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.
In the rematch at Charlottesville on Feb. 3, Virginia blasted the Heels 74-58 specifically because the Cavaliers were so confident they would win that they never had time to be non-aggressive. Wilson undressed North Carolina play-maker Jimmy Black. Robinson scored 10 late points and bottled up James Worthy. Sampson? Eighteen points, 12 rebounds, a couple of Plays.
With their brand new, helter-skelter, running, attacking style—especially on defense—the Cavs are the spittin' image of the Tar Heels. Holland admits he patterned his presses and traps and substitutions after those that Dean Smith has used for years at Chapel Hill. Now the teams are carbons—except that Holland has more players to work with. When both perform well—forget the stalls and the polls and whatever happens in the NCAAs—they are the two best teams in the land. And they are just about even. Except for one thing: Virginia has the Sampster.
Because of a schedule littered with virtual nobodies, the Cavaliers didn't know how good they were until they went to Chapel Hill for Carolina I. Carolinas I and II were the bookends of the Virginia season. In defeat, the Cavs found out they were capable of maturing into a tartar horde. With victory, Virginia became one.
"Better than last year?" says Jeff Mullins, the former Duke and NBA star who now dabbles in ACC telecasts. "Virginia is 20 points better; Sampson is 40 percent better."
There have been Wilt's finger roll, Russell's pre-game vomiting and defensive timing, Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook, Walton's circle-the-wagons arm waving. "I am the next stage of basketball development," Sampson has said. Well, excuuuuuuuuse me. Of course, he's right. But what of the Sampson trademark? Honestly, there are so many multiple defenses, staffed by so many players, being thrown at Sampson these days—the Clemson posse seemed to include that school's national champion football team, its Tiger Paws and a hundred Shawn Weatherly look-alike contest winners—that it's hard to put a finger on Sampson's singular attribute. Except he is this: seven-foot-four. And he does this: something amazingly creative, a new and different move with or against the ball, every time out. "Ralph is Willie Mosconi," says Golden State scout Tom Newell. "He's got tricks he hasn't even thought up yet." And N.C. State Coach Jim Valvano says simply that Sampson is the most influential athlete in sport. Any sport. Whew!
Holland, his herringbone jacket in place, his charcoal-gray JFK haircut just so, is one of the more attractive, yet unfamiliar coaches in the business. He's also one of the best. He molded this team around Sampson with the craft of a Gepetto. Last season Holland brought in the vest-pocket guards, Wilson and Stokes, as reserves—defensive reserves. This season, to replace the departed senior leaders, Jeff Lamp and Lee Raker, he brought in Tim Mullen and Jimmy Miller, cocky shooters both. The underclassmen have loosened up the Cavs with a youthful jocularity and created a relaxed atmosphere instead of a "moody" (Holland's word) one.
"I guess I am having more fun," Jones says. "I actually smiled on the court against Louisville. And before this season I swore I'd never give a high five." Now he deals digits with the best.
With quickness and depth at hand, the Cavs have ditched their deliberate half-court, stand-and-shoot offense, which allowed opponents to collapse and swarm around Sampson even more than they do now. Suddenly Virginia's game is an open-floor swirl of motion. The Cavaliers don't wait for the game to come to them anymore; whipped on by the resourceful and intimidating little ruffian, Wilson, they go out and get it. Obviously, living well is the best revenge. Last week, if that Wittenburg shot had dropped and Robinson's hadn't—Sampson's 24 rebounds aside—the Cavs might have lost twice.
Now all that's left for Virginia is to survive the filibusters in this stall-ball season, win the national championship and wait on pins and needles for yet another Sampson decision on whether to stay in school. "That'll probably be like Christmas shopping," Sampson says of turning pro. "I'll see something I like and that will be it."
In the meantime, yes, Santa Claus, there is another Virginia.