Yes, Santa Claus, There Is A Virginia

Four different centers have taken a shot at replacing Ralph Sampson, and UVa games are no longer sellouts, but hey, the Cavaliers are still winning
December 26, 1983

At halftime of last Saturday's game between Virginia and North Carolina-Wilmington, somebody's strange idea of Santa Claus strolled out to center court and began giving away presents to a few of the boys and girls at University Hall. This wasn't a great looking Santa. For one thing, his whiskers. You might see better whiskers on billy goats, and probably better bodies for that matter. His eyesight wasn't much better. With a little girl on his knee who kept insisting her name was Wendy, Santa turned to one of his helpers and asked in a heavy Southern drawl, "Does he get the TV? He gets the TV!" When Virginia Coach Terry Holland came back onto the floor a few minutes later, he found Santa shooting baskets with his players. Holland told him to scram.

But Santa was only trying to help. Ever since the loss last spring of 7'4" Ralph Sampson, three times the college Player of the Year, the center position has remained essentially open. Old Saint Nick probably just assumed he could play a little center for Virginia, unaware of the fact that the Cavaliers already have a little center. And a medium-sized one, too. In the wake of Ralph, Virginia has tried to fill the middle with a begoggled walk-on and a disgruntled walk-off. The latter had a broken heart, the former a broken face. One itinerant Virginia pivotman amazed his teammates by making solid objects vanish into thin air, another topped that by making himself disappear, possibly to the Bahamas, although no one can say for sure.

Still and all, if the question is whether there is life after Ralph, the answer is: Yes, Santa Claus, there is a Virginia, and at week's end it was undefeated. The yes is qualified, because Sampson's departure from Charlottesville has been the most celebrated—and painful—leave-taking since Thomas Jefferson died only months after the school he founded opened its doors in 1825. Sampson had remained steadfast in his devotion to Virginia, even as the pros pitched serious woo at him after each of his first three seasons there. When he was graduated last spring and signed a four-year, $5 million contract with the Houston Rockets, subsequent Cavalier centers were destined to be measured against his 2,225 career points, 1,511 rebounds and 462 blocked shots.

Even if Sampson's career at Virginia was something less than a complete success because his teams never won a national championship, the Cavaliers and their fans were sad indeed to see him go. During his four years at The University, Virginia won 112 (of 135) games, more than any other school in the nation did from 1979 through '83. And through the end of last season, the Cavs had been in the Top 10 on the charts for 49 consecutive weeks, longer than anyone except Michael Jackson. And Michael Jackson never played Chaminade, although if you hummed a few bars he could probably fake it.

One measure of Sampson's importance to Virginia was the way he closed down the middle defensively. Last year the Cavaliers' ACC opponents shot a better percentage against UVa from outside the conference's 17'9" three-point stripe than they did from inside it. "For all the shots Ralph actually blocked," says Guard Ricky Stokes, "there were so many others that were never taken, the ones Ralph mentally blocked. He intimidated so."

When the Rockets played an exhibition game against the Washington Bullets at University Hall on Oct. 8, several NBC affiliates in Virginia were so eager to televise Sampson's second pro outing that they bumped a National League playoff game between the Phillies and the Dodgers, only switching back to the alleged national pastime when the exhibition was over. The homecoming was a rocky one for Sampson, who picked up four quick fouls and shot 0 for 5 in the first quarter. "I'm not God," Ralph said later. "I'm a Houston Rocket." Well, there you have it. At least for the moment he isn't in last place in the NBA's Midwest Division.

The point wasn't lost on the Cavalier players that Sampson's return—an all but meaningless conditioning drill for the pros—was completely sold out, something that hasn't happened in five of Virginia's six home games this season. In fact, after 46 consecutive regular-season sellouts during Sampson's stay at UVa, the team's home opener against Lafayette on Nov. 25 drew a crowd of 6,883 in an arena that seats 9,000. Sampson's lingering presence haunted University Hall like a ghost, rattling around the empty seats and reminding people of how it once was.

"There had to be a letdown," says Stokes, the 5'9½" playmaker with size 13½ feet who now occupies Sampson's old room on The Lawn, even if he can't quite fill Ralph's big shoes. "This team has always been Ralph Sampson and the Cavaliers. Now we have to get our own identity."

To some players, the indifferent fan reaction to their seven straight victories has been puzzling, to others downright galling. "I can't figure out the fans, to be quite honest," says Guard Rick Carlisle. "Maybe nobody's interested, I'm not sure." Ann Burnette, a third-year history major, says that all over The Grounds and down on The Corner where the students congregate, The University is withholding judgment on its basketball team. "They haven't really proved that they can beat good teams without Ralph yet," she says. "I think people are waiting to see how they do when the pressure's on." But for that very reason, of course, the pressure is already on the Cavaliers. "He was a great player, but he's gone now," says freshman Forward Tom Sheehey. "Some people can't accept that fact. Anything less than great isn't tolerable. I didn't realize it was going to be this bad, but it is. So if they don't want to come to the games, that's fine. We'll play with nobody in the stands if we have to."

If it hasn't been easy for Virginia to come to terms with the lingering memories of Sampson, memories that Holland says have cast "a literally long shadow" over this year's team, replacing him on the court has been impossible. "You can't brush aside what Ralph did for four years in four months," says Kenton Edelin, the first man called upon to take Sampson's place. So rather than even try, the Cavaliers have gone through weeks of experimentation—four centers, two starting lineups, one suspension and a partridge in a pear tree.

As Sampson's backup for the past two seasons, the 6'7" Edelin, who began his career in Charlottesville as a nonscholarship jayvee player, seemed like the logical choice to replace him when practice began in October. But after only seven days of workouts, Edelin took a brutal elbow to the face from teammate Dan Merrifield, and in the surgery that followed, part of one of his ribs was implanted in his right cheek to put his shattered face back together. With that blow, the heir apparent gave way to the airhead apparent, senior Wingo Smith. Wingo, out of Indialantic, Fla., the sleeper white hope who unfortunately was asleep during most of his time on the court, had no sooner gotten his shot at the job than he informed Holland he had to miss practice to attend a relative's funeral. When Wingo came back from the funeral with a suntan, gossip spread quickly among his teammates that he had spent the weekend vacationing in the Bahamas with friends. What Holland thought about all this he doesn't care to say, but Wingo subsequently left the team, citing personal problems. "I guess you could say I didn't really have the good attitude coming into this year," said Wingo last week, when reached at the home of his fiancée's parents in West Palm Beach.

That left the job to 6'10" freshman Olden Polynice. The name Polynice is half French, half Greek, and the final syllable is pronounced neece, as in the city in France, not nice, as in "Wouldn't it be nice if this guy were Ralph Sampson." Born in Haiti, Polynice moved with his family to New York City when he was seven. His parents still speak to each other in French, Olden's first language, but he says that while he knows what they're saying, he can no longer speak French himself. Polynice grew up in project housing in Harlem on the site of the old Polo Grounds. Nothing that happened to him there prepared him for trying to follow Sampson.

"All these people were telling me I'm replacing Ralph," Polynice says. "I had to stop and look at the situation and remind myself that I'm just another player who's coming after him. I don't even think I'm following him; I just came to the school after he left. It's just timing. In reality, nobody's replacing him because he can't be replaced. Virginia has a new center. The only thing is, nobody knows who that is right now."

Polynice may not like the idea of stepping in for Sampson, but he doesn't mind laying the burden off on Edelin. "Go ask Kenton how it feels to replace Ralph," Polynice says. "He's the one who's replacing him."

When Edelin returned from his injury the first week of December, he was wearing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's backup goggles. Tom Newell, Virginia's radio color man, is a son of Pete Newell, a former general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers. Tom called the Lakers to ask where Abdul-Jabbar got his goggles, and they sent him a pair of Kareem's spares. "I told Kenton they're good for 20, 20 and six [points, rebounds and blocked shots]," says Newell. "Unfortunately, he thought I meant 20-20 vision and six missed free throws."

Last season Edelin shot 30% from the foul line, and he had to rally toward the end just to get there. "When you go from 22 to 30 percent, I don't think too many people notice the improvement," Holland said dryly during the preseason. "One reason he's not as aggressive offensively as we would like him to be is that he flat-out doesn't want to get fouled," Holland said in October. "A good offensive player wants to get fouled—that's money in the bank. For Kenton the exact opposite is true. Getting fouled amounts to a turnover for him."

The Cavaliers actually had junior Jim Miller, a forward, in the pivot for the first four games. Miller has been a magician since he was 12, and during the offseason he performs before groups throughout the state, specializing in sleight of hand. The neatest trick of all would have been to grow eight inches and make people forget about Sampson, but even Miller couldn't pull that one out of his hat. "For most of the season, people are going to relate to us with the loss of Ralph," Miller says. "We've made the adjustment as a team, but the fans still see Virginia as the team without Ralph."

Five games into the season, when Holland felt Polynice was ready to start, Miller was shifted back to forward, where he plays opposite Sheehey, the gifted 6'8½" freshman who leads Virginia in scoring with 13 points a game. Sheehey was one of the most sought after high school seniors in the country last year, and Virginia spared no effort to land him. When Assistant Coach Dave Odom was taking Sheehey from his Rochester, N.Y. home to Charlottesville for his recruiting visit, their taxi ran over the Sheehey family's dog as they were leaving for the airport. "Tom grabbed my arm and said, 'My God, we've hit my dog!' " Odom says. "We're trying to make a good impression on the kid and we hit his dog, his lifelong friend." When Sheehey leaped out of the taxi to aid the wounded pet, it bit him. "He pulls his hand away and blood is streaming down his arm," recalls Odom. "I say to myself, 'We've got no chance to get this kid now.' " Fortunately for Virginia, the dog survived. Perhaps someday Sheehey will introduce it to Holland's dog, a golden retriever bitch named Dean.

Sheehey had 15 points in Saturday's 87-42 rout of UNC-Wilmington, a game in which Virginia scored more than enough points in the first half—44—to win. Othell Wilson, the Cavaliers' top scorer among the veterans, made his third appearance off the bench after a three-game suspension for lipping off to Holland in practice on Nov. 15 and then scored 11 points. Since his reinstatement Wilson has been a model of decorum, and along with Stokes and Carlisle, he enhances Virginia's strength in a surprising new area—the backcourt.

It might be equally surprising that Virginia is now 7-0. "If you had said before the season that Kenton and Othell were only going to play as many minutes as they have up to now," said Holland last week, "I'd have said, 'See you later. I'm going to the Bahamas.' "

Virginia has resigned itself to living with Sampson's ghost, and the Cavaliers' gleaming record attests to the fact that they're happy with the ghost of Christmas present. It's the ghost of things yet to come that worries them. Cheer up, Virginia, there really is a Santa Claus. Just don't expect him to get you 20, 20 and six.

TWO PHOTOSTONY TOMSICPolynice, center No. 4, makes a Sampsonian block, but not even Saint Nick can bring him the wonderful gifts that departed along with Ralph. PHOTOTONY TOMSICEdelin has authentic Kareem goggles, but he's lacking seven inches and a skyhook. PHOTOTONY TOMSICHaving failed to conjure up a new Sampson, Miller the magician is now back at forward. PHOTOTONY TOMSICThe only tangible remnants of Ralph are the Sampson sandwiches at Littlejohn's.
PHOTOTONY TOMSICRecruiting Sheehey was doggone tough. PHOTOTONY TOMSICHolland: Is it better in the Bahamas? PHOTOTONY TOMSICWilson's back after a three-game suspension. Now he sometimes suspends himself. PHOTOTONY TOMSICStokes's 13½s nearly fill Ralph's shoes, but he can't fill Sampson's old doorway.