They came to watch Ralph Sampson against Moses Malone. But when Malone failed to show up, only 200 of the sellout crowd of 10,258 in the Scope demanded their money back. And there were another 200 people waiting outside to take their place.
The lure obviously was Sampson in his debut against the pros, any pros. In this case, he had to go head to head most of the way against massive Artis Gilmore. They fought to a draw, with Gilmore later calling the 7-foot-4 Virginia all-America "a tremendous talent. He will be a tremendous force in the NBA. There is no question about his ability to perform."
This was Sampson without the restrictions of the Virginia offense. This was Sampson against the big boys, even in a relaxed pro atmosphere where there was even less defense than normal in most NBA games. This was Sampson, a few days before the NBA draft, a few days before the first formal step toward making him a millionaire.
For this all-star appearance (a team of ACC players in the NBA versus a bunch of NBA all-stars), Sampson picked up between $3,000 and $4,000. He earned his money and gave the crowd what they wanted with a 20-point, 15-rebound effort that included the full repertoire of Sampson offense: dunks, hooks, turnaround shots and outside jumpers. It even included a missed slam dunk in warmups, which brought an embarrassed smile to his face.
Of course, Gilmore hardly was putting out. "We just wanted to have a good time and keep from getting hurt and hear some cheers," said Bullet Rich Mahorn. "It really wasn't very physical out there. But Ralph is a good player. He'll learn what it's like in the NBA real soon."
If the fans had their way, Sampson would have played every minute and taken a shot every time he touched the ball tonight. At one point, he made seven straight shots, but became more of a passer than a shooter in the second half. Then, in the final few minutes, when the ACC was rallying, he contributed a couple of baskets and blocked shots, but that still wasn't enough to prevent a 138-135 NBA all-star victory.
Sampson remains remarkably distant and sullen about his NBA future. In a press conference after the game, he immediately made it clear he didn't want to discuss that part of his life. He was asked why he wouldn't at least comment on Houston, the team which will pick him in the draft? "Come to New York next Tuesday and see what I have to say," he snapped back.
Two writers and a television reporter from Houton made the trip here hoping Sampson would break his silence. He refused to comment on whether he had chosen an agent, refused to comment on most anything. As he said, wait until Tuesday.
Malone's failure to appear was attributed to a knee injury sustained in a pickup game last week in Houston. But there may be more to it than that. One of the sponsors of this game was ProServ, the outfit that used to represent Malone. But now he is guided by Advantage International, Inc., a group that broke away recently from ProServ. This was the third straight game in this all-star tour that Malone has missed.
Although admitting they knew Malone might miss tonight, ProServ's David Falk said he didn't think "it was necessary to speculate on his medical condition since his doctor thought he might be able to play." The game's promoters claimed they didn't realize Malone would be absent until late this afternoon.
By the end of the game, the crowd acted as if it didn't miss Malone a bit. The fans were cheering Sampson's every move.
"His game has become more deversified," said New Jersey's Buck Williams, the former Maryland star. "He'll be able to hold his own in the pros . . . He will just have to learn what he can do and can't do, but he is soooo quick for his size."