Ralph Sampson at a Phoenix Suns game in February. He joined the staff last year. (Rocky Widner/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES)

If it were possible for a 7-foot-4 man to blend into the background, Ralph Sampson did so one night this past March in Washington. The Hall of Fame basketball player, who had taken a job with the Phoenix Suns earlier in the season, was back in the NBA for the first time since his playing career expired in this city more than 20 years ago.

About a third of the seats at Verizon Center were empty for the game between the Washington Wizards and the Suns. With neither team headed to the playoffs, the only time the crowd mustered much enthusiasm was during the inflatable mascots’ Gangnam-style dance.

The arena was so lifeless a ringing cellphone could be heard in the middle of play.

Wearing a brown suit, Sampson, 52,sat in the second row of the Suns bench, almost unnoticed. At one point, he was the most recognizable college basketball player in this area. This night, he was just another tall guy on the bench.

Other than occasionally patting a player on the back, Sampson said and did very little during the game. Afterward, he signed a few autographs — the sole indication that he once was somebody around here.

Thirty years ago this month, when Sampson was the No. 1 NBA draft pickout of the University of Virginia, many observers thought he would revolutionize the center position. Chamberlain, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar had come before him. The basketball world predicted his would be the fourth head on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore of big men.

But his professional career flamed out quickly because of injuries, and Sampson faded into obscurity. Out of the NBA, he ran into many of the same financial and personal problems other former athletes have encountered.

Sampson, who has eight children by five women, has been taken to court twice for failure to pay child support. He pleaded guilty in a related case involving mail fraud and spent two months in jail in 2007.

Lately, however, his fortunes appear to have improved. Last year, he was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame and hired by the Suns.

Some will argue that Sampson is one of the greatest basketball players who ever lived. Others will say he is one of the sport’s biggest busts. There’s plenty of evidence either way. Whatever you think about Sampson, however, may say more about you than about him.

Sampson battles Patrick Ewing of Georgetown University in 1982, in what would become one of the most memorable games of his college career. (Bill Smith/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Back when he was leading Harrisonburg High School to two state championships, Sampson was the No. 1 basketball prospect in the country and the target of an ardent pursuit by the nation’s top programs. All that attention, however, was more a burden than a blessing. “I was really shy and quiet, actually,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I’m from a country town.”

Virginia was not about to let a great player from its back yard escape to Kentucky or, God forbid, North Carolina, and the Cavaliers went to great lengths to woo him. Sampson signed with them before a standing-room-only crowd at his high school.

Sampson was as talented as advertised. He was incredibly agile for his size, and blessed with skills not usually found in centers, such as the ability to dribble in the open court and make long jump shots. His high school coach had “let me do some things on the court that usually 7-foot guys don’t do,” Sampson said.

“Other than Wilt Chamberlain, I’ve never seen a 7-footer, even to this day, do the things that Ralph did athletically,” said Jeff Jones, Sampson’s teammate at Virginia who now is head coach at Old Dominion University.

As dominating as Sampson was on the court, he was shy off it, his diffidence matched by that of his coach, Terry Holland. At a time when the ACC was full of colorful characters (Maryland’s Lefty Driesell, North Carolina State’s Jim Valvano) and dazzling star power (North Carolina’s Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins), Virginia had a reluctant superstar and a gentlemanly coach.

“They weren’t flashy. They weren’t controversial,” said Doug Elgin, the Missouri Valley Conference commissioner who was sports information director at Virginia for three of Sampson’s four years.

But when you’re as tall as Sampson and Sports Illustrated puts you on six covers in four years, it’s hard to keep a low profile.

“It was amazing, just the chaos around Ralph at the time, the attention that he got,” Elgin said.

“Ralph was not comfortable ever being in the spotlight,” Jones said. In his first year, “not only was he not talkative and outgoing with the media, in the locker room he was very reserved.”

Ask fans which game they remember from Sampson’s time at Virginia, and most will point to the heavily hyped Georgetown game. Ask his critics which game most sums up Sampson’s career, and they’ll likely point to Chaminade.

The buildup for the “Game of the Decade” in December 1982 between top-ranked Virginia and No. 3 Georgetown University at the old Capital Centre in Landover focused on the centers. Sampson was taller than Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing, and more mobile and creative on offense; Ewing was stronger, more physical and ruthless on defense.

Although weakened by the flu, Sampson outplayed Ewing. Sampson’s 23-point, 16-rebound, seven-block performance sealed Virginia’s 68-63 win before a national television audience and a capacity crowd. Ewing finished with 16 points, eight rebounds and five blocks.

But the glow of victory wouldn’t last. Less than two weeks later, on the final leg of a nonconference odyssey to Japan, the Cavaliers stopped in Hawaii to play Chaminade, a lowly regarded seven-year-old program not even in the NCAA.

Sampson, his flu exacerbated by the travel, scored just 12 points in Virginia’s 77-72 loss, which to this day is considered perhaps the biggest upset ever in college sports.

“It comes up every year,” said Sampson, who has returned to Hawaii twice to commemorate the anniversary of the game. He adds, somewhat grudgingly, “If one game that was a loss for me created a classic that lasted 30 years and is still going, I guess I can accept the loss a little bit.”

Sampson (50) goes in for a dunk against North Carolina State in 1983. (Peter Read Miller/PETER READ MILLER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED/GETTY IMAGES)

Sampson was one of the most decorated college basketball players ever. He was a three-time Naismith college player of the year; only UCLA’s Bill Walton can also claim that distinction, and no other player has won it more than once. Sampson was the only male player to win the Wooden Award twice. He was a three-time ACC player of the year, matched only by N.C. State’s David Thompson. The only other ACC player besides Sampson to finish his career with 2,000 points, 1,500 rebounds and 400 blocked shots was Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan.

And Sampson didn’t just accumulate individual accolades: During his years, the Cavaliers went 112-23, including 50-2 at University Hall. They spent 49 consecutive weeks in the Associated Press top 10. As a freshman, he led them to the NIT championship.

Before Sampson arrived, Virginia had never won an NCAA tournament game. His sophomore season, he took the team to the Final Four. Despite tempting offers every year from NBA teams to leave school early and become the No. 1 pick in the draft, he remained at Virginia because he had promised his family he would graduate. He led the Cavaliers to more basketball glory than they would experience again and, according to the school’s athletic director, Craig Littlepage, made the university seem more welcoming to African American students.

“What he did, in my opinion, for the University of Virginia was transformational,” Littlepage said. “The fact that Ralph had the kind of career that he had, the program achieved the kind of stature it did and he stayed four years and graduated, sent a signal to a lot of other prospective student-athletes and prospective students, for that matter, that if the University of Virginia was good enough for Ralph Sampson, it must be a pretty neat place.”

Yet, critics are more apt to point out what Sampson didn’t do than what he did. He never led the Cavaliers to an ACC tournament title or an NCAA championship.

“I’ve always been, and Ralph’s teammates have always been, defensive about him and protective of him because he was such a phenomenal teammate,” Jones said. “Ralph didn’t put himself up on some high pedestal and look [down] at the rest of us. We weren’t his supporting cast. We were his teammates. We were his friends. Those criticisms of him stung him, but they stung us, as well, because certainly some of it was unfair.”

Sampson holds a Houston Rockets jersey after his selection as the No. 1 NBA draft pick in 1983. (Andrew D. Bernstein/ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES)

Sampson’s NBA debut was greeted with even more anticipation than his college premiere. He was finally going to be on the biggest stage playing at the highest level.

“We had the Chamberlain era, the Russell era and the Jabbar era. And I think now we’ll have the Sampson era,” longtime NBA scout Marty Blake told The Washington Post’s David DuPree before the 1983 draft.

The Houston Rockets won the coin flip, giving them the first pick. And, just as in college, Sampson made an immediate impact. He started every game, earned a spot on the NBA all-star team and was named NBA rookie of the year.

The following year, the Rockets selected 7-foot center Akeem (later Hakeem) Olajuwon with the first pick and paired him with Sampson. “The Twin Towers” transformed the NBA.

To accommodate Olajuwon, Sampson moved to power forward. Though his slender build put him at a disadvantage against more rugged players, Sampson more than held his own. He made his second of four career all-star teams and was named MVP of the game.

The 1985-86 season foreshadowed his rapid decline. On March 24, 1986, in a game at Boston, Sampson went up to grab an offensive rebound, was undercut and landed awkwardly, driving his head into the court.

Sampson’s fall

This crash to the court during a 1986 Rockets-Celtics game seemed to signal the beginning of the end of Sampson’s career.

“He comes down so hard, those of us sitting courtside thought he was dead,” said NBA.com columnist Fran Blinebury, who covered the Rockets for the Houston Chronicle.

Sampson thought he had broken his back, and was taken off the floor on a stretcher and transported to a hospital. His back was severely bruised, yet he returned to the lineup after only three games. Many have speculated that Sampson’s later knee injuries were a result of his overcompensating for lingering pain in his back and hip.

A few months later, in an eerie similarity to his college career, Sampson experienced the best and worst moments of his NBA tenure in a matter of weeks. In Game 5 of the 1986 Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, with the score tied at 112 and about a second left on the clock, Houston forward Rodney McCray threw a pass to Sampson, who had his back to the basket.

In one fluid motion, Sampson caught the ball, spun and lofted a shot. What followed seemed agonizingly drawn-out, as the ball hit the front, then the back of the rim before tumbling through the net. The basket not only lifted the Rockets past the Showtime Lakers, who had won two of the past four NBA titles, it also sent Houston into the Finals against the Boston Celtics. In 2006, a panel of experts chose the shot as one of the top 60 moments in NBA playoff history.

Sampson’s shot

This video of Sampson’s NBA highlights starts with the famous playoff shot.

But that high point was followed by a low when Sampson, long criticized for not showing enough desire to win, punched 6-foot-1 Boston reserve guard Jerry Sichting during a fracas in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Sampson was ejectedand fined $5,000.

Sampson was excoriated in the media. Boston fans were merciless, too — “Sampson you fight like Delilah” read one sign — as were the Celtics players. “I can’t believe Sampson picked a fight with Sichting. Heck, my girlfriend can beat [Sichting] up,” Larry Bird said.

Columnist Blinebury noted, “They say he had death threats.”

The Rockets lost to the Celtics and the following year were ousted in the second round. By then, injuries were taking their toll on Sampson. In December 1987, Houston broke up the Twin Towers, sending their four-time all-star to Golden State.

A year and a half later, Sampson was traded to the Sacramento Kings. His NBA career ended with an unremarkable 10-game stint for the Washington Bullets.

“Those last couple years, it was horrible,” Blinebury said. “I felt bad for him, seeing him try to run. It was like somebody had taken a sledgehammer to a giraffe and smashed its legs.”

Even before he left the NBA at 31, Sampson’s career was being rewritten. No longer was he one of the greatest ever to play. Instead, he was derided for failing to live up to expectations — again. Critics begrudged his individual accomplishments by pointing out that his teams never achieved the ultimate success.

“Our sports society, we put such incredible value on winning championships, and that seems to be how we separate the really good from the truly great,” Blinebury said.

There’s something about Sampson that seems to make him an easy target. Best-selling author Chuck Klosterman examined this phenomenon in his 2009 essay “What We Talk About When We Talk About Ralph Sampson.”

Klosterman called Sampson “the best basketball player who ever lived,” then labeled him a bust because his career didn’t match his astounding athletic gifts: “Sampson busted big by succeeding mildly.” According to Klosterman, Sampson’s less-than-stellar NBA career serves to comfort the rest of us with the idea that our “self-imposed mediocrity is better than choking on transcendence.”

Sampson at home in Sacramento with then-wife Aleize and daughter Rachel in the 1980s. (FOCUS ON SPORT/GETTY IMAGES)

Ralph Sampson applauds son Robert as he plays for the Bullis School in Potomac in 2010. (Jonathan Newton/WASHINGTON POST)

The thing about being 7-foot-4 is all anyone expects you to do is play basketball, even if you have other ideas about the direction of your life. Former Virginia assistant coach Dave Odom, who later became head coach at Wake Forest University, recalled a conversation with Sampson about the player’s bright future in basketball in which Sampson seemed downcast.

“I said to him, ‘You’re not excited about it?’ He said, ‘Coach, I love the game, but there are other things in life I like, as well, and I’d like to at some time experience them.’ ... I looked at him and I said, ‘Ralph, how many 7-4 black bankers do you know?’ ”

And that became the problem when Sampson could no longer play. He had spent his life enveloped in the cocoon of basketball. Now that was gone.

Despite making reportedly close to $17 million during his career, Sampson was not set financially. He lost some of his wealth to agent Tom Collins, who allegedly squandered the money of several NBA players, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The payout of Sampson’s final NBA contract left him with a six-figure income until 2000. But in 2001, according to court records, he reported an income of $11,207.

After leaving the NBA, he joined Lefty Driesell’s coaching staff at James Madison University for one season. He became general manager and coach of the Richmond Rhythm of the now-defunct International Basketball League. He gave business a go, opening the Ralph Sampson Basketball School, Sampson Marketing and Sampson Sportswear. He started a foundation, Winner’s Circle, aimed at helping young athletes obtain college scholarships, and though there wasn’t much money in it, he learned that what he enjoyed most was working with young athletes.

Then, in 2003, one of those sports stars, Krista Watson, was killed in a car crash. Her death sent him reeling.

Sampson leaves federal court in Richmond during a child support case in 2003. (RICHMOND TIMES DISPATCH/AP) (LINDY KEAST RODMAN/LINDY KEAST RODMAN/RICHMOND TIMES DISPATCH/AP)

That year brought more turmoil. Sampson and his wife, Aleize, ended their tumultuous 17-year marriage, which had produced four children: Rachel, a Stanford graduate who works at ESPN; Ralph III, who played basketball at Minnesota; Robert, who started for East Carolina last season; and Anna, a teenager.

Also two child support cases were brought against him, one involving a daughter he fathered in 1985 and another involving a daughter he fathered in 1988. Sampson, who has six girls and two boys ranging from 10 to 28, pleaded guilty and paid the back child support.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Two years later, federal agents arrived at his suburban Atlanta home and arrested him on two more counts of failure to pay child support. The first involved a daughter born in 1986, who Sampson says he believed had been adopted by her stepfather. The second involved the daughter born in 1988.

Sampson pleaded guilty and agreed to pay nearly $290,000. Before sentencing, however, he was indicted on charges stemming from allegedly false statements he made during his arraignment about his finances. He pleaded guilty to one felony count of mail fraud involving the titling of a $43,000 SUV and served 60 days in a prison camp near Atlanta in 2007.

Sampson’s ex-wife, children and the mothers of the children involved in the child support cases either could not be reached or declined to comment.

Although Sampson’s child support problems seem to have been resolved, he hasn’t stayed out of legal trouble. He spent a night in jail in 2011 after being arrested for having a suspended license and for an open arrest warrant on charges of failing to appear in court on a 2008 auto insurance violation.

Sampson declined to discuss his legal issues.

“Everything is settled. All my kids that I have are in great places,” he said. “When you write about this, it’s not going to affect my kids at all. We’re at a level right now where everybody is prospering and doing extremely well. It’s not for my past history to bring negative into their world and bring them down at any level. It’s in the past and it’s a beautiful thing. I learned a lot from it, what to do and what not to do. ... My kids know me well enough to know that Dad is Dad, and Dad is trying to be the best he can be every day.”

Sampson talks to a player it the NBA Top 100 Camp held in Richmond in June 2006. (STEVE HELBER/STEVE HELBER/AP)

Sampson shakes hands with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, and Charles Barkley during the Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony in September 2012. (Jim Rogash/JIM ROGASH/GETTY IMAGES)

Bust or best? Deadbeat dad or loving father? His friends make a case for the latter.

“The Ralph Sampson I know, if he wasn’t paying child support it’s because he didn’t have the money. It’s not because he didn’t believe in supporting his kids or his family,” said Roanoke Times sports reporter Doug Doughty, who has covered U-Va. for nearly 40 years and has become friendly with Sampson. “He’s a good person, kind of a tragic hero of sorts, although no one died.”

Added Odom: “Whatever happened, if he was wrong, he didn’t do it because he’s a bad person — that I know.”

Best-selling novelist Emily Giffin is one of Sampson’s closest friends. The niece of former Virginia sports information director Doug Elgin, Giffin met Sampson when she was in elementary school and reconnected with him when they both lived in Atlanta. She laughs recounting how Sampson plays hide-and-seek with her 5-year-old daughter.

“He’s such a sweet guy,” she said. “I know it seems like an odd word to use about a 7-foot-4 NBA Hall of Famer, but it’s really true. He’s just a sweet, gentle, really good guy.”

Sampson’s habit of mostly keeping to himself means he usually refuses to tell his side of the story. That drives his friends crazy.

“I’ll sometimes get upset with him when something unjust is said about him and he won’t defend himself,” Giffin said. “But he just shrugs and tells me, ‘It is what it is. You can’t control all that.’ It’s as if he’s accepted life in the spotlight and all that comes with it, and has learned to tune out the background noise that bothers so many of us.”

In 2011, Sampson was elected into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. Last year, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, an honor that, as typical with Sampson, divided the basketball community.

“I don’t know exactly how [the Hall of Fame process] works, because it is byzantine and shrouded in secrecy,” Blinebury said. “I was as surprised as anybody. When he made it, I thought, ‘Good; he deserved it for the body of his career.’ ”

In September, while playing in a golf tournament in Phoenix, then-Suns general manager Lance Blanks asked Sampson if he’d be interested in a player-development job with the team. “I said, ‘Okay, I’ll come see if I like it,’ ” Sampson said, adding that he is “having a lot of fun.”

One of his roles is to mentor post players such as 6-foot-11 center Marcin Gortat.

“I can say 100 percent he’s the best thing that happened to me this year, and quite honestly I never had a better coach,” Gortat said. “If I get traded, I’m definitely going to take him with me. I’m ready to pay him from my own salary, actually.”

Suns President Lon Babby said: “He has tremendous credibility with these guys because he is a Hall of Famer. Part of it is he’s lived a lot of life ... going through life the way he has with his size and his fame.”

Sampson’s friends are hopeful that good things are ahead for him, but they are careful not to make outsize predictions.

“He’s on the right track now, I think,” Odom said. “Those of us who know him and love him and still talk to him, we’ve got to be careful that we don’t rush him at this time. Let him just continue at his own pace, as long as he’s happy. You don’t want to weigh him down with too many expectations now.”

Although Sampson prefers to look ahead, not back — “I’ve kind of buried all my past, good or bad things” — he has found himself reminiscing.

“This has been a year for me,” he said. “When you start looking back at things, you really see the impact that my career, my life had on the game of basketball, and not just basketball, but kids and people around the world.”

It’s difficult to see what lies ahead for Sampson. He’d like to continue working in the NBA. He has started writing a motivational book and plans an autobiography. And while his future may seem uncertain, perhaps that’s better than 30 years ago, when everyone was so sure they knew how wonderfully it would turn out.

Looking back on the past three decades, you might think he’s the greatest ever to play the game. Or you might think he’s a bust. It doesn’t really matter to him what you think.

“Nothing has really gotten me down in life, good nor bad. I’m always happy. I’m always in a peaceful place,” he said. “I think great things are about to happen. I can’t complain at all.”

Kathy Orton is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@washpost.com.