A DIFFERENT SEVEN-FOOTER
"Wait. Stop. That's not what I meant." Fifty students turned toward the back of the Rhetoric of Social Protest speech communications class and listened, enthralled, as Ralph Sampson waved his long arms and presented his perception of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech. His classmates knew Sampson was worth listening to; earlier that semester he had taken the part of King's ghost in a class skit on the black movement. He'd replied to Malcolm X (as portrayed by another student) after Malcolm had vigorously criticized King and his pacifism. Sampson had delivered an authoritative, persuasive statement and became one of the class leaders. Later several students came up to Professor Carol Jablonski and expressed their surprise. "Ralph was, well, really neat," one said.
Jablonski had had Sampson in another course at Virginia. Then he had been reticent. She says she doesn't know if he has changed or just blossomed. She says a playfulness, a comic sense, "a deeper level of discourse" had always been there but is just now emerging. "I can usually understand what their families are like through observing my students," she says, "and to watch Ralph with his classmates is to admire Ralph's family. The sensitivity, the intuitive way he understands people and gets along with them shows that those things are uppermost with his family."
This evaluation will come as a surprise to many gentlepersons of the press, who found the freshman Sampson aloof, uncooperative, even obstinate. As recently as October, Sampson came to a press conference chewing a carrot stick and said sharply, "Is this a one-shot deal?" Meaning he could do without microphone upon camera upon notebook, etc. Conversely, around the only people who counted, his teammates, Sampson was an absolute jewel. The Stick came the 40 miles over the Blue Ridge Mountains from Harrisonburg to The Grounds at Charlottesville all eyes and ears. But no mouth. He listened, learned, felt his way and consciously refrained from taking the offense away from the upperclassmen, specifically Guard Jeff Lamp, who had led the ACC in scoring the previous season.
"Ralph made it easy by not stepping on any toes," Lamp says.
Coach Terry Holland laments the early pressure on Sampson. "It was like saying you had the greatest joke in the world before you told it. And then no matter how good it was, the listener went away disappointed," he says, perhaps forgetting that he was among those who told the joke. Holland said Sampson had the potential to be the best in history—then pitted his team against Johns Hopkins and Chaminade.
Sampson blocked 12 shots against Army. He had 22 rebounds against Old Dominion. He scored 32 points against Clemson. He finished his freshman season with 14.9 points and 11.2 rebounds per game and 157 blocks. But it wasn't until a five-day stretch in the middle of the season that his potential came into focus.
During warmups at Durham, N.C., the Duke student section, a rough, witty bunch that would boo Santa Claus, slowly chanted, "We're...going...to...get...you," then emphatically, "RALPH," then louder, "WHO?" Sampson appeared impassive. But when Virginia Assistant Coach Jim Larranaga came over to loosen him up, Larranaga was stunned to notice the normally placid Sampson seething as he took off his sweats. "In about 30 seconds...29...28," Sampson murmured, "they're gonna find out."
Virginia's victory that night was not as close as the 90-84 score indicated, and neither were Sampson's margins over the Blue Devils' senior All-America, Mike Gminski, 23 points to 20, 13 rebounds to 10. Very simply, Sampson controlled the contest, or rather the no-contest. "I was doing all I could to force him away," said Gminski. "I had my hand in his face, I bellied him.... I don't think I've seen anyone shoot like that before."
But the long season wore Sampson down; he was frequently in foul trouble, Virginia went into a tailspin, losing six of nine games. Media hounding, player griping, all the tensions of the big time swallowed up the Cavs. But three home games in the NIT served to revive them, and when Virginia arrived in New York, where they would play in the tournament semifinal and final, the turnaround was complete. Sampson, the MVP, had 41 points and 30 rebounds as Virginia beat Nevada-Las Vegas and Minnesota for the title. And he began to show glimmerings of his lighter side. Before the final game, a guy ran up to Sampson with a miniature rim stuck to his forehead, handed him a Nerf ball and said, "Hey, Ralph, slam-dunk me." Sampson obliged.