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."
Back in real life, most coaches' predictions were based on some obvious characteristics of the teams. Arizona State's Bob Weinhauer opted for Georgetown's quickness, Las Vegas' Jerry Tarkanian preferred Virginia's experience. A number of experts polled by the The Washington Post seemed to side with Georgetown even though Virginia went off as a 2½-point favorite with the oddsmakers. "Georgetown does a few more things with getting Ewing the ball, and Sampson doesn't seem to want it," said Tennessee Coach Don DeVoe. "Sampson doesn't always work hard. He's the kind of player who can get lost sometimes."
Boston College Coach Gary Williams summed up the consensus, however, when asked which center he'd choose to start a team. "Because I'm a good guy," Williams said, "I'll take the one who's left."
Thompson had prepared his kiddie corps for judgment day by combing the atlas for early opponents. Georgetown opened the season with a 72-51 victory over the BYU-Hawaii Seasiders at Laie—"We could have lost that one," Thompson said with an attempt at a straight face—and last Wednesday night the Hoyas defeated Alabama State 99-76 as the Georgetown rooters, instead of begging for 100, yelled, "We want Ralph!"
Later that same evening, approximately 300 miles away in Durham, N.C., Virginia was warming up for its game against Duke when the hosts' student section began chanting "Georgetown! Georgetown! Georgetown!" When some Virginia supporters showed up at the bench clad in the school's bright orange colors, the Dookies clamored "Tacky! Tacky! Tacky!" On the floor the Cavaliers couldn't help breaking up.
After Virginia beat Duke 104-91, nobody would admit that the Cavs may have been looking ahead. But there were signs. Way back in October, Virginia Reserve Guard Doug Newburg had taken to wearing an old T shirt under his practice jersey. Cold, Doug? "The Ewing look," Newburg said. On campus people would stop Wilson and ask if he was ready for the big game. "What big game?" Wilson would reply. The weekend before Duke, Sampson and Forward Jimmy Miller had gone over to Carlisle's apartment to watch the telecast of the Georgetown-Western Kentucky game. Georgetown narrowly prevailed in overtime after Ewing slammed home a rebound of a missed free throw and finished with a career high of 30 points. "It's been hard not to keep pondering Georgetown," Carlisle said, smiling. "We've been following their scores."
Against Duke the Cavaliers were more than preoccupied with Georgetown as they fell behind by 12 points in the first half. This was the first ACC game played under the new rules (a 30-second clock and a 19-foot three-point line), and early on the Virginia players actually looked worn out. "I couldn't catch my breath sometimes," Sampson said. "I don't think I was running well or playing good defense for my standards." Sampson recovered to accumulate 36 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks—but this was against a team whose front line is predominately freshman and not a one over 6'8". With that big lead, under the old rules, Duke could have maneuvered into a delay game and seriously threatened a hesitant Virginia.
The game also provided grist for the theory that ACC-style basketball, Virginia style, a finesse approach tending at times toward passivity, wouldn't serve the Cavaliers well against the intense, physical Georgetown bunch. The team played "soft" against Duke, often turned its collective head on defense and avoided going for the jugular. "We haven't gotten to where we want to be," Sampson said.
Everyone knew that the Hoyas were searching, too. Their point guard and backcourt leader, junior Fred Brown, had tried to play on his injured right knee against Alabama State, but he was in obvious pain. Thompson and Brown talked it over: The most experienced Hoya wouldn't play against Virginia.
Moreover, in Georgetown's first six games the team hadn't gotten enough outside points from the slumping Anthony Jones. This, in turn, gave greater scoring responsibility to Michael Jackson, a more offensively oriented freshman, and kept defensive specialist Gene Smith as a reserve. "I recruited Smith to be a substitute anyway," Thompson said. So now he was starting an all-rookie backcourt of Jackson and Wingate, which seemed to present Virginia with a substantial edge at the guards.
But, of course, who cared? "When you talk about the pure significance of the game," Thompson said, "it's very insignificant." This from a representative of the same school whose athletic director, Frank Rienzo, peddled the TV rights to the game to the Turner Broadcasting System so astutely that Georgetown wound up with a bundle.
After Georgetown and Virginia agreed to split 18,000 of the Capital Centre's 19,035 seats, Rienzo announced he would sell the Hoyas' share as part of the school's season-ticket package. Any Georgetown fan who wanted to watch the Virginia game in person would have to fork over for the 14 other home games as well. Any fan who wanted to watch it on television couldn't do it in Washington, which has no cable. Furthermore, there were "no plans for local commercial television availability." Not surprisingly, Rienzo sold his 9,000 season tickets. When it became clear that the Capital Centre would be filled, the blackout was lifted and Turner sold the game to a local TV station after all.
Combining the TV money with the gate receipts, Georgetown reportedly earned more than $600,000 from the game. (Virginia, which had to split the TV revenues with the other seven ACC schools, made approximately $185,000.)
By the time all of last week's introductory words and numbers had been heard, it was left to Ewing to echo the feeling of all concerned. "I'm sick and tired of hearing about the game," he said. "The only thing I'm anxious for is to get it over with."
In truth, the game appeared to be practically over some three minutes into the second half, when Virginia went ahead by 14 points, 41-27. Wingate seemed to be trying for those 100 straight rocks before Thompson quickly called time out, yanked him and inserted the wondrous defender, Smith. In the next three minutes Georgetown went on a 10-2 tear and, more important to the Hoyas, Wilson picked up his fourth foul on an offensive charge and was benched. "A psychological damper," Carlisle called that.
Ewing was in full cry now, screaming at his mates and pointing out directions, most of which were carried out by Smith, who negotiated his way through and around the Virginia ballhandlers like a bee after pollen.
Still, there was Sampson. On offense he invented yet another marvelous method of scoring, netting a one-handed jump-tap rebound from nearly eight feet out, and on defense he forced Ewing to the baseline, from where the Georgetown sophomore's turnaround J hit the side of the backboard. Virginia's hold seemed even more secure when Stokes finished off a fast break at 10:52 for a 51-41 lead.
With Wilson on the bench, however, Virginia was vulnerable to the relentless Georgetown press. "Those aren't just five-10 and six-foot guards running around out there," said Carlisle, a cerebral transfer from Maine. "Georgetown throws all this six-five lightning at you. It took some getting used to. The game seemed so long. Wasn't it a long game?"
Though Carlisle did yeoman work—nine points in 36 minutes (more playing time than anyone except Sampson and Ewing) and constant, under-pressure ballhandling with no turnovers—it was obvious the Hoyas were wearing Virginia down. The Cavs stuck at 53 while Georgetown came to 47, to 49, to 51.
Sampson, suffering from the flu, was, in his words, getting "weaker and weaker," unable to hold his position in the lane. He had had diarrhea all afternoon and received liquids intravenously after the game. Virginia became painfully tentative, scoring only one field goal in the final 10:51. "We flat out didn't have enough left to attack the basket," Virginia Coach Terry Holland said.
And then came The Sequence. With Virginia leading 55-51 and inbounding along the sideline, Sampson reverse-pivoted on Ewing, swung around, pinning him on a sucker play, and floated to the hole for Carlisle's pass. Vrooom-boom! 57-51. At the other end of the court Ewing, incensed, drove across the key and rose up for the roundhouse hook. Boinnnnnng! Splat! 57-53. "I felt it coming," Sampson was to say later, graciously. "I don't have enough words to describe Pat. He is a great, great player."
At the time, though, Sampson was not feeling so charitable. After a scramble under the Virginia basket he came up with the ball and leaped for the easy deuce: Ewing blocked it. Sampson once more: Ewing stuffed it back in his face. Sampson yet again: Ewing swatted it away again. "I was trying to dunk, but I didn't have anything left," said Sampson. Then everybody got angry, Ewing because he was whistled for his third foul, Sampson because no goaltend was called. He exchanged nasty words and threatening finger motions with the Georgetown bench, but after a time-out he cooled off enough to sink his two free throws and give Virginia a 59-53 lead with 5:13 remaining.
The Hoyas again rallied furiously, led by none other than a rejuvenated Wingate, who was to finish with 12 points. In fact, immediately after his corner jump shot tied the game 59—all at 3:48, Wingate intercepted Craig Robinson's inbounds pass and charged in for the go-ahead basket. The problem was he also charged right into Robinson. There followed a plethora of Georgetown errors caused by the team's youth.
After Virginia led 63-61, Georgetown twice blew chances to tie again. Ewing wheeled around Sampson underneath only to encounter Robinson, who unceremoniously stuffed his layup attempt; Jones missed the first free throw of a one-and-one—his 13th miss in 14 attempts from the line this season.
The Cavaliers rode out the storm, making nine of 10 free throws down the stretch—and 24 of 28 all told—as Ewing fouled out trying to contain Wilson and Carlisle up front on the press. As it happened, Sampson left the game at the same time as Ewing, and though they were near each other at the end of the floor, neither paused to make any gesture of acknowledgement. But what a terrific occasion it had been. And what fun, too. There was one second left. Act I to Sampson. Could both centers have been contemplating Act II?