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.
When Virginia lost the valued aggressiveness of its dynamite-stick guard, Othell Wilson, to a thigh injury just before the NCAAs, the Cavaliers' spirit was further vitiated. Tennessee gave away a tournament game to Virginia, but then the University of Alabama in Birmingham beat the daylights out of Sampson and other Cavs down low to eliminate them from the playoffs. "It was like those other games when we got lackadaisical because they didn't mean much," Sampson says of the UAB debacle. "I looked up at the clock, saw the game was tight and didn't know what was happening. I wasn't asserting myself enough. I wasn't using enough energy to get the ball." In the last 10 minutes of Virginia's 68-66 loss Sampson touched the ball exactly four times.
Sampson's NCAA tournament experience as a sophomore had ended in a similar bummer after Holland told him that the Cavaliers needed a flurry of points from him if they were to beat North Carolina in the semis at Philadelphia. Sampson tightened up, hyperventilated and made only three of 10 shots as the Cavs lost 78-65.
Measure these performances against Ewing's semi-astonishing display in his Final Four appearance, during which he cavorted about against Louisville and Carolina, thriving on the pressure of the two most important games of his brief career. One wonders who may yet arrive better prepared psychologically for this clash between titans.
History offers little clear guidance as to who'll win. The pitched battles between Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were routinely won (11 NBA titles to two) by Russell, the smaller man, the defender. "I always felt Wilt was kind to basketball to let it survive," says Philadelphia 76ers Assistant Coach Jack McMahon. "Every night everybody on the other team would pray Wilt would shoot the fadeaway rather than turn into the basket. But Russ worked on his psyche, Russ thought in terms of team, and Russ came to beat you no matter what. I think Ewing has more of that in him."
Chamberlain-Russell was exclusively a pro rivalry, though, and Russell usually had the better supporting cast. And nobody should liken Chamberlain's back-to-the-basket, post-up style to that of Sampson, who plays out on the court, more often than not in a face-up position, and is notably unacquainted with the word selfish.
A more valid rivalry for comparison would be a collegiate rivalry, the George Mikan-Bob Kurland duels of the mid-405. They played five times over three seasons, with Mikan's DePaul team defeating Kurland's Oklahoma A&M Aggies on three occasions. Mikan, 6'9", the slow hooker, outscored Kurland, a 7-foot defensive practitioner, 77-64 in the five games. But the total point spread between the teams was only seven—and in Oklahoma A&M's favor. The Aggies won the NCAA title in 1945 and 1946 without having to face the Blue Demons in the tournament; following the 1944-45 season, Oklahoma A&M did play DePaul, which had waited around for a week in Manhattan after winning the NIT, in a benefit for the Red Cross. Again, as in Chamberlain-Russell, advantage to the defender. The Aggies won 52-44—Kurland getting 14 points, Mikan getting nine as he fouled out early.
More recently, the college game has seen two other center showdowns of historical as well as national-rankings significance. In both 1967 and 1968 UCLA and Lew Alcindor beat Houston and Elvin Hayes in the NCAA semifinals, but the game everyone remembers was the middle of the sandwich, on Jan. 20, 1968—Houston's 71-69 upset of UCLA. A crowd of 52,693 showed up at the Astrodome that night to see the first nationally televised, prime-time college game. (Hayes had 39 points; Alcindor, bothered by a scratched eyeball, went four for 18.) Six years later, in the 1973-74 season, North Carolina State and Tom Burleson upset UCLA and Bill Walton in the national semis—after having lost to the Bruins in the third game of the year—to end UCLA's NCAA title reign at seven in a row. Of course, the 7'4" Burleson and the 6'11" Walton did have two shorter helpers in David Thompson and Keith Wilkes. But the Sampson-Ewing matchup bears only a slight resemblance to these pairings of yore.
The other day Sampson was asked if he believed Ewing had reached Sampson's plateau. "I don't put myself on any level," he said. "I don't rate myself. I go into this game knowing he won't stop me and I won't stop him. It's who outthinks whom. I don't even know if we'll be the difference. Pat doesn't do a lot with the basketball, but he does what's needed. When he hit the turnaround jumper to start the championship game against North Carolina he surprised a lot of people. Not me. I figured he had the turnaround in there somewhere. He also may have a jump hook. We'll see."
For his part, Ewing plays down any mano a mano considerations. "I don't think either of us can singlehandedly beat the other team," he says. "I'm trying to learn the game as an art, a science—to pass better, set screens, receive the ball right, open my teammates for good shots. Ralph's a great player and he'll be able to do some things, but I hope anything he does I'll be able to offset. I don't have to score for us to win. All I need to do is play defense—any team plays defense, it'll come out on top."
Stripped bare, this struggle would seem to pit Sampson's offense, his size and his remarkable basketball skills against Ewing's defense, his athleticism and his competitiveness. But that's only one end of the floor. The game may turn on what happens at the other end, when Ewing and the rest of the Georgetown shooters converge on the defensive fortifications of Sampson and Virginia.
Last season George Washington lost to Georgetown 61-48 and to Virginia 80-54. Colonial Center Mike Brown, 6'9", made six of 13 shots and scored 14 points against Ewing; he went three for 14 and had nine points against Sampson. "We took the ball right at Ewing and were fairly successful," says George Washington Coach Gerry Gimelstob. "We tried to take it to Sampson, but he was just too big." Brown adds, "I don't think Pat is ready. It's the principle of senior versus sophomore. Ralph's got a whole lot more stuff. He may eat Pat up."
Louisville's 6'7" Rodney McCray, whose team lost to both Virginia (74-56) and Georgetown (50-46), says, "I could get my shot off Ewing. After a while I felt he was pretty much the same as me—we play against a lot of seven-footers, you know. But against Ralph—the four inches is a big difference. You spend a lot more time thinking about him. I feel Patrick is in for a long evening." Rodney's brother. Scooter, adds, "Ralph can stand five feet off you on defense and still get the block. How much taller can a man be? How much better?"
It's assumed that Ewing, now wider in the shoulders and up to 230 pounds from 220 after off-season weight work, has a strength advantage. But Sampson did some heavy lifting of his own this summer and bulked up 15 pounds to 230. He curled two 90-pound dumbbells and squatted 690 pounds on a hip sled. The latter exercise so developed Sampson's legs that his vertical leap increased from 31 inches to 34½ Combined with his reach of 9'8", that means Sampson can touch a point two and a half feet above the rim. "Pat may have longer arms than me," Sampson said last summer after returning from a picture session in Chicago, where he roomed with Ewing. "But I think he's only about six-ten."
Long before Sampson bulked up. New Jersey Net Buck Williams, the 1981-82 NBA Rookie of the Year, was an admirer. For two seasons at Maryland the physical Williams effectively guarded Sampson from behind by ramming a knee into Sampson's buttocks. He body-checked and punished Sampson more than any other opponent had. Then, last March, Williams and some other Nets watched Ewing in the NCAA final on TV. "The man was so fast, so physical, he played so hard, we couldn't believe it," Williams says. "Patrick looked like some African tribal chieftain. We nicknamed him the Mogumbi Man."
From a pro's point of view, however, Williams still prefers Sampson. "Ewing is so quick off his feet that Sampson is going to be looking over his shoulder for him, and he's never had to do that," Williams says. "But let me tell you, Ralph is the best. He's a walking time bomb. Nobody else that size can do the things he does. Not even Kareem. If Ralph played with max intensity every time out, he'd be up there with Russell. If Ralph explodes in this game, it's over."
Sampson's most efficient tormentor last season was 6'11", 254-pound Jim Johnstone of Wake Forest, who cannily used his considerable bulk to attain offensive position underneath the rim so Sampson had no room to block Johnstone's banked hook shot. This would be an advisable tactic for Ewing if he'd been trained to score with his back to the basket. Unfortunately, Ewing's offense is primarily face-on, and he has never faced on anybody like Sampson.
It's likely that at first Ewing will attack Sampson with drives and baby jumpers; he could get a slew of Colgate-Palmolives (facials) right back. By driving he also could pick up some charging fouls right away. (Meanwhile, everyone should plead with the Great Ref in the Sky to allow these fellows a wide berth and to make sure no Mickey Mouse calls interfere with the activity under the boards.) When this strategy fails, it will be incumbent upon Ewing, an accomplished passer in traffic, to feed and move and otherwise occupy Sampson in the lane long enough so that Sampson can't tarnish the shooting efforts of Georgetown's primary marksmen, Anthony Jones and David Wingate. Even if Brown were fully healthy, the Hoyas would need some shooting from freshman Wingate in this game. Without Brown, Wingate must score often to keep the Virginia defense honest. Another key for Georgetown is Bill Martin, a sophomore forward who had an undistinguished rookie season.
With Sampson having sealed off the middle—mostly within zone combinations, because it's unlikely Virginia will expose its one weakness, lack of speed, in a man-to-man against the quicker Hoyas—Ewing must search elsewhere for his baskets. Last season Guard Sleepy Floyd got the ball deep inside to Ewing. The question is, can Gene Smith, Brown's replacement at the point, do the same? It may not matter. Most of what Ewing gets offensively will come off his and Georgetown's defense: transition baskets after steals, fast-break layups, rebound follow-shots and an occasional ferocious dunk when he beats Sampson down the floor. The one thing Ewing has in abundance over Sampson is straight-ahead speed and stamina. He will run the Capital Centre court for 40 minutes, if he's in the game that long, and will never stop trying to wear Sampson out.
The team whose center dunks first won't necessarily win, but immediately following the first slam by each big man look for half the television outlets showing this game to experience technical difficulty because of the earthquake-size tremors set off by the crowd in Landover.
Georgetown won its 30 games last year on defense: ravaging full-court presses and traps and then a fall-back 1-3-1 zone, with Ewing in the middle covering three-fourths of Pennsylvania Avenue. The Hoyas were on the prowl for every minute of every half. "Each time Georgetown makes a basket or a free throw, you know the press is coming again," says Villanova Center John Pinone. "You can play 30 or 35 minutes and it just wears you down mentally. Then in two minutes they make three steals and the game is over."
Virginia would seem vulnerable to such pressure were it not for one man—and he isn't Sampson. The key figure in this game, in fact, may be Othell Coatlen Wilson, Virginia's lead guard, who has the body of a Herschel Walker and hits the hole just as hard. The 198-pound Wilson is the college game's only 6'0" intimidator. North Carolina Coach Dean Smith has said Wilson "should be arrested for assault." Because of Sampson's fame and Wilson's injury just when he stood to get some tournament exposure last March—a truck must have run over him—Wilson is something of a national secret. But he shoots, scores, passes, breaks presses, defends and simply holds the entire team together. Virginia would be—and has been—lost without him.
Not only should Wilson be able to handle the Hoya press, but if Ewing isn't careful, Wilson may also be able to victimize him. Wilson has a specialty that infuriates bigger men—let's call it the sneak-up rebound takeaway. "Against us he must have created five or six baskets by himself with those steals off rebounds," says Louisville Assistant Coach Jerry Jones. As the Virginia shot goes up, Wilson weaves through the underpinnings of the massed defensive rebounders, and just as the ball is controlled by an opponent, he snatches it away to set up a quick Virginia score.
Traditionally, Virginia's offense has worked outside-in, with Holland attempting to involve everyone in the proceedings before turning to Sampson, who usually has been multicovered anyway. Against Ewing, however, Sampson may be turned loose early to see just what the other fellow has to offer. As North Carolina found out, that is quite a lot. "I hope he plays me man for man," Sampson says. "I would enjoy that." This would mean Sampson hooking inside; Sampson on the banked turnaround; Sampson floating to 12 feet for the sky-jumper; Sampson driving—clash the cymbals for this one, boys—for the windjammer stuff; Sampson anywhere and everywhere. Ewing may reject a few shots, but it's difficult to imagine his containing the varied arsenal of his inventive protagonist for very long. "Ewing has to bump him and bother him and keep Sampson away from where he wants to go," says Pinone. "The man can bury a layup from 12 feet. If Ralph gets close, I don't care who you are, it's two points."
Brown of George Washington predicts: "If Ralph stays inside, Ewing will try to muscle and intimidate him and give him his 'bows [elbows]. If Pat cheap-shots him—and he will—I think I know how Ralph will react. He won't bother 'bowin' back or fighting. He'll just go outside and beat him bad."
The last man, the only man, to guard Sampson head up was Ohio State's Herb Williams. Sampson was a sophomore. Williams, now an established pro, was a senior. On national television on Super Sunday Sampson went for a cool 40 points. Williams later said, "Ralph embarrassed my coach."
Not long after the arrangements for the Virginia-Georgetown game had been completed, Thompson was teasing Ewing, saying that Sampson would "probably eat you up." Ewing stretched his arms up over his head, stared at the skies and said, "Coach, I will ask all the gods of Jamaica to help us."
Obviously, despite his marvelous individual defensive skills, even Ewing recognizes that he may need major aid. Thompson may have Ewing front Sampson in a 131 for a portion of the game, constantly reminding Ewing to keep in body contact with Sampson and to watch for the lob pass and beseeching his weak-side forwards to be cognizant of picks and screens on Ewing. In addition, the Georgetown defense must overplay Sampson toward the lane in hope of forcing him to shoot going toward the baseline and out of rebounding position. "Al McGuire says Ralph will drive right by Patrick," Thompson says, smiling. "But if he does and gets the basket, it won't be Patrick's fault. We'll be playing team defense."
Holland insists he'll let his men run with Georgetown; every other word in the Cavalier practices this fall was "attack." In opposition, Thompson says he won't be adverse to slowing the game down if the situation so dictates. What switches these would be!
Inevitably, however, victory must go to the team whose center can impose his will upon the contest first and last and in a way that will prove who is truly the best big man in college. Though they may face each other again in the NCAA championships, this game will follow Sampson and Ewing into the pros and for the rest of their lives, simply because it is the first one. That will be a heavy burden to carry.
But for Ewing the load will be lighter. He's the younger, the less established, the one with more time, the defenseman—he doesn't have to put big numbers on the board to maintain his worth. The pressure, the onus, the game itself is mostly on the shoulders of Sampson, the offensive force, whose team will be favored, to boot. Just the fact that Sampson once again turned down millions of pro dollars and chose to return to Virginia for his fourth year may be a manifestation of the level of his desire.
Sampson says he has nothing to prove, and yet he does. What, really, have his teams won? He knows this is no NIT, no United Virginia Bank-Cavalier Invitational, no Clemson, no Chaminade. This might be the game for his future, the No. 1 draft-pick game. This is the challenge of his young life. This is it.
"I recognize that my approach this season has to be different," says Sampson. "It's my last chance to win the national championship. I'll have no excuses. I'm stronger, faster. I can jump higher. I'm in better shape than I've ever been in. I'm going full throttle every game, no slack-offs. My approach to this game is that somebody [Ewing] wants to play hard, so I'll play hard. Let's go at it. Let's get it on. I feel my time has come."
And it has. Somebody tell Patrick Ewing that Ralph Sampson is waiting.