He held his video camera higher than everyone else's, but aside from that Ralph Sampson looked like any other father sitting behind the baseline during last Saturday's Class 5A state championship game in Birmingham. Sampson, the 7'4" former NBA All-Star, was rooting for his son, Ralph III, a freshman center for Butler High of Huntsville, Ala. Thanks in large part to the younger Sampson's 14 points, 11 rebounds and nine blocked shots, the Rebels beat Shaw High of Mobile 72--57 to win their second straight state title. "The sky's the limit," the father said of his 15-year-old son, who's already 6'10". "We'll see how far he goes."
Ralph III's future is a hot topic in Huntsville, where some are wondering how he wound up there. In December, Ralph Jr.'s ex-wife, Aleize--they divorced in 1999--moved with their four children from a gated community outside Atlanta to an apartment in Huntsville. The idea was to have Ralph III play for Butler coach Jack Doss, who had coached her brother, Alan Dial, at Anniston ( Ala.) High in the late 1970s and impressed Dial with his teaching ability.
Never mind that Ralph Jr. initially disapproved of the move or that Doss hadn't heard from Dial, who's now a lawyer in Washington, D.C., in 25 years. "They said they didn't trust any of the coaches where they were," says Doss, whom Dial had located on the Internet. "They asked if I'd be interested in helping Ralph." Says Aleize, "We were looking for someone who could help develop Ralph's talent, and [Doss] was the choice." Doss wasn't about to turn down the chance to get a 6'10" kid with NBA genes; he even invited Ralph III to sit on Butler's bench when the Rebels won the state title last year, a move that sparked rumors that Ralph III had been recruited. "It didn't make much sense to me," says a rival coach. "If I had a high-profile kid on my bench, everyone would be up in arms."
Ralph III became eligible in January, and in 14 games he averaged 10.3 points, eight rebounds and eight blocks, revitalizing a team that started the season 8--6 without him. He needs to bulk up from 205 pounds and be more consistent (only three points in last Friday's semifinal), but his height and instincts have everyone visualizing NBA stardom. He also dreams of becoming a minister. He'll pursue his goals without day-to-day help from his father, who continues to live in Atlanta. "It feels good that my dad was here," said Ralph III, "but my uncles, my mom and my aunt are here too. And they give me all the strength and support."