NEWS- The prodigal Sampson: Ralph returns to UVA

Sampson was in town last week as a coach and a parent at the NBA Players' Association's annual Top 100 Camp for the country's best high school basketball players. His son, Ralph III, stands at 6'-10" and is entering his senior year at Northview High School outside Atlanta.

Although all the man's doing is peeling a banana, few onlookers can keep from staring. 

It's just before 11am on Friday, June 22, and John Paul Jones Arena is relatively empty save for 100 eager young basketball players, their parents, and some old basketball pros, all assembled for the NBA Players' Association's annual five-day summer camp. There's lots else going on that could be considered more gawk-worthy. These 100 high schoolers are considered the best in the country, and a few of them are likely future NBA superstars. Some of them soar toward the hoop and sink three-point shots during warm-ups, while current NBA all-star Caron Butler gives tips to two others on how to keep their calf muscles loose. Kermit Washington, one of the most infamous names in sports for his role in a 1977 on-court altercation, sits and scans the young superstars.

Yet everyone not wearing a jersey seems fixated on watching one particular parent eat his breakfast. Maybe it's because they remember the six times his face was splashed across the cover of Sports Illustrated . Or they recall seeing his name painted on top of U-Hall. Maybe they remember how he led the Virginia Cavaliers' basketball team to the Final Four.

Maybe it's because he's 7'-4" tall.

Whatever the reason, 24 years since he last laced up his giant sneakers in Charlottesville, Ralph Sampson is still undoubtedly UVA's Big Man on Grounds. But just as when he first arrived in 1979, he's reluctant to accept the mantle of superstar.

"I guess when you had a team like we had, you'd be a rock star in your hometown," he says. "I'm just blessed to have had the opportunity to play."

Of course, Sampson's play was anything but understated. As a teenager at Harrisonburg High School, he was perhaps the most heavily recruited prospect in the history of college basketball. Ultimately he turned down powerhouse programs at North Carolina and Kentucky as well as the promise of instant wealth in the NBA to attend UVA.

"I had to play somewhere," explains Sampson, "and Coach [Terry] Holland was the main factor. He had built a good team with Jeff Lamp and Jeff Jones and had Virginia basketball on the rise."

 The towering first-year made an immediate difference. It seemed Sampson never had to leave the ground to dunk the ball or grab a rebound, and the phenom used his formidable stature to average 15 points and 11 rebounds per game his first season, leading the team to a 24-10 record. 

This was only Sampson's warm-up act, however: he went on to win the Naismith Award for college basketball's best player three consecutive seasons (a feat matched only by UCLA's Bill Walton) for his role in taking Virginia to three NCAA Tournaments (including the aforementioned Final Four in 1981) and helping the Cavs win 80 percent of their games during his four seasons.

Individually, he bested Georgetown's Patrick Ewing in one of the most anticipated regular-season games in 1982, averaged 17 points and 11 rebounds for his collegiate career, and remains the all-time leading rebounder in UVA history with 1,511.

NBA teams wanted him as a freshman, but every year until graduation, "Sir Ralph" as he was dubbed by some in the media, stayed at UVA and earned his degree in communications.

The Houston Rockets used their #1 pick in the 1983 NBA Draft to make him theirs, and basketball fans eagerly awaited Sampson's splash in the pros. But even for a giant like Sampson, the expectations were too high. After a promising first season in which he was Rookie of the Year, and after sending the Rockets to the NBA Finals with a last-second shot that defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, a series of knee injuries made it difficult for him to dominate as he once had at U-Hall.

After bouncing around to four different teams in his last five seasons, Sampson ended his NBA career having averaged a respectable 15 points and nine rebounds per game, but well short of the predictions that he would be one of the best ever.

His off-the-court struggles have been equally well-documented. After being indicted in a federal child support case in 2006, Sampson struck a plea deal that resulted in a two-month jail sentence for mail fraud. He was also ordered to pay $300,000 in child support payments for children he had fathered with two women.

This visit to Charlottesville is Sampson's first since serving his time in April. Despite the notoriety, Sampson says he's been comfortable coming home again.

"It still feels like home," he says. "I've been able to come back here and see former coaches, ushers I remember from U-Hall, teachers I had. It's been nice to come back and visit and see all of them."

This is, after all, a proud moment for Sampson, since among the players the NBPA invited to this elite camp is his son, Ralph III. He's wearing #113 so spectators can keep track of him, but it's not difficult to pick out the Son of Sampson. 

The senior from Northview High outside Atlanta already has his father's build (6', 10" and a lanky 220 pounds, according to the roster), his trademark mustache (though the elder has since shaved his), and his gift for getting high enough to snatch any rebound. Asked about his own role in developing his son's game, Sampson again deflects the credit.

"I'm just blessed to have good kids, and I've tried to raise them right," he says.

Ralph III had yet to sign with a college by press time (recruiting website reports he's interested in ACC schools Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, among others), and Ralph the elder didn't say if there was a chance his son would suit up for UVA. If that were that to happen, though, Sampson says he's more than satisfied with the building in which the youngster would play his home games.

"The John Paul Jones Arena is the best arena in college basketball, and it will be that way for years to come," he says.

Last year's 21-win season makes the years to come look bright, and they would gleam brighter still with another Sampson in orange and blue. However, unless the Cavs can put together a championship run, those future teams will remain, like almost every other team since he graduated, left in the shadow of the formidable, original, Ralph Sampson.