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It's difficult to say just when 7-foot basketball players became so common that people stopped taking much notice of them. Almost no one asks a 7-footer how the weather is up there anymore, and when was the last time anyone referred to Wilt Chamberlain as Wilt the Stilt?
Well, in case you're still interested, the weather up there this year has been unseasonably good in the nation's high schools. The B/C Scouting Service of St. Petersburg, Fla. estimates that this season there are nine high school players who are at least seven feet tall, and another 54 who are 6'10" or better and could be 7-footers by the time they enter college. And this is such an upwardly mobile group that a lot of scouts are calling it the best class of big men ever.
The class of '79 is distinguished not only by its depth—or height, depending on how one looks at it—but also by the ability of its three best big men. They are, in more or less the order in which they have caused the heaviest drooling by recruiters: 7'1" Sam Bowie of Lebanon, Pa.; 7'3�" Ralph Sampson of Harrisonburg, Va.; and 6'11�" Steve Stipanovich of St. Louis.
Bowie is probably the most highly sought high school player since Moses Malone. Last week he was averaging 31.8 points and 18.4 rebounds, and was fresh off a 39-point performance against Manheim Township. Lebanon is in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, and is notable for its 18th-and 19th-century architecture. Unlike the rest of Lebanon, the high school is a futuristic-looking honeycomb of three large circular pods connected by tunnels. But the invasion of the body snatchers that has been going on there for more than a year now has had less to do with pods than it does with Bowie, who has been contacted by at least 400 colleges.
Bowie's father Ben is 6'11" and a former member of the Harlem Magicians. He taught Sam to dribble and shoot 10 years ago, and the lesson stuck. Despite the overwhelming height advantage he has against most high school competition, Bowie does not simply camp underneath the hoop. He prefers to roam the baseline, where he can make use of his remarkable ball-handling ability and his feathery outside shot.
"Sam's goal is to play facing the basket in college," says Lebanon Coach Chic Hess. "He wants to be a forward, and some of the coaches of the schools he's interested in have told him he can play forward for them. But some of these guys will say whatever it takes to get Sam, and I know some of them are lying. Some of the coaches who are telling him he can be a forward come in here knowing that their teams need a center."
Kentucky Coach Joe Hall, whose school is one of eight that Bowie is considering, agrees that Bowie could play almost anywhere on the floor. "At a school that has a good big man," Hall says, "they'd get more mileage out of Sam by playing him in the corner." Says Bowie, "A lot of players my size are inside men only, and defenses are geared to collapse on them. Besides, I like to play outside better than I do inside."
Bowie's only weaknesses are that he does not get up and down the court quickly enough and that, at 215 pounds, he is too skinny. He is not the only big kid with a weight problem. Sampson is 2� inches taller and weighs 15 pounds less than Bowie. Still, Sampson is averaging 29.1 points and 19.6 rebounds, and one prominent coach, who is among the minority that rates Sampson over Bowie, says flatly, " Sampson is the best high school player in the country."
Jackie Allen, a recruiter for Virginia Tech, has been shadowing Sampson since his sophomore year. "With the players we already have, Ralph could take us to the final four next year," says Allen. '"He's as good as any big man ever to come along. He's ahead of Abdul-Jabbar, ahead of Malone, at this stage. Someday Ralph will be the standard by which all other big men will be measured."
Hall saw Sampson at a Kentucky basketball camp last August and says, "I never got tired of watching him. I don't think I've ever seen a player of his size with his ability. He has quickness and agility that you don't expect a player of his size to have."