Mr. Jefferson so believed in the importance of independent thinking that he had the Rotunda serve as his university's library rather than its chapel. The spirit of that decision abides at Virginia today and is one reason the school excels in fields other than grain-alcohol partying. Yet college athletes are rarely encouraged to think for themselves, and on most campuses a class of the sort Ralph Sampson took as a sophomore would be considered subversive.
The Psychology of the Gifted Athlete, a seminar taught by a sports psychology professor named Robert Rotella, brought together six of Virginia's finest athletes—two female cross-country runners, a female heptathlete, two football players and Sampson. Rotella led the class through weekly discussions of the stresses and joys of having special gifts, and their ramifications in other spheres of life. "Anytime people start putting the label of potential on you, those same people will turn around and tell you you haven't reached it," Rotella says. "So you have to determine your own expectations and decide for yourself whether you're successful or not. I don't know how many times we said it in that class: Potential is something that hasn't happened yet.
"The thing we value so much in our culture is freedom. Yet if you're talented enough, you're deprived of it."
To help his students escape the tyranny of a society that sets goals for them, Rotella encouraged them to set goals for themselves. "I'd never done that in high school," Sampson recalls. "I just tried to be the best person and best basketball player I could be. I didn't want to set a goal and reach it and then be satisfied and stop."
Yet Rotella kept prodding. So Sampson went ahead and set the most ambitious goal he could imagine, in effect daring Rotella to pronounce it unreachable. And Rotella, sizing up his student's gifts and work habits, couldn't bring himself to do that.
Sampson still has that goal: To reinvent basketball's big man as a fluid prototype, someone who integrates skills from the other spots on the floor. In Yeagerian terms, Sampson wants to push the envelope. "I've been playing center most of my life," he says. "To this day I'm most productive at center. But why waste dribbling, running and passing? If I can play guard, it'll add dimensions to my game, to the Rockets and to basketball."
Guard is the freest position on the floor, and so much of Sampson is revealed in the style of play to which he aspires. On the court he has chosen not to be typecast as a skyhooking center, just as, off it, he chose the normalcy of graduating from college in four years. Both decisions amount to breaking the shackles of what is expected of someone possessing his talents.
As a senior Sampson lived in one of the 54 rooms on The Lawn, a privilege accorded only to Virginia's most exceptional leaders and seldom to its athletes. In his application for the room, Sampson wrote: "Although I know that much of my future will be centered around basketball and athletics, I've come to realize there is much more to life." That Sampson had to move off The Lawn in the midst of his senior year because of the attention he drew suggests he wasn't able to act on that realization. And when asked if there's one thing he would like people to know about him, he still says, "I'm just fortunate to have the height that I have, and that someone invented the game of basketball. But I want to be respected, just like everyone else, as a human being."
That sentiment may speak once again of the Virginia gentleman within. Consider his difficulties with Fitch. Last fall the Houston coach ripped his captain to reporters after an exhibition game, charging that Sampson wasn't in shape. Sampson overheard Fitch, and was furious that the coach wasn't making allowances for a pulled thigh muscle. Sampson took his anger to the papers himself, saying Fitch could trade him if he was dissatisfied with his play. The two are civil to each other now, but Sampson felt affronted and doesn't conceal his coolness toward Fitch.
Yet for the moment the two do agree on the wisdom of Sampson's fluid big man "experiment," even as others ask why Sampson flounders around out on the floor, launching dainty jump shots and trying to dribble behind his back. Why would anyone with a body so singularly lean and strong not keep it near the basket, where it would be of real use? "Maybe this 'experiment' is Ralph's way of justifying 'playing soft,' " says Roland Lazenby, author of Sampson: A Life Above the Rim, an account of Sampson's years in Virginia. "But it does show the intellectual in Ralph. He's striving for a synthesis. He really doesn't have his identity because he's experimenting. Ralph's not the kind of person to pull out a soapbox and get up on it and sing, 'I did it my way...,' but he is doing it his way. The question is, will the niche that he someday finds suit the fans? He says he doesn't care, but underneath, any performer does."