him in the National Basketball Association draft next month.
Those familiar with the situation say that in the next week, Sampson, an all-America from the University of Virginia who at least one prominent sports attorney says can command $2 million a year, will make a list of as many as five agents and invite them to make formal presentations.
The names most often mentioned are Donald Dell's firm, ProServ, which has had a long relationship with Virginia; and Tom Collins, who represents Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is also close to Sampson.
Other prominent names mentioned include Bob Woolf, who represents Larry Bird, among many others, and Larry Fleisher, head of the NBA players association. Clay Chavers of Washington-based Hart, Carroll and Chavers is also hoping to hear from Sampson and make a subsequent presentation.
Dell, who represents several basketball players from schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference, said, "Obviously, I've heard those rumors, but I've never heard them from Ralph Sampson. I don't feel he has made a decision. I don't believe he has focused on it yet. I hope (the rumors) are true."
Collins also says he has not heard from Sampson or his family. "I would not initiate any contact with Ralph," he said. "But anybody who says he wouldn't want to represent a young man like Ralph Sampson is either crazy or dead."
Dell says that, based on his knowledge of James Worthy's contract, the highest of any NBA rookie, and the contract of Moses Malone (negotiated when Malone was a client of ProServ), he believes Sampson will receive "well beyond $2 million a year."
Woolf's prediction is much more conservative. "He'll get seven figures a year and would have no matter what year he came out," Woolf said. But Woolf says he expects Sampson to get about $800,000 for his rookie season, then $900,000, $1 million and $1.2 million, progressively.
"My feeling is that he's probably going to get $1 million a year," said Scott Lang, an attorney in New Bedford, Mass. "If I were representing him, I'd do an attendance clause because that's probably the best way to gauge what he's worth."
It is already established that Sampson is the best center to come out of college in the last eight years. But there could be some question about just how much that distinction is worth, and whether an agent will make much difference in negotiating that point.
"It's common sense," Lang said, "Doing Ralph Sampson's contract is very, very easy. The leverage for Sampson is going to be there. Sampson could negotiate his own contract, quite frankly."
Dell disagrees. "It's a very, very important decision," he said. "The difference of whom he picks could be several million dollars."
Chavers, who represents many radio, television and film entertainers, says Sampson could triple his salary in "product endorsements, television appearances and exposure in other kinds of entertainment ventures . . . I think Ralph Sampson would make a better media person than Ray Leonard, who with his attorney, Mike Trainer, took full advantage of his mass appeal."
In many ways, Sampson is worth as much to whoever represents him as the representative is worth to Sampson.
"For a less-known representative, it would put him on the map," said Chavers. "If you're Donald Dell or Bob Woolf, it's a very, very bright star in your stable and reinforces your posture that much more in the field of sports representatives. Mike Trainer was virtually obscure in sports representation circles until Ray Leonard came along."
The rush to represent Sampson also raises questions about ethics, and whether attorneys should contact potential clients.
Dell said, "We're not going in unless we're invited. Solicitation is not the real issue. It's not intelligent to bombard someone. It will turn him off . . . I don't think there will be any high-pressure salesmen coming in."
Bob Ferry, general manager of the Washington Bullets, said, "There is a lot more unprofessional maneuvering to get other players than Sampson. Sampson will only get the attention of the tops in the field."
Most agree that Sampson, who made his own decision and withstood the pressure to come out of school early, will be equally independent in selecting someone to represent him. "He's done it his way," Dell said. "He'll pick an agent his way, too."