On Virginia's August Campus, Only Jefferson Stands Taller Than Basketball Giant Ralph Sampson

updated 12/13/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/13/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Sitting in the orange-and-blue locker room of the University of Virginia basketball team, 7'4" Ralph Sampson is pondering a question—the question. That is, why in the name of all that is greedy did he turn down the prospect of turning pro at more than $1 million a year for the sheer satisfaction of staying in school? "Because," he says, "money isn't everything."

There is, of course, more to it than that. There is friendship. Loyalty. Pride. Whatever the reasons, one thing is certain: At a time when so many of the most talented underclassmen are taking the cash and fast-breaking to the pros, Ralph Sampson stands out as an oddity—a brilliant player who will not only graduate (with a B.A. in speech communication) but is expected to do so in the standard four years.

By all accounts, Virginia is one of the top teams in college basketball, and Sampson, twice the College Player of the Year, is the reason. Says ex-coach Al McGuire, NBC's shrewd basketball analyst: "He's more mobile than Bill Russell, a better shooter than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and someday he'll rebound like Wilt Chamberlain."

Which is why, after Sampson had played only one year at Virginia, Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics offered him everything but Quincy Market to step into a pair of green high-top sneakers. The following year the Detroit Pistons and Dallas Mavericks were prepared to make similar offers, and last year it was the Los Angeles Lakers who would have broken a bank to get Ralph's name on the line.

"Every year I talked over my decision with my mom and dad, my sisters and my coaches," says Sampson. "They advised me to make up my own mind, and I did. I asked myself whether or not I needed the money. I looked at my family's situation. Then I looked at how important it was to me to play at Virginia and how important it was to get my degree. All things considered, I felt it was best to stay in school."

Sampson arrived at U.Va. from nearby Harrisonburg, a machinist's son who was the state's most exalted prospect since Moses Malone. Malone, of course, was the first contemporary player to go directly from high school to the pros, and there was speculation that Sampson would do the same. Instead he chose U.Va., a prestigious university founded by Thomas Jefferson, with no tradition of coddling athletes.

Despite Sampson's prodigious talents, Virginia has yet to win an NCAA championship, a failure that gnaws at his pride. But it may be his relationship with coach Terry Holland that has bound Sampson to U.Va. most securely. The two are exceptionally close, and Sampson even lived in Holland's basement apartment last year. "Terry is part coach, part friend to Ralph," says assistant coach Dave Odom. "I think Ralph was reluctant to see that relationship end before it had to."

If, in his senior year, Sampson should find himself under mounting pressure to deliver a national championship, he seems unlikely to be overwhelmed by it. At 22, he knows what he wants and what he believes in. He is immensely comfortable at U.Va. He appreciates the people, the freedom, his studies. Secure in the knowledge that someday soon he will become extravagantly wealthy playing pro basketball—his family has taken out a $1 million insurance policy against the contingency of a disabling injury—he intends to make the most of the time he has left as a student.

For Sampson, acceptance has always been important, and he has been willing to work for it. "When Ralph first came to school, nobody knew what to expect," recalls former teammate Jeff Lamp. "He went out of his way to be friendly, considerate, low-key." As a freshman, in fact, Sampson often appeared shy and withdrawn. During interviews, he would speak with his eyes riveted on his sneaker tops. Now he is unselfconscious and confident.

Which is not to say that he is letting his emotions run away with his mouth. This Saturday at 8 p.m. (EST) he and Virginia will face Georgetown and its formidable seven-foot center Patrick Ewing in a cable TV showdown on Super Station WTBS billed somewhat prematurely as the Game of the Decade. Is he apprehensive? Sampson rubs his chin. "I see it as just another game," he says, not altogether convincingly. "I mean, I'll play to win, just like always." Any predictions? He shakes his head, "No." Any comment about Ewing? A shrug. "He's a good player."

Beneath his reluctance to become involved in controversy, however, is carefully controlled competitive fire. Not long ago Holland asked Sampson how he would feel if Ewing turned pro at the end of this season and was chosen ahead of Ralph in the draft. Sampson looked him straight in the eye. "Coach," he said firmly, "I just won't let that happen."

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