He lingered on the sideline for a while as the rest of the players jabbered and slapped fives and measured each other at the center circle. Only when it was time did he make his move, strolling, sauntering almost, across the gleaming Capital Centre floor so that everyone—players, coaches, fans, Senators, the folks watching in TV land and all the ships at sea—could get a good long look at all seven feet four inches of him. If this colossal Virginia-Georgetown thing was to be his test, his crucible, his own game to win or lose, Ralph Sampson was going to make himself an entrance. And, by God, Ralph Sampson did.
Perhaps it was that moment right there that he showed he was indisputably college basketball's main man. Or maybe it was when, barely a minute into the game, Sampson reached from behind to block the first shot attempted by his younger, smaller—by four inches—ornerier nemesis, his shadow, the glorious and glowering Patrick Ewing. Or it could even have been that breathtaking sequence later on, with the game in the balance, when first Sampson jammed, then Ewing hook-jammed over Sampson and finally, when Ewing's own massive presence caused Sampson to miss once...twice...thrice from point-blank dunking range and still he persisted, drawing a foul.
But it wasn't any single play or sequence that distinguished Sampson against Georgetown this night. Moment to moment to moment, offense to defense, on the backboards and in transition, he kept imposing his will on the game so that not only could he win the war but his team could win the battle. Is that backward? Not really. Virginia's 68-63 victory over Georgetown wasn't only closer than the score would indicate but much smaller than Sampson's victory over Ewing. In the end, the better team may not have come out on top. But the better player did.
Forget Sampson's 23-to-16 edge over Ewing in points, his 16-to-8 margin in rebounds—who would have thought Sampson would double him off the glass?—and even his 7-to-5 advantage in blocked shots. Raw numbers do not reveal how Sampson outplayed his rival over the length and breadth of the floor. If Ewing muscled up and elbowed Sampson out of one play, Sampson used his newly developed strength and aggressiveness to hold and body Ewing out of the next two. If Ewing ran the court, up and down, three times, Sampson did the same a fourth. If Ewing dived for one loose ball, Sampson dived for two. When is the last time anybody saw Ralph Sampson sprawled on the hardwood fighting for possession?
It was Sampson who eluded Ewing on several occasions and beat him to the basket for thunderous slams—not the other way around. It was Sampson whose defense forced Ewing to the baseline for off-balance, falling-out-of-bounds turnaround shots and who plugged the middle off from other shooters—not the other way around. Moreover, it was Sampson who took command in the first half, helping the Cavaliers forge an early 12-point lead that they desperately needed to survive the onrushing Hoya hordes over the final 20 minutes.
In the opening half, Georgetown Coach John Thompson accorded Sampson the ultimate tribute by shying away from him both offensively—the Hoyas refused to pound the ball inside while heaving up outrageously long jump-shot bricks—and at the defensive end where, on Thompson's instructions, 6'7" Forward Bill Martin and not Ewing checked Sampson when Georgetown left its combination zones to go man-to-man.
Was Sampson intimidating the old intimidator, Thompson, himself? The Hoya coach said he wanted his young charges—seven Hoyas played at least 15 minutes: three freshmen, three sophomores, and one junior—to bide their time until they reached a "comfort level," as he put it, devoid of excessive fouls. But under this offensive discipline, Georgetown rookie marksman David Wingate missed five of six shots, several from long range. "Wingate could miss 100 in a row and he'd think something's wrong with the basketball," Thompson had said. "He's got no conscience." All told, Georgetown whiffed on 23 of 32 in the first half. Meanwhile, the Hoyas' supposedly suffocating full-court traps and presses weren't having their desired effect either. Virginia guards Othell Wilson, Ricky Stokes and Rick Carlisle found enough open seams to riddle the defense with fast breaks and transition buckets as the Cavaliers raced to a 33-23 halftime lead.
Even then the potential blowout was developing virtually unnoticed, so riveting was the Sampson-Ewing matchup. In the first half Ewing twice faked Sampson off his feet to convert easy lay-ins, but that was all Ewing got, save for a single free throw. At the other end, Sampson made two dunks, a short jumper that Ewing had goal-tended and a leaping, pirouette tip of an alley-oop pass from Wilson. The only time the two centers seemed to notice one another was when Ewing tugged at the back of Sampson's shirt in order to extricate him from a pileup. Still on the floor, Sampson turned and barked at Ewing, who seemed taken aback: This wasn't the kindly Virginia gentleman from The Lawn he had heard about after all. "A couple of times when the ball was down low and it was too late for me to do anything about it, I caught myself just staring at them," Wilson said of the two pivotmen. "They were all everyone billed them to be, weren't they?"
Well, yes—almost. The local news media having been weaned on world wars, presidential assassinations and the like, for Sampson and Ewing to have overcome the hype surrounding the game, one of them would have had to show up with Meryl Streep on his arm and the other to arrive with a cordon of Secret Service agents.
Charts, graphs, matchups and analyses engulfed the area dailies, including the Rev. Moon's Washington Times, wherein a journalist named Happy Fine compared the occasion to "Zachary Taylor vs. Santa Ana, Custer vs. Sitting Bull, Pershing vs. Pancho Villa." Whew! War might be hell, but now we're talking simile. Even columnist Art Buchwald joined in the fun, naming a computer robot who takes over the world "SAMPSON."