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Now, Lamp says, "Ralph plays taller than he is." Sampson's only weakness is, if you will, his weakness; though he seems to get stronger daily, his weight of 221 pounds is far less than he will carry when he has fully matured.
Holland also worries that Sampson may become a jack-of-all-trades, master of none, because he does so many things so well. The Virginia braintrust still is searching to find Sampson's hole card, the bread-and-butter move with which he can get a basket anytime he needs one.
"The hook is the thing; it's definitely coming," Sampson said the other day over lunch at Charley's, a favored Charlottesville restaurant. "But I won't stop working on the other things. I want to be the best player there's ever been at 7'4". You see, I want to be a different seven-footer. Like a seven-foot Dr. J forward. Like a seven-foot Dennis Johnson guard. I love the guard drills. At home I dribble around my bicycle. I want to get instinctive on the pass. I'm serious. To be able to take it down the middle, to shake and bake on someone, that's the ultimate."
Another ultimate is playing time, which, Sampson knew, the Celtics (pre-Dave Cowens' retirement) couldn't guarantee him. Auerbach hadn't measured his man. Money wasn't the factor. Playing ball was. Growing up was. Friendship was.
At Virginia, Sampson has a loud and loquacious roommate, Louis Collins, a former football wide receiver who still bounds onto the field during time-outs and hypes the crowd. Sampson has a girl friend, Stacy Weldon from Pennsylvania, a hockey fan who at first meeting didn't even know who he was. College kids with identities all their own, Collins and Weldon have helped their friend open up, to see himself as a human being first, an athlete as an afterthought.
"College isn't new anymore," Sampson said. "I know where I'm going. I know what to do. Last year I found myself not talking to anyone on campus. This year I try to say hello to everybody. It takes time, but I'm doing it."
Sampson already has established the emotional resilience needed to endure the stares and gibes about his height. He doesn't slouch or scrunch; he ducks. He carries himself erect, and he has the ability to catch people in his gaze without looking down. "I deal with it," he said.
Upon leaving Charley's, Sampson heard a girl call out, "We'll just have to raise the ceilings in here, Ralph." A man at the bar shouted, "Stay away from the whiskey, big fella." The confident, secure big fella just smiled. Sometimes Sampson acts taller than he plays.
THE SINATRA SYNDROME
Mark Aguirre, a husky, 6'7" forward, found out how valuable he is to DePaul in his freshman season when he missed the team bus to the Western Michigan game. He was out shopping for stereo equipment and he showed up late, that's all. An assistant coach had to stay behind and drive Aguirre to the game. Two hours on the road, just the two of them. Aguirre slept all the way. That night Coach Ray Meyer "disciplined" Aguirre by benching him for the first five minutes. Aguirre scored 28 points anyway. DePaul lost by two. Afterward Meyer said, "You know what I learned? I learned I can't win without Mark Aguirre."