Georgetown Coach John Thompson recalled the morning back in November 1981, when freshman forward Ralph Dalton was taken to the hospital to see what could be done about the torn ligaments and nerve damage he had incurred in his right knee the night before in an intrasquad game. What Thompson heard absolutely frightened him.
"I remember hearing the doctors who received him talk about what happened to him and about the surgery he had just had," he said yesterday. "It was such major, major surgery. I heard them wondering whether he would be able to walk again correctly or without aid. It scared the hell out of me. I was beginning to think he wouldn't be able to function in the normal world. Forget about basketball. I'm talking just walking and working. I had no idea he'd be able to come back and play basketball."
Not only has Dalton, now a 6-foot-11 senior, come back to play effectively, his contribution to Georgetown's being in the Final Four is no small bit part. Simply, if he hadn't played well over a 13-minute stretch against Georgia Tech Saturday in the East Regional in Providence, R.I., when all-America Patrick Ewing was on the bench with four fouls, Georgetown's season almost certainly would be over.
It's not the only time this season that Dalton has helped save the Hoyas when they were in trouble. When Ewing could play only 19 minutes against St. John's in the Big East tournament final because of foul trouble, Dalton got a team-high eight rebounds, made four of six shots and finished with nine points in 20 minutes as Georgetown won, 92-80.
In the three postseason games that the Hoyas really needed Dalton to play well, he averaged 23 minutes, 6.3 points and nearly seven rebounds.
Ralph Dalton never has been and never will be a Patrick Ewing. The comparison has been made, quite accurately, that he is Swen Nater to Lew Alcindor, or John Thompson to Bill Russell. A backup. But what Dalton has become, after missing that entire freshman year, is a very good backup center.
Because he sat out that first year, Dalton still has a year of eligibility if he and Thompson choose for him to play a fourth year. And it was after Dalton got a team-high six rebounds and made four can't-win-without foul shots down the stretch that Thompson squeezed Dalton in the locker room and said, "Ain't no way . . . you're gonna leave here, boy."
Dalton, with the spotlight making him squint for the first time in his career, seems rather unfazed by it all. Sunday night, reflecting on four years mixed with pain and now -- at last -- happiness, Dalton said, "The only individual you would notice on our team is Pat. But it would be a lie for me to say I don't like seeing my name in the news, or more importantly being appreciated for contributing to something you care about.
"I think the toughest thing (about being a backup center) is that being as competitive as I am, you want to play.
"People may not realize, I feel more comfortable, too, when Pat's out there. But there are two reasons why it hasn't been so tough.
"One, even though I might play only eight minutes or 10 minutes in a game, it seems like I'm always in there, trying to stay in it (mentally)."
Thompson says whenever he looks at videotapes of games, he can always hear Dalton's voice and see him jumping up and down in the background, perhaps reminding an underclassman where he's supposed to be on defense.
"And second," Dalton said, "Patrick and I are good friends. I get as much enjoyment out of his scoring two points as I would if I had made the basket. I hope my unselfishness overrides my competitiveness."
Dalton is the first to say that playing against and with Ewing every day in practice has improved his game tremendously. "It's helped my movement, among other things," Dalton said. "Just watching him helps. Can you think of a better person to learn from?"
Dalton, once asked to describe his style of play in contrast to Ewing's style, said, "I don't think I have one."
Ewing, having been told of that, smiled and said, "Oh yeah, he beats the hell out of me in practice every day."
Not only does Dalton sometimes have to substitute for Ewing, but he often plays alongside him. Whenever the opposition gets one offensive rebound too many, or when play gets a little rugged inside, Thompson just looks to Dalton. "The thing I like about Ralph," Thompson said, "is he's not afraid to go in there and mix it up, which is different from his off-court personality. He's the nicest kid in the world. When we're in an airport, if there's an autograph line from the runway to the gate, Ralph will stand there and sign every one. Amongst a bunch of grouchy people, he's a very pleasant ingredient."
Thompson's conversation about Dalton is full of affection, and he told why. "He's unusually special to me," Thompson said. "When he (left) Suitland High, I asked him to go to military school to prepare himself. Ralph loved to tinker with automobiles. When I first went to see him, there were all these cars at his house. He can keep a old car going as long as anybody. I knew he had a good mind.
"But I don't think he's always been that interested in developing other parts of his mind. He wasn't disciplined enough. So, he went to Fishburne for one year, and he could have come to Georgetown after that one year. But I spoke to the people at Fishburne and I went back to Ralph and said, 'Ralph, I don't think you're ready. I think you should go back for one more year.' And the amazing thing about it was here was a kid, totally removed from his environment, and he never fussed or challenged me about it.
"He said he would go back. And I was extremely pleased. Fishburne, even now, doesn't have a good basketball program. But I think it was fantastic for him. Even when he first got here, I told him that he'd eat himself out of basketball. And he stopped that immediately. He made all these sacrifices in his life, and then he gets hurt terribly in the Blue-Gray game.
"I thought, 'Oh, my God. this is the worst thing in the world.' I had made a bet with one of my sons that he'd be a first-round draft pick in the NBA. And I kept thinking, 'Look what's happened to this kid after all these sacrifices.'
"But you know," Thompson said, "he took the thing so well. Not once, to this very day, has he said, 'Why me?' He might say it privately, but never in front of anybody. And I never treated Ralph as if he's somebody to be pitied. He would never let you treat him that way.
"I was reluctant to let him play. We had major meetings, legal discussions and everything with his mother (who since has died) and his brother. They (and Ralph) decided he wanted to continue and try to play, because I was very afraid for him to play. But his mother said she didn't want Ralph going through life thinking of himself as a cripple."
So Dalton, with the help of Georgetown trainer Lorry Michel, successfully rehabilitated the leg and foot. Now, with a special shoe, he can play more than half a basketball game, more effectively perhaps than many centers with good legs. Thompson, in fact, reminds Dalton sometimes that he can really do more.
"Except for the pain, I've gotten nothing but positives from the injury," Dalton said. "I've developed an appreciation for a lot of things. I went back to my room, initially, and sulked. But I told myself there wouldn't be any more of that. It can eat you up if you let it.
"Knowing I have some physical limitations, I have to be more intelligent and I have to try and outsmart my opponent. You always have to compensate in some way. I know I can't do what Bill Martin does or what Reggie (Williams) does. If I'm gonna be successful, I'll have to do play as intelligently as possible. But I'm really satisfied with the way my career has come to an end. People ask me why I went through all this since I'm not going to be a first-round draft pick or anything.
"But there were people, like Patrick, who wouldn't let me quit, who wouldn't let me feel like I wasn't a part of the team. I feel good that so many people cared enough about me to help. It's been great."