SI Vault
Alexander Wolff
September 22, 1986
In his placid life as a Virginia gentleman and his stormy life in the NBA, Ralph Sampson is searching for a new way to play the game
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 22, 1986

'to Find Out Why I'm Out There'

In his placid life as a Virginia gentleman and his stormy life in the NBA, Ralph Sampson is searching for a new way to play the game

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

For the most part, Ralph's temperament matches his mother's. But his occasional flare-ups seem to be the result of "gunnysacking," the process of accumulating frustrations until they must be given a full-bore venting a la Papa. "Once he builds up, he's like his dad," Sarah Sampson says. "There were two or three times Ralph made me want to forget."

Yet Ralph's paternal grandmother was a stickler for decorum and politesse, and the Sampson family values are the kind you'll find all over Virginia, where civilization has been applied in almost suffocating layers. Even the Harry Byrd machine, which dominated the commonwealth's politics for much of this century, passed stern antilynching laws while resisting desegregation and conducted its affairs without a hint of scandal. Sampson not only grew up in this world but spent four years at its finishing school.

And so it's disorienting to see him act barbarously. It may be a stretch to say Sampson is expected to be a Virginia gentleman, but he does hold himself to a high standard. There was the episode from his sophomore year at Virginia, when he missed an exam before the Cavaliers were to travel to Philadelphia for the Final Four. The professor called him in and chewed him out for the oversight, then demanded several days later that he come in immediately to pick up the test papers—behavior that Ralph, rightly or wrongly, considered rude and uncivil. A passing grade clearly hung in the balance, yet Sampson refused to go in and make up the test. Sizing up his grade point average and figuring he could afford the F, he told his academic adviser he would rather flunk the course than once again face someone who had so violated his sense of decorum. "She's forgotten to be a lady," he said of the professor, "and I'm afraid if I go back to her office, I'll forget to be a gentleman."

Inexcusable as his lashing out may be, that tale shows how Sampson's streak of vigilant moralism can be the source of something better than fisticuffs. Given time to think things over, he steered clear of a situation he knew would bring out the worst in him. In the crucible of competition, however, when a Goza or a Fothergill or a Hanzlik or a Sichting does not behave like a gentleman and Sampson has no time to weigh his options, he has so far proved unable to control his impulses. His desire to do well overpowers his civilized pedigree.

Sampson makes all his own decisions, hurried or considered. For four straight years, beginning after his senior season in high school, he alone decided to pass up offers from NBA clubs, including a solid bid from the Celtics and a possible spot with the Los Angeles Lakers. When he turned down the Celtics after his freshman season, he did so only after the most careful consideration. He prepared a talking paper for a speech class, listing the pros and cons of each option. He studied Bill Russell's Second Wind, paying particular attention to the great center's impressions of race relations in Boston. And he solicited all relevant information from coaches and advisers, and family in Harrisonburg and Boston.

Sampson's ultimate reasons for remaining at Virginia—he liked campus life and being close to home and the opportunities to earn the degree and win a national championship—were all laudable. Yet when he announced he would stay, Celtics president Red Auerbach exploded: "It defies common sense. It's ridiculous. If he were an intellectual genius and was planning on being a surgeon...then I'd buy it.... [But Sampson and his parents] are being hoodwinked by a few glad-handers."

There was no hoodwinking. There were no glad-handers. Sampson is asked now whether he resented Auerbach's remarks. "No. The Celtics mean a lot to him. He was just saying what he felt."

In the heat of the moment?

"In the heat of the moment."


Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8