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
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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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Thomas Jefferson designed the grounds of the University of Virginia so that form and function would know exactly what to make of each other. The campus centerpiece is The Lawn, a grassy expanse surrounded by a perfectly matched set of residences, classrooms and outbuildings that the American Institute of Architects declared during the Bicentennial to be the nation's finest architectural achievement. But if you walk away from the Rotunda at the head of The Lawn, and continue on down the grassy terraces toward Cabell Hall, you soon come upon a place so exceptionally serene that it seems to disrupt Mr. Jefferson's well-laid symmetry.

It's this spot that Ralph Sampson, 26, came to favor during his four years at Virginia. "I had most of my classes down in Cabell," he says. "When you walked there, you could feel the closeness of the campus. Sometimes people you knew would get together and lean against the statues. You'd be talking and enjoying The Lawn, and respecting it, too."

At first blush, Sampson's favorite swatch of green has the look of a Founding Fathers' center circle, with two of the Fathers poised for the tip-off. To one side stands the statue of a young George Washington propped against his sword, eyes fixed straight ahead. Across the way, in his own cul-de-sac of boxwoods and hedges, is Jefferson.

Old Tom, however, isn't staring George down. He's slumped in a chair, a man in his 70s looking spent but content. And on the pedestal there are these words: "I am closing the last scene of my life by fashioning and fostering an establishment for the instruction of those who come after us. I hope that its influence on their virtue, freedom, fame and happiness will be salutary and permanent."


First off, we should establish that the Jerry Sichting Incident was a trifle, a mere bagatelle in the annals of Ralph Sampson outbursts. Why, before it—before the 7'4" Sampson swung at Sichting, a Boston Celtics guard 15 inches shorter than he, to earn ejection from the penultimate game of the NBA finals last spring—Sampson had punched the Nuggets' Bill Hanzlik and then flipped the bird to the Denver crowd with both hands; and slammed the ball to the floor and kicked a chair during an ACC game at Maryland; and said of a Georgia Tech player named Lee Goza, "If I had a gun, I would have shot him."

Sampson had no business wheeling and clocking Sichting and certainly, as the Houston Rockets' captain, had even less business getting himself tossed from a game the Rockets could ill afford to lose. And if his nationally televised eruption wasn't ignominy enough, Sampson dishonored his major subject at Virginia, rhetoric, by uttering what is always frankly referred to as a "barnyard epithet" into a CBS microphone when asked about the Sichting thing. That only cinched in the public mind the burgeoning perception of Sampson as a profane, surly and hypersensitive loser.

It's all very tidy and trendy, this reading of Ralph Sampson. There's only one problem: Those who know him best are given to passionate dissent from it. While no one excuses the slugging of Sichting, there are those who resist the simplistic casting of Sampson as a villain. "People say Ralph's not a winner," says Roger Bergey, the plainspoken Virginian who coached him at Harrisonburg High. "Well, we won two state championships with him. UVa won 112 games in four years. Houston went from 14 wins to the finals in three years. Is that not a winner?

"And he got his degree. Who nowadays is doing even that much?"

The degree is indeed a worthwhile starting point, for choosing to pursue it took perspective and patience, and actually getting it developed perseverance and more patience. Despite Sampson's natural ability, he has a natural disability, too—a learning disorder that makes reading difficult. But with hard work in high school he earned a grade point average that made him eligible to play ball as a freshman at Virginia.

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