Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. But this one is tall as a chimney, skinny as tinsel and as agile as a reindeer making a four-point landing on the roof of an A-frame. In his bag of goodies are dunks and skyhooks, turnaround jumpers and behind-the-back dribbles, rejected shots and intercepted passes. Merry Christmas, Virginia.
One minute and 39 seconds into a scoreless game against Johns Hopkins two weeks ago, the Virginia Cavaliers' 7'4", 207-pound freshman center leaped toward the ceiling of University Hall, caught a high lob pass and slammed it through the basket. As the scoreboard flashed a bright red "2," the sellout crowd of 9,000 roared with delight. Ralph Sampson had arrived.
Since that electrifying moment, Sampson has emerged as the Cavaliers' leading scorer, rebounder, field goal shooter, shot blocker and ball stealer. He has led his team to four straight victories while inspiring lavish praise from opposing coaches. Sampson is everything he was supposed to be, which is good, and not close to what he is going to be, which is even better. And, oh yes, because his mother is a seamstress he even knows how to make his own clothes.
Sampson's college debut was one of the most eagerly awaited and closely watched coming-out parties in recent history. As a high school player 56 miles away in Harrisonburg, he had led his team to two state AA championships, earned unanimous All-America honors, starred in post-season all-star games and made the Pan Am Games team. Through it all he had college coaches clamoring for his attention and drooling over his ability.
In his first four appearances, Sampson has been especially impressive on defense, where he has been as intimidating as an 88"-tall player with an 88" arm-span can be. The starting centers who opposed him were rendered almost useless. Together, they had only 12 points and nine rebounds.
After boringly easy wins over Johns Hopkins, Georgia Tech and Randolph-Macon, Sampson and the Cavaliers survived their first road test last week by beating Temple 58-52 in Philadelphia's Palestra. Sampson had 12 points, 13 rebounds and nine blocks; his counterpart, 6'11" Ron Wister, had six points, two rebounds and one block. "When Sampson puts on 30 pounds he'll be unbelievable," said Wister.
Sampson established his authority and showed off his versatility in the opening half minute when he blocked Temple's first shot and then raced downcourt to take a pass for a fast-break layup. A few minutes later he scored his second basket with a high leap over the defense and a spectacular dunk. In the second half he thrilled the crowd again when he pulled down a rebound and maneuvered out of danger with a spinaround dribble.
Clearly, Sampson is not an elongated stumblebum. Every game has provided a vivid display of his potential greatness. Against Johns Hopkins he stole a pass, dribbled through traffic and passed for a layup. Against Georgia Tech he stopped a two-man fast-break by surrounding the ballhandler before he could shoot or pass. Against Randolph-Macon he canned jump shots from 12, 15 and 16 feet. And after every performance the visiting coach was all agog.
"We were hoping he would hit his head on the way in to the arena and be out for the game," said John Amen of Johns Hopkins. "He has a great shooting touch." Georgia Tech Coach Dwane Morrison compared him favorably with the young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "I had the privilege of coaching against Alcindor when he was a sophomore and to me they play similarly," he said. "This youngster's a better outside shooter and he plays better defense out on the ball." Randolph-Macon's Hal Nunnally came up with a more inventive comparison. "We knew we couldn't challenge Sampson," he said. "The Dominican Republic doesn't challenge the United States to a war. That's about how smart it would be to go inside on Sampson."
About the only thing hindering Sampson thus far has been his teammates' inability to penetrate opponents' zones and give him the ball. For the first time in their undistinguished history the Cavaliers have been winning more on talent than on execution.
The most talented Virginian, of course, is Sampson. "Some great players take away from those around him, but Ralph adds," says Guard Jeff Lamp, who led the ACC in scoring last year with a 22.9-point average. Lamp has struggled so far—40% shooting and a 10-point average—but he isn't worried. "He's going to take a lot of defensive pressure off me, so I'll have more open jump shots," Lamp says. "He'll probably score 15 to 20 points a game himself, but he's going to help us the most with his rebounds, assists, shot blocking, outlet passes and intimidation."
Virginia Coach Terry Holland hoped for nothing less when he signed Sampson to a scholarship last spring. After Sampson chose the Cavaliers over such established powers as Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia Tech, Holland said "Thank God he's coming to Virginia" and began entertaining thoughts of a national championship. "The first time I ever saw Ralph was at the opening game of his junior year in high school," Holland says. "My assistant coach and I were punching each other all the way back home. We couldn't believe he was only an hour away. He wasn't awesome, but you could see his potential. He has a chance to be the best who ever played."
Holland is not the only person around Charlottesville who feels that way, of course. Even before Sampson announced that he would enroll, someone painted RALPH'S HOUSE in big black letters on the roof of University Hall. Since his arrival he has been the subject of T shirts and bumper stickers, and a local restaurant named an eight-ounce turkey and roast beef sandwich after him. As a result, Holland is fighting an uphill battle when he tries to temper the public's soaring expectations.
Before the season began, the coach made it a point to tell everyone who would listen that Sampson couldn't possibly be as good as they expected. "People have seen high school highlight films of Ralph blocking every shot, getting every rebound and scoring every time he shoots," Holland says. "He can never live up to that." Once, however, when the coach's downplaying was misunderstood and an October newspaper headline blared HOLLAND SAYS RALPH BAD IN EARLY GOING, Holland wanted to sue. "I'm just trying to take the pressure off this year," he says. "We're a nice team and maybe we deserve to be in the Top 20."
Virginia is much more than just nice, and Holland knows this better than anyone. For one thing, Sampson is more accomplished than even Holland had hoped. The coach had originally intended to take advantage of his size and "nail him to the lane," but after watching Sampson in practice, Holland decided to allow him more mobility. "Ralph's a better all-around player than I thought he would be," Holland says. "He is so good at playing a complete game that I've decided to let him come out to the high post sometimes and move around in the offense. I'm sure there will be occasions when I'll say 'What the hell is he doing out there,' but he has more than just height. He's quick and he can shoot and he can pass."
Sampson also sees himself as a player with several dimensions. "I know people expect me to be the dominant force and help Virginia win the ACC, but I just want to play my own game," he says. "I don't worry about scoring. The most important thing I can do is get the rebound and start the fast break." Even more than that, however, Sampson enjoys those plays that allow him to show off his outside shooting and ball handling skills. "I really would like to be a 7'4" guard," he says.
Sampson isn't comfortable talking about himself. He is about as likely to give a reporter a revealing answer to a question as he is to retaliate against an opponent's pushing and shoving. Both require an expenditure of emotion and feeling he doesn't care to offer. Although he is often compared to Abdul-Jabbar, their closest similarity at the moment is that they run upcourt in the same loping manner, with thumbs pointed up and hands cupped at the chest. It took Sampson four games to score as many points, 56, as Abdul-Jabbar did in his college debut against USC.
But, as Holland pointed out last week, Sampson is "green and growing. I'm looking forward to the time he finally flowers." But until that happens, the Ralph Sampson who has already sprouted will be plenty good enough.