Hall of Famer Sampson towered over Triangle basketball teams

Basketball great will be ACC’s seventh Naismith Hall of Fame inductee

cwright@newsobserver.comSeptember 8, 2012 

  • Sampson vs. Triangle Hall of Famer Ralph Sampson went 20-9 against Triangle teams and had at least one 30-point game against each.
    Vs. W-L  Ppg  Reb.  Blk.
    Duke9-019.811.73.0
    N.C. State7-317.411.52.5
    N. Carolina4-618.211.32.8
    An ACC legend Where Sampson ranks on the ACC’s career leader board.
    Stat Total Rank
    Points2,22816
    Rebounds1,5114
    Blocks4622

The tales are tall, the numbers huge.

With Ralph Sampson, they always were.

The latter years, in which his knees finally betrayed him in the NBA, pecked away at his legacy, but his place among the game’s giants – and specifically the ACC’s best – remains secure.

Friday night, Sampson, the 7-foot-4 force who changed rules and game plans in the ACC, was to join six other league players in the Naismith Hall of Fame more than 20 years after he played his final game.

Terry Holland, his college coach at University of Virginia, never understood the delay. Neither did Jay Bilas, the former Duke forward turned ESPN analyst who had to deal with Sampson in college.

“The only thing that kept Ralph Sampson from being a perennial NBA All-Star were injuries,” Bilas told the Newport News (Va.) Daily Press before this year’s vote. “This should be a no-brainer. … It’s ridiculous that it’s even a discussion point. That should be ‘check this box and move on to something that requires rational thought.’

“He changed the whole game, the whole game. It was like playing against your dad in the driveway. You had no shot. I held him to 36 points and thought I did a pretty good job.”

Sampson tackles Triangle

Sampson already was a two-time reigning player of the year about to win his third by the time Ernie Myers arrived at N.C. State in 1982.

“I had heard a lot about him,” Myers said, chuckling.

What Myers saw, though, was hard to believe.

“We were warming up, and I looked down to the other side, and Ralph was leaning his elbow against the backboard,” Myers said. “It was like, ‘Wow! Is he trying to tell us to not even think about coming in here?’ I’ve never seen anything like it.”

There are similar stories from all three sides of the Triangle.

Roy Williams, then a UNC assistant, called Sampson “truly one of the greatest college basketball players of all time.”

“Everybody had a Ralph game plan,” Myers said. “But when he got the ball, you couldn’t stop him. And that was just on the offensive side.

“You couldn’t stop the guy. He had to have an off night, and he didn’t have too many of those.”

Sampson never lost against Duke, going 9-0 and averaging 19.8 points, 11.7 rebounds and three blocks. Twice he went for at least 30 points.

Dean Smith and North Carolina had the most success, beating Sampson’s Virginia teams six of 10 times.

Their biggest encounter was in the 1981 Final Four. Al Wood torched the Cavaliers for 39. Sampson managed just 11, and the Tar Heels advanced to the title game with a 78-65 victory.

The following year, UNC beat Virginia 47-45 in the ACC tournament final, setting the stage for Smith’s first national championship.

Sampson went 7-3 against the Wolfpack, but the final two losses hurt the most.

N.C. State entered the 1983 ACC tournament seeded fourth and needing to win the event to make the NCAA tournament.

The Wolfpack knocked off top-seeded North Carolina 91-84 in overtime in the semifinals to set up a title bout with Sampson and the Cavaliers.

Taking advantage of the ACC’s introductory 3-point line, the Wolfpack made 12 3-pointers to offset Sampson’s 24 points and 12 rebounds.

The Pack won 81-78, but Myers said he could tell Sampson wasn’t entirely sold.

“There’s no way you could have told him we were the better team,” Myers said.

There was no debate after their next, and final, meeting.

Battling for a spot in the Final Four, but without the luxury of a 3-point line, the Pack ended Sampson’s college career with a 63-62 victory. Dereck Whittenburg scored a game-high 24 points. Sampson had 23.

Sampson’s dunk gave Virginia a 61-59 lead with 1:43 left. Those were the final points of his college career. Clinging to its one-point lead with 10 seconds left, State surrounded Sampson and forced other Cavaliers to shoot. They missed.

The following morning, The News & Observer proclaimed “State wipes away Sampson’s dream.”

“The look on his face when we beat him the second time,” Myers said, “I’ll never forget it.”

NBA, knees and numbers

Sampson was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1983 NBA draft, going to the Houston Rockets.

He was so coveted, Holland told the Virginian-Pilot, that the NBA invented the lottery because of him.

Sampson averaged 21.0 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks that year, finishing in the top five in the latter two. He scored 9 points in the All-Star Game and was named the league’s Rookie of the Year.

His second year surpassed the first.

His breakout moment came in the 1985 All-Star Game, where he had 24 points and 10 rebounds, took home MVP honors and won praise from Magic Johnson.

“You bring the ball up, and you take two guys into the paint with you, and then you just flip it over your head and here comes Sampson,” Johnson told the Chicago Tribune. “Wooo. Woosh. Wham.

“You can’t wait to give it to him again. You say, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s go again. Here it comes, big guy.’ You look up and there he is, so high, and you know the game is changing. Whooeee.”

East coach K.C. Jones was equally impressed, telling the Tribune: “You see a guy like Sampson, a guy that tall, filling the lane, bringing the ball up, getting offensive boards, playing defense, blocking shots. Sampson was kind of awesome.”

Sampson’s knee troubles prevented many more days like that.

He averaged 21.2 points and 16.6 rebounds in the 1985 playoffs and helped lead the Rockets to the 1986 NBA Finals. But his knees were breaking down.

His minutes and production began to dip – gradually at first, dramatically later.

He played more than 50 games just once after 1986. His career averages of 15.4 points and 8.8 rebounds don’t begin to tell the story.

Holland said, pre-injury, Sampson was on his way to becoming one of the top 10 players in NBA history.

“He was the unanimous pick for Rookie of the Year and an NBA All-Star all four seasons. He was the All-Star MVP in his second year,” Holland said.

“Ralph more than lived up to the huge expectations fans had for his NBA career, until injuries took their toll.”

Wright: 919-829-4643 News researcher David Raynor contributed to this report

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