They come along once in a great while, setting the basketball world abuzz -- tall, very tall teen-agers with exceptional talent and an uncommon mastery of the game. As high school All-Americas they attract college recruiters by the hundreds and rate laudatory comparisons with the young Wilt Chamberlain or the young Lew Alcindor (a.k.a. Kareen Abdul-Jabbar). The college that signs such a player, the conventional wisdom goes, becomes an automatic contender for the NCAA basketball championship.
Ralph Sampson, 7 ft. 4 in., 210-pound center from Harrisonburg, Va., last year's most covered prep player, is the latest youngster to inherit this mantle of glorious expectation. Last May, when he announced his decision to attend the University of Virginia rather than Kentucky, North Carolina, or Virginia Tech, the soft-spoken 18-year old did so at a packed press conference electric with anticipation, and his decision immediately catapulted Virginia into Top 20 consideration. That he shortly thereafter made the US squad for the Pan American Games, an honor usually reserved for college upperclassmen, was regarded as further testament to his abilities and potential.
As a high school senior, Sampson averaged 29.5 points and 20.4 rebounds per game. Yet statistics do not adequately convey his value to a team. Agile and graceful despite his unparalleled size, the slender Sampson prides himself not only on his obvious inside capabilities (it is a thing of wonder to watch him soar for a rebound), but on his ball handling and outside shooting as well. Even when he is not scoring, rebounding, or blocking shots, his mere presence occupies the opposition and creates countless opportunities for his teammates.
Through Virginia's first 17 games this season (the Cavaliers won 14), Sampson certainly lived up to his reputation, averaging 12.7 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 5 blocked shots while playing only 28 minutes per game. Against Army, the freshman center blocked 12 shots; against a good Old Dominion squad he snared 22 rebounds. After Virginia defeated Georgia Tech, Yellow Jackets Coach Dwane Morrison, who coached against UCLA when Alcindor was a sophomore, claimed that of the two, Sampson was a better perimeter shooter and a better defensive player.Cavalier Coach Terry Holland, understandably dazzled by his prize pupil, opined, "He [Sampson] has a chance to be the best who ever played."
Still, the jury was out on Sampson until game No. 18 late in January, when the Cavs played then third-ranked Duke on the Blue Devils' home court, where Duke's vociferous fans make cozy Cameron Indoor Stadium the toughest place to play in the basketball-wild Atlantic Coast Conference.
The real challenge facing Sampson was not the crowd, however, but Duke's 6-11 senior centeR, Mike Gminski. For three years Gminski had ruled the pivot in the ACC. The broad-shouldered, 240-pound Gminski, a two-time All-America, 1979 ACC player of the year, and Duke's all-time leading scorer and rebounder, is considered perhaps the best center in college basketball and a likely first-round pro draft choice. Smooth and steady, the Blue Devils' "aircraft carrier in the middle," as one rival coach called him, scores from anywhere within 15 feet of the basket, clogs the middle in Duke's defense, and frequently dominates the boards.
The confrontation drew everyone from Boston Celtics general manager Red Auerbach to Sports Illustrated. Gminski scored first on a tap-in; Sampson quickly an swered with one 12-foot turnaround jumper over Gminski's outstretched hand, then another. Gminski dunked an alley-oop pass; 10 seconds later Sampson retaliated with a driving dunk of his own.
That's the way it went as the two big men battled it out all night, with Sampson outscoring his more experienced foe 23 to 20, pulling down a game-high 13 rebounds, and leading the Cavaliers to a 90-84 upset victory.
After the game a happy Holland called it Sampson's best outing of the season. Predictably, both he and Sampson denied, in the political tradition of sports double talk, that the freshman's performance was in any way spurred by the challenge of facing Gminski. "I get up for every game," Sampson told a swarm of reporters. "I just came into the game trying to establish my game. I knew Mike could play, and I just wanted to establish my game. I was satisfied with the way I played, but everybody's game can be better."
Gminski was more frank about the confrontation and the frustration he'd experienced, especially defending against Sampson's jump shot. "I had to stay between him and the basket, because if you front a guy like that, it's a lob and easy dunk," Gminski said, in a manner more subdued than usual. "I was doing all I could to force him away from the basket. i had my hand in his face, I bellied him, all of those things. I knew he was a good shooter, but . . . I don't think I've seen anyone shoot like that before."
Virginia followed up the victory over Duke with another conference win against North Carolina State, then pushed fourth-ranked Ohio State all the way before dropping a nationally televised 70-65 thriller in an impressive week that enabled the Cavs to move up several notches in both wire service polls (from 19 th to 14th in the UPI voting and from 17th to 13th in the AP poll).
This past week wasn't quite so productive, as they dropped a 63-61 decision at home to Maryland before losing Saturday to Wake Forest in another heartbreaker, 79-77, but they get another shot at the limelight Wednesday in the return match with Duke -- this time in the friendly confines of their own field house. If Sampson and the Cavaliers can overcome Gminski and the Blue Devils once again, it should be a real confidence builder for the rest of the regular season as well as postseason tournament play.