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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
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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

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"The degree."

Of course, the Rockets went from beating L.A. to losing to Boston, and so do Sampson's thoughts. "Everybody goes by what you did last," he says, turning from the TV screen. "No one goes by the whole run of your career."

"It's like listening to the radio and then cutting it off," says Wallace. "That last song keeps going 'round in your head. Everybody talks about the fight, and the two points [in Game 1]. No one talks about what it took to get there."

The media do most of that talking and have since Sampson was a high schooler and his mother began storing his press notices in a laundry basket. Sampson has never cottoned to the press and its intrusive ways. He realizes, however, that it was the media that made him a celebrity, that it was not something he sought.

He has nonetheless begun to do more than merely acquiesce in his own fame, particularly as he begins to see its potential. He comes from a part of Virginia where there was little slaveholding and where, as a result, relatively few blacks today reside. But as a second-semester senior he did use his influence on behalf of the university's Black Student Alliance in its dispute with the administration over the recruitment of minority students and the promotion of faculty members. Many in the athletic department found Sampson's involvement unsettling; others suggested he had been exploited. But as usual, it was a considered decision. "I said, 'Look, I'm a focal point at this school. Give me your gripes and we'll go from there,' " says Sampson. "Me and two or three others, we went in with the dean. A lot hasn't gotten done, but it was a start. I wish I'd gotten into it earlier."

Over the summer he has become involved in several other projects. In Harrisonburg, where he spends off-seasons at his parents' home, he is setting up a community tutoring program through the churches to supplement the guidance available at the local high school. In addition, he has delivered numerous drug education speeches around the country.

Sampson is an incorrigible straight arrow, although in college and afterward he has been exposed to drugs and seen what they're capable of. Long before he ended up as Sampson's teammate on the Rockets, John Lucas visited Harrisonburg on behalf of the University of Maryland, trying to woo Sampson to College Park. The
Sampsons still laugh at how Lucas, all natty in a suit, slipped in some manure on his way to watch Ralph play. Two seasons ago, when Lucas returned from his second tour of cocaine rehabilitation, Sampson adopted Lucas as his charge. "Luke would okay things with Ralph before going out after games," says the Rockets' forward Jim Peterson. "Luke would propose something and Ralph might say, I don't know, you'd better check in with me.' "

It seemed incongruous, the glib veteran reporting to the taciturn greenhorn. When Lucas went AWOL in the midst of last season with another cocaine relapse, "It really tore Ralph up," says Teresa Rennoe, a friend of Sampson's from college. "It wasn't just the human suffering that John went through, but that it happened in spite of all Ralph had done. For a long time after it happened, Ralph couldn't talk about it."

Now, when he appears before youth groups, Sampson never fails to mention how Lucas had the world in his pocket and still messed up. Luke is the perfect example, the fallen star that kids can recognize and relate to.

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