At halftime of last Saturday's game between Virginia and North Carolina-Wilmington, somebody's strange idea of Santa Claus strolled out to center court and began giving away presents to a few of the boys and girls at University Hall. This wasn't a great looking Santa. For one thing, his whiskers. You might see better whiskers on billy goats, and probably better bodies for that matter. His eyesight wasn't much better. With a little girl on his knee who kept insisting her name was Wendy, Santa turned to one of his helpers and asked in a heavy Southern drawl, "Does he get the TV? He gets the TV!" When Virginia Coach Terry Holland came back onto the floor a few minutes later, he found Santa shooting baskets with his players. Holland told him to scram.
But Santa was only trying to help. Ever since the loss last spring of 7'4" Ralph Sampson, three times the college Player of the Year, the center position has remained essentially open. Old Saint Nick probably just assumed he could play a little center for Virginia, unaware of the fact that the Cavaliers already have a little center. And a medium-sized one, too. In the wake of Ralph, Virginia has tried to fill the middle with a begoggled walk-on and a disgruntled walk-off. The latter had a broken heart, the former a broken face. One itinerant Virginia pivotman amazed his teammates by making solid objects vanish into thin air, another topped that by making himself disappear, possibly to the Bahamas, although no one can say for sure.
Still and all, if the question is whether there is life after Ralph, the answer is: Yes, Santa Claus, there is a Virginia, and at week's end it was undefeated. The yes is qualified, because Sampson's departure from Charlottesville has been the most celebrated—and painful—leave-taking since Thomas Jefferson died only months after the school he founded opened its doors in 1825. Sampson had remained steadfast in his devotion to Virginia, even as the pros pitched serious woo at him after each of his first three seasons there. When he was graduated last spring and signed a four-year, $5 million contract with the Houston Rockets, subsequent Cavalier centers were destined to be measured against his 2,225 career points, 1,511 rebounds and 462 blocked shots.
Even if Sampson's career at Virginia was something less than a complete success because his teams never won a national championship, the Cavaliers and their fans were sad indeed to see him go. During his four years at The University, Virginia won 112 (of 135) games, more than any other school in the nation did from 1979 through '83. And through the end of last season, the Cavs had been in the Top 10 on the charts for 49 consecutive weeks, longer than anyone except Michael Jackson. And Michael Jackson never played Chaminade, although if you hummed a few bars he could probably fake it.
One measure of Sampson's importance to Virginia was the way he closed down the middle defensively. Last year the Cavaliers' ACC opponents shot a better percentage against UVa from outside the conference's 17'9" three-point stripe than they did from inside it. "For all the shots Ralph actually blocked," says Guard Ricky Stokes, "there were so many others that were never taken, the ones Ralph mentally blocked. He intimidated so."
When the Rockets played an exhibition game against the Washington Bullets at University Hall on Oct. 8, several NBC affiliates in Virginia were so eager to televise Sampson's second pro outing that they bumped a National League playoff game between the Phillies and the Dodgers, only switching back to the alleged national pastime when the exhibition was over. The homecoming was a rocky one for Sampson, who picked up four quick fouls and shot 0 for 5 in the first quarter. "I'm not God," Ralph said later. "I'm a Houston Rocket." Well, there you have it. At least for the moment he isn't in last place in the NBA's Midwest Division.
The point wasn't lost on the Cavalier players that Sampson's return—an all but meaningless conditioning drill for the pros—was completely sold out, something that hasn't happened in five of Virginia's six home games this season. In fact, after 46 consecutive regular-season sellouts during Sampson's stay at UVa, the team's home opener against Lafayette on Nov. 25 drew a crowd of 6,883 in an arena that seats 9,000. Sampson's lingering presence haunted University Hall like a ghost, rattling around the empty seats and reminding people of how it once was.
"There had to be a letdown," says Stokes, the 5'9½" playmaker with size 13½ feet who now occupies Sampson's old room on The Lawn, even if he can't quite fill Ralph's big shoes. "This team has always been Ralph Sampson and the Cavaliers. Now we have to get our own identity."
To some players, the indifferent fan reaction to their seven straight victories has been puzzling, to others downright galling. "I can't figure out the fans, to be quite honest," says Guard Rick Carlisle. "Maybe nobody's interested, I'm not sure." Ann Burnette, a third-year history major, says that all over The Grounds and down on The Corner where the students congregate, The University is withholding judgment on its basketball team. "They haven't really proved that they can beat good teams without Ralph yet," she says. "I think people are waiting to see how they do when the pressure's on." But for that very reason, of course, the pressure is already on the Cavaliers. "He was a great player, but he's gone now," says freshman Forward Tom Sheehey. "Some people can't accept that fact. Anything less than great isn't tolerable. I didn't realize it was going to be this bad, but it is. So if they don't want to come to the games, that's fine. We'll play with nobody in the stands if we have to."
If it hasn't been easy for Virginia to come to terms with the lingering memories of Sampson, memories that Holland says have cast "a literally long shadow" over this year's team, replacing him on the court has been impossible. "You can't brush aside what Ralph did for four years in four months," says Kenton Edelin, the first man called upon to take Sampson's place. So rather than even try, the Cavaliers have gone through weeks of experimentation—four centers, two starting lineups, one suspension and a partridge in a pear tree.