Hey, boss, how about the other Virginia? It's a terrific story idea: that the U.S. of A. has read and seen and heard enough about this R.S. of A.—Ralph Sampson of Awesomeville—and that the supporting Cavaliers, the unknown Cavaliers, the Cavaliers who aren't fortunate enough to be 7'4", to have sandwiches named after them at the local deli and to be the center of universes, might be interesting subjects in their own right.
And they are: Coatlen Othell Wilson. No, not the commanding officer of the 1st Virginia Regiment at Bull Run. This is the 6-foot gnattering gnat of the fast-break lanes, who's possibly the best defensive guard in college and probably the most underestimated overall. Wilson, a sophomore, was all over North Carolina State's Dereck Wittenburg last week as Wittenburg missed the last-gasp jump shot that enabled Virginia to escape from Raleigh with a 39-36 victory. Do him. Or forward Craig Robinson, a junior who usually slumps so terribly in February that this season he's getting help from a sports psychologist. A jock shrink? Hey, Robinson made a lunging, off-balance garbage heave at the gun to beat Clemson 56-54 on Saturday. A Freudian slip of a shot if there ever was one. Hey, great. Do him. Or senior Guard Jeff Jones, the slow white kid from Kentucky with the Fauntleroy locks who passes the ball and busts the zone—27 assists, four turnovers in his last five games. He's married and everything. Do him.
Want more angles? What about the freshmen who have contributed so much? Or the bench? Seven different men have led the Cavs in scoring; nobody averages more than 31 minutes' playing time. Or the other tiny tot, Ricky Stokes, the one known as The Refugee because he appears to have just paddled ashore from Haiti? And what about the tweedy, cerebral coach, Terry Holland, and his tweedy, cerebral staff? What about the coach's photographer wife, Ann, poised under the basket, shooting the game? What about all those nicknames—Cavaliers, Wahoos, Hoos, Cava-Whas? And The University—car window decals say, proudly, THE UNIVERSITY—and Thomas Jefferson and the Rotunda and The Lawn and all that Charlottesville ambience and...? Do 'em all.
There's so much to describe about Virginia basketball and yet so little, because, all of a sudden, there comes a Dunk or a Block or a Play of a wholly different nature by Sampson. And the Play is invariably of such magnitude that it, well, transcends. Moreover, it—or they, because the Plays routinely occur in bunches—render everything else about No. 1 ranked, hanging-on-to-its-reputation-by-the-thumbs, 24-1 Virginia agate-type stuff. Really, now. Can a dunk shot, which has become the sine qua non of network television sports, still be news? Recent studies have revealed that there are now more closeup replays of dunks on your home screen than of Gary Coleman's cheeks. And how all-fired wonderful can a blocked shot be?
Sampson's arsenal is that compelling. Remember, he's hardly the young Virginia Slim anymore. He's 21 years old, 7'4", 220 pounds, colossal, Brobdingnagian, otherworldly. Indeed, if Randy (The Manster) White, a mere football player for the Dallas Cowboys, is half man, half monster, isn't Sampson a Sampster?
Dunk scene, take 1, roll tape. Sampson is posted high. He wheels without the ball one way. When North Carolina's Sam Perkins takes the bait, Sampson reverse-pivots and goes the other way. He leaps to the basket for a pass from Jones. It's an awful pass; teammates would later say it was the "worst pass of Jones's life." The pass is going out of the building, maybe all the way out of the ACC. Stop, freeze frame, slow motion. Sampson rises in the air, the V-I-R-G-I-N-I-A letters across his chest at least rim-high. He caresses the ball in both hands—unlike his famous catch and slam against Ohio State last season that was performed with one hand—and spikes it through the basket. Cut. The North Carolina bench is actually giggling, it is so preposterous.
Block scene, takes 1 and 2. Virginia Tech's 6'8" Gordy Bryan shoots a 12-footer from the baseline. Sampson vaults into the smoky haze and swats the ball forward, behind Bryan. Sampson comes down, roars past Bryan and catches his own block to begin a fast break. In the same game Tech's 6'8" Dale Solomon goes up for his jumper. Sampson vaults again and intercepts Solomon's shot, absolutely swallows the thing whole, after which he descends and lopes out on the dribble himself to go coast to coast for what should be a basket at the opposite end. Trouble is, Sampson loses the ball. Tries to go behind his back. Those 7'4" guards will never learn.
Crowd scene. Several dozen coeds on the N.C. State campus block the path to the Virginia bus outside Reynolds Coliseum. They're buzzing, laughing, shrieking, waiting. Sampson appears at the building exit. Virginia has just won another slow-down affair; Sampson has made two clinching free throws in addition to an earlier jumping, double-clutching, off-the-dribble, deep baseline cloud hook that teammates swear they have never seen him shoot before; he's smiling, happy. A college kid runs up to Sampson and grabs him by the arm. "My man, Sampson," he shouts. "I got to shake your hand and thank you. I know you can't handle all these women by yourself."
Hold on. Is there anything that Sampson can't do now that he has grown up, can talk and take it easy with strangers and, yes, has learned how to play basketball? Before, when he carried the Cavaliers to the NIT championship in his first season and to the NCAA Final Four and was voted Player of the Year in his second, Holland would have had the world believe that Sampson really didn't know the game. So now?
On Jan. 9, when North Carolina, the hated Tar Heels, handed Virginia its only defeat through last Sunday, Sampson played the best game of his career: 30 points and 19 boards against the best undergraduate front line on the planet. He was brilliant. The Tar Heels overcame a nine-point deficit to win by five because the other Cavs choked and the coaches choked. And they knew it. "We backed off," says Wilson.