The immortal rap group Wu-Tang Clan once released a song that describes how former Virginia Cavaliers center Ralph Sampson likely feels about his entire basketball career in retrospect. Can It Be That It Was All So Simple Then? At 7’4” tall and tipping the scale at a whopping 228 pounds, the rail thin center is the greatest basketball player in the storied history of the Virginia Cavaliers. As we watch the top-seeded Virginia University men’s basketball team compete in this year’s NCAA tournament, those of us who are cut from the old school cloth cannot help but remember a time when Sampson roamed the ACC with arms were as ridiculously long as his shorts were embarrassingly abbreviated. After dominating with an astounding 30 points, 19 rebounds and 7 blocks per game in his senior year, Sampson harkened the modern age of major college basketball recruiting in 1979.
He was considered such a phenomenon that he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated six times in a four year span from 1979 to 1983. In 1980 Sampson led the upstart Cavaliers to a National Invitation Tournament Championship and earned MVP honors for his efforts. In 1981, the sophomore Sampson led Virginia Cavaliers defeated a stacked North Carolina team, featuring James Worthy and Sam Perkins, twice while averaging a manly 18 points and 11 rebounds. Accompanied by shooting guard Jeff Lamp and guards Jeff Jones and Othell Wilson, he would lead the Cavs on a 22 game win streak that was ended by a Digger Phelps coached Notre Dame squad led by Orlando Woolridge, who would hit the game-winning shot en route to a 56-55 victory.
UVA would finish with a 13-1 record in the ACC. They would meet North Carolina for a third time in the Final Four, but Sampson was owned by UNC’s Al Woods, who dropped 39 points while Ralph shot 3-10 from the field. You really don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Those lyrics are from a Janet Jackson song, but they could easily be the mantra in the life of any person. The Virginia Cavaliers would enter the Big Dance again in 1983 as a # 1 seed, but would have its dreams of a Championship end in the Elite 8 with a loss to # 4 seed University of Alabama-Birmingham. Sampson would win two Wooden Awards and three Naismith Awards for National Player of the Year; yet despite having some success in the NCAA tournament, UVA would never win an ACC tournament with Sampson manning the paint.
His collegiate career would, in many ways, be mirrored by his NBA career as well. He burst onto the NBA stage with the Houston Rockets in 1983 as the number one overall pick. Sampson combined agility, skill and unprecedented length into an interesting combination that was hard to guard and even harder to score on. They say he would score like Wilt Chamberlain and defend like Bill Russell; some even said had the potential to be the best basketball player ever. But life seldom ends up as planned. Ralph Sampson was a four time NBA All-Star (1984 through 1987), Rookie of the Year (1984), and All NBA Second Team (1985). However, a menagerie of injuries limited him to playing only 441 out of a possible 820 games in which he was eligible to play over his 10 year career. He would never win an NBA Championship, but he was instrumental in the Houston Rockets defeating the Los Angeles Lakers to reach the NBA Finals in 1986 before succumbing to the Boston Celtics in six games during the NBA Finals. We only got to see flashes of what he could be, but there may not be another player this tall and this skilled to ever play in the NBA again.