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Once about four a.m. in Charlottesville, this guy woke me up banging on the door. Usually on weekends the students who've had a few too many come over and finish doing their drunks on The Lawn, and they throw up and scream and pound on the doors, and I've gotten used to all that. But this was a week night, and this guy was some tourist from New Hampshire who said that he knew me. He kept on banging and insisted I come out and talk. Well, I didn't know, he might be some dangerous maniac or something. I told him to wait till I got dressed and then I called the police. They came and hauled him off. I never saw him. He was nothing but another crazy drunk, but you know what the dude told the cops? This is the best. Down at the station they asked him what he wanted from me. He said he was passing through, so he thought he'd come and tell Ralph Sampson that Pat Ewing is waiting.
Unless one or the other trips over a television cable or bumps his head on a passing helicopter, on the night of Dec. 11 at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md.—30 miles from Georgetown University of the Big East Conference and 140 miles from the University of Virginia of the Atlantic Coast Conference, or as equidistant as humanly possible in this age of something called major-media markets—Ralph Sampson and Patrick Ewing will meet for the first time on a basketball court. You may have heard about it. That's because the Sampson-Ewing matchup is a rare event. Watson and Nicklaus, Borg and McEnroe play against each other often enough. The Steinbrenner-Martin obnox-off is with us forever, it seems. Joe Paterno loses another big one. There's a Super Bowl every year—well, almost every year. But Sampson-Ewing is a one-of-a-kind—or, at least, a first-of-a-kind—thing.
Because the 7'4" Sampson, over from Harrisonburg, Va. in the Shenandoah Valley, and the 7-foot Ewing, up from Jamaica via the streets of Cambridge, Mass., are so dissimilar in background, personality, temperament, style and effect, this contest is extraordinarily compelling—and its outcome is very difficult to project. It's as if Sampson-Ewing has taken on all the contrasting baggage of other somewhat unlikely, beguiling duels: Leonard-Hagler, the match that will never come off; Coe-Ovett, the one that may not come off again; even King-Riggs, the one that didn't really, or did it?
In Sampson's three seasons at Virginia, nearly every time he has been personally challenged in big games in the national spotlight he has responded with mammoth efforts and numbers. And who can forget the sight of Ewing, a freshman for wondrous sakes, that old gray gym shirt under his Hoya jersey, pulling Georgetown through the NCAA playoffs last March? The watershed for each was a game against national champion North Carolina. For each it was a defeat. During an ACC game on Jan. 9 in Chapel Hill, Sampson scored 30 points, controlled 19 rebounds and made at least 15 plays of such majesty that Virginia's 65-60 loss was incomprehensible. In the national championship game in New Orleans, Ewing had 23 points and 11 rebounds and goaltended or blocked everything the Tar Heels fired up before a teammate's disastrous pass denied him one last chance to wipe out Carolina.
Recently, after all the bromides were dispensed—it's a team game, of course, and we'll only be trying to prepare for our league season, and, oh yes, we're taking them one at a time (Georgetown has seven games before Dec. 11, Virginia six)—Georgetown Coach John Thompson bowed to reality. He said that Sampson-Ewing just might result in some imposing consequences. He said that because it would be the first of possibly many meetings between these two giants, it would be remembered always. He said that he recognized the occasion for what it was. "I suppose we are making history," Thompson said. "This game will have Ralph and Patrick frozen in time."
On the surface, Sampson would appear to have most of the advantages. He is taller, more mobile and more creative at the offensive end, where he knows what is coming, while Ewing, the nonpareil defender, can only guess. As a senior, Sampson has two years' age and experience on the powerful but raw Ewing, and both men admit this will be a factor. "Ralph is much more mature than I am," says Ewing. "He's got more of the basics down." Virginia is also a much older, deeper, and probably more versatile team than Georgetown, although the Hoyas, with eight players back from the NCAA finalist club of last season, shouldn't be lacking in big-game presence.
With the game being played so early in the year, the veteran Virginia lineup should have an additional edge over the freshman- and sophomore-laden Hoyas, who would seem to need more seasoning to perfect the Georgetown hole card—its suffocating all-court press. And then there's Hoya backcourt leader Fred Brown, the Brown of renown who threw away The Pass in the 63-62 loss to North Carolina in the NCAAs. Brown underwent surgery for tendinitis in his right knee on Oct. 11. If he's back for Virginia, which isn't likely, he can hardly be expected to be sharp.
There are other intangibles, however, that may hold just as much sway in this type of competition. One is coaching and playing style. Others are heart, courage, intensity. Still another is confidence, or overconfidence. "What rules will they play under?" asks North Carolina State Coach Jim Valvano. "ACC rules, Big East rules or Marquis of Queensberry Rules? If it's Marquis of Queensberry, I like Georgetown in the fourth round: a TKO by Ewing." Actually, the game will be under the old Naismith rules—no shot clock, no three-point basket.
On occasion Virginia has displayed a kind of laid-back attitude that would seem to make it easy prey for the fearsome alley-clearing pressure defenses and stick-your-nose-in-it physical grinding of quicker Georgetown. That, of course, was last year, but the teams still seem to be made in the images of their coaches. Thompson, he of the intimidating size (6'10", 300 pounds) and sometimes abrasive, confrontational manner, was often criticized last season for permitting his team's, and especially his center's, emotions to run rampant. This behavior was characterized by Ewing's flying elbows and culminated when he put his hands in a stranglehold around the neck of a Columbia player. At the same time Virginia Coach Terry Holland, a lean, Ivy League-tailored 6'7" (big games demand big coaches), was accused of letting his gentle nature influence the play of his team, creating a conservative, button-down team that too often lacked a killer instinct.
After Virginia climbed to No. 1 in the Feb. 15 SI poll, it seemed to abandon any semblance of a running attack in the face of opposition slowdown gimmicks on the road, and Holland turned almost exclusively to the Cavs' halfcourt game. Thereafter, Virginia was affected with the playing-not-to-lose syndrome.