About The Author
Emily Giffin (UVA School of Law, ’97) is the author of six New York Times bestselling novels, including SOMETHING BORROWED and her latest, WHERE WE BELONG, which released in July. An avid ACC hoops fan (except for Duke), she attended Ralph’s last home game at University Hall at the age of 10 and went on to become the men’s basketball manager at Wake Forest during the Randolph Childress-Tim Duncan era. She considers Ralph her basketball idol while growing up and the two have become good friends.
Growing up in Harrisonburg, Virginia, a small, peaceful town in the cradle of the Shenandoah Valley, Ralph Lee Sampson Jr. heard it all the time from his parents: Do the best you can, where you are, with what you have. The words would become Ralph’s drumbeat. His core. Advice he would cling to from serene asphalt playgrounds all the way to glitzy NBA arenas. Sampson always did his best, where he was, with what he had.
Often his best would yield staggering results: accolades and superstardom as an athletic 7’4″ center with shooting guard finesse. Smooth and sublime on the court, Ralph could play anywhere and everywhere. There was nothing he couldn’t do on offense or defense, from elegant sky hooks to rim-rattling jams to whispering jumpers to monstrous blocks and rebounds. He was the player of a lifetime, arguably one of the most dominant centers in the history of the game, possessing that rare combination of sheer height and fluid grace. At times, his best was the best. Ever.
At other times, though, Sampson would give his all, only to net defeat and disappointment. Inside, he cared deeply – very deeply. But to look at him, you couldn’t tell the difference between his highs and lows. His reserved demeanor was always the same, his expression stone-faced, his resolve unwavering. When he stumbled on those long legs, he told himself to get up, regroup, press on. He told himself that stats and scorecards weren’t the measure of his worth. He told himself it was about the journey itself, the work put in. Whether people called him a phenom, whether people called him a failure, whether people called him the world’s tallest underdog, only the effort mattered. “I can only control what I can control,” Sampson recently reflected in his soft-spoken baritone. At 51, there is a touch of gray at his temples, a few lines here and there, but his angular face is still chiseled, his body as lean as a teenager’s, his outlook unchanged by the years. “I try to live in the moment, be at peace with the past, and keep my eye on the future.”
You have to go back a long way, to Ralph’s adolescent growth spurts, to fully understand his story. As a freshman at Harrisonburg High School, he was a skinny 6’7″ and 168 pounds, earning the nickname “Stick,” one he still has today. By the time he was a senior, he was an even skinnier 7’3″. Growing so much so fast left Ralph gangly and uncoordinated, and he had to work extremely hard to catch up with his own body. As a result, he understood at a young age that success depended on discipline and commitment, not his God-given height. In a sense, he had to work even harder because of it.
As he grew taller, something else happened, too. Ralph began to accept that he was meant to play basketball. He loved music, like his father who played the saxophone and his mother and two sisters who sang in the church choir, and he had a passion for baseball. But that’s not what seven footers are born to do. So the pressure and expectations mounted along with his talent, and whether he liked it or not, Ralph found himself going down one road, practicing endless hours alone in a gym. He did anything and everything he could to get better. And better. Until he led the Harrisonburg Blue Streaks to back to back state AA titles and everyone was talking about the tall, lanky kid in the Valley who could both dunk and dribble the ball the length of the court with equal ease. But while his legend grew, Ralph remained Ralph. Kind, quiet, well-mannered, respectful. “Ralph didn’t want things given to him,” Brownie Cummins, the Harrisonburg High athletic director once said. “I wish they all had the attitude he had about life. We’d have a wonderful world.”
His path to greatness may have seemed preordained, but the journey officially began on May 31, 1979 at 7 o’clock p.m. when 18-year-old Ralph emerged from his locker room and walked hesitantly into the humid gymnasium of Harrisonburg High School. Wearing his best church clothes, he was visibly nervous as he sat at a table beside his coach and parents and faced a crowd of reporters, television cameras, and microphones. After months of frenzied media speculation, playoff games before a record 8,000 fans, and a recruiting battle between coaching legends Terry Holland, Dean Smith, Lefty Driesell, and Joe B. Hall, the time had come for Ralph’s final decision.
The only problem was he still hadn’t made up his mind. He had officially narrowed his choice to four schools – but was torn between Virginia and Kentucky, vacillating a dozen times in the hours, even minutes before his announcement. He was leaning toward Kentucky – he was just about to say Kentucky. Yet he opened his mouth and the words spilled out: I think I’m going with Virginia. Why? Because he wanted to help his home state win a championship, something they’d never done before. Because he wanted all the people who had supported him to be able to watch him play in college, a mere sixty miles away. And most of all, because he knew, without her ever pressuring him, that the decision would make his mother happy. That was Ralph. That had always been Ralph. A good son. A nice kid. An unselfish person. The next day he officially signed with the University of Virginia after making one final request to Coach Holland. Could he please bring his eight-foot bed to school?
By the time Ralph arrived at Virginia, the fascination with him had grown feverishly. He couldn’t leave his dormitory without people staring, asking for his autograph, asking over and over just how tall are you? Sampson was uncomfortable with all of the attention, but he handled it with grace, and never played the part of prima donna. “Ralph’s willingness to take on any task and any role that would win that night’s game made him a coach’s dream and the ultimate team player,” recalls Coach Terry Holland who lauded Sampson for embracing the “dirty work” of great position defense and his unselfishness on the court. “Ralph made all of his teammates feel special. If anything, and perhaps to a fault, he tried to be like the rest of us,” said fellow Cavalier Jimmy Miller. “He just wanted to be a normal student, a regular guy.”
But the ACC freshman of the year and first-team All-American was anything but a regular guy. Everyone knew that. Including Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics who came calling at the end of Ralph’s freshman year with promises of great riches and even greater fame. Ralph listened, but not for very long. He told them thank you very much, but he was going to stay in school.
Ralph Sampson faced some great players like Patrick Ewing in his career.
If you were one of the few not paying attention before, you certainly took notice on Super Bowl Sunday of Sampson’s sophomore year when the nation tuned in to see him lead a Virginia massacre of Ohio State and stars Clark Kellogg and Herb Williams. Ralph was spectacular from start to finish – scoring 40 points with 16 rebounds – but perhaps the enduring image of the game was when he soared nearly two feet above the rim to catch an impossibly long and high lob pass just as it caromed off the glass, then deftly slammed it through the hoop. The takeaway was clear. Nobody could stop Ralph man to man. If you were going to beat Virginia, a zone would be your only hope.
The next day the unbeaten Cavaliers moved to number one in the AP poll and the spotlight on Sampson grew even more intense. Fans hounded him. Everyone in the press wanted a piece of him. NBC Nightly News. CBS Sunday Morning. Good Morning America. Sports Illustrated (who would ultimately put him on six covers in four years). “It was as if the national media suddenly understood just how incredibly gifted and unique this Sampson kid was,” said Doug Elgin, then Sports Information Director at Virginia. “It was sheer mayhem. The only one who wasn’t completely overwhelmed by all the fuss was Ralph.” Deep down, he must have understood what was happening to him, but he seemed to be in quiet denial. Just a small town kid who turned down the Celtics and millions so that he could earn his degree and spend his free days back home on Myrtle Street, eating his mother’s supper.
Of course there were disappointments in Sampson”s magnificent college career. There was the almost mythical loss to tiny Chaminade, then a virtually unknown NAIA school, in an untelevised game that didn’t mean much in the scheme of things but remains one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history. There were the ACC and NCAA Championships he chased and never quite caught. There were all the what ifs: What if the shot clock had been instituted a year earlier and Dean Smith couldn’t have played that maddening, four-corner stall game? What if Virginia hadn’t run into Jim Valvano’s team of destiny – not once, but twice in the postseason of his senior year? What if Sampson had left school just one year early and had been drafted by the Lakers, joining Kareem and Magic? Ask Ralph those questions and his reaction will be the same. An enigmatic shrug with a deflection to another topic. The past is the past, and Sampson doesn’t deal with what-could-have-beens. No point. Just keep on going.
You won’t catch Ralph talking about all that he did accomplish either. Leading a Virginia team that had never been a top twenty fixture to an NIT Championship, an Elite Eight, and a Final Four with a 112-23 overall record and 49 consecutive weeks in the AP Top 10. Defeating teams that were led by some of the most outstanding players of the era – Patrick Ewing at Georgetown, the McCray brothers at Louisville, Steve Stipanovich at Missouri, and North Carolina’s James Worthy, Michael Jordan, and Sam Perkins. Check Coles Catalogue and Woolworths Catalogue. Only one of two players in history to win ACC Player of the Year and Naismith Player of the Year three times. Plus three Rupp Trophies and an unprecedented pair of Wooden Awards.
“Ralph’s willingness to take on any task and any role that would win that night’s game made him a coach’s dream and the ultimate team player.”
~ UVa coach Terry Holland ~
All of that was nice, Ralph will tell you. Wonderful honors. But ask him what he cherishes most about college and it won’t be the litany of awards and trophies he always accepted on behalf of his team then gave to his mother. It won’t have anything to do with his 2,228 points, 1,511 rebounds, or 462 blocked shots. What matters more to Ralph is the satisfaction he felt when he earned his degree. The pride he felt living on the historic Lawn at Mr. Jefferson’s University. And above all: “The camaraderie I felt with my teammates on and off the court and the relationship I had with my coaches. I loved them all.” The love was mutual. “Ralph meant so much to everyone,” reflected Coach David Odom, on Holland’s staff at the time and later head coach at Wake Forest. “He has always been such a gentle, gracious, caring person. After his last college game, despite his great disappointment in not winning a championship, he immediately turned to comfort his teammates. For all of his extraordinary talent, it really was his tender side that made him special.”
No matter how you look at it, Ralph placed commitment, scholarship, and friendship above the personal recognition and instant wealth that comes with being a top draft pick. Talk is cheap, but in the ensuing thirty years, how many college superstars have done the same? Now count how many did it three years in a row.
On June 28, 1983, the Houston Rockets got the big prize – Sampson as the number one NBA draft pick – and for four seasons he managed to live up to the Goliath expectations set for him while turning the franchise around. In his first year, Ralph scored 1,720 points and grabbed 913 rebounds, earning unanimous Rookie of the Year honors. The following season, he was joined by fellow seven-footer Hakeem Olajuwon, forming the legendary frontcourt famed as the “Twin Towers.” In a revolutionary style of play, Ralph was moved to power forward, and once again displayed his versatility and willingness to do anything he was asked to help his team win.
Averaging 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, Ralph led the Rockets to the playoffs and was named the MVP of the All-Star Game during an era when the game was truly competitive, outshining Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Moses Malone. Afterwards Magic remarked, “All you’ve got to do is throw the ball high and anywhere near him, and he’ll get it. A player that big and that graceful, who runs like he does, is really something. I wish he were on my team every game. We might never lose.”
Ralph Sampson helped UVa post a 112-23 record during his playing days.
In Ralph’s third season the Rockets won the Midwest Division, and after sweeping the Kings and beating Denver in six games, they met Pat Riley’s defending champion Lakers in the Western Conference finals. In game six of the series, with the score tied at 112 and one second left on the clock, Ralph hit a buzzer-beating, off-balance, turnaround jumper over his boyhood hero Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, a finish that remains one of the most dramatic in NBA play-off history. The Rockets went on to lose the championship to the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics, but not without a gallant fight spearheaded by Sampson. Despite a severely injured back, he averaged 14.8 points and 9.5 rebounds over the series. By the close of his final season with the Rockets, Ralph had established himself as a four-time All-Star and an NBA great by any measure.
Then came the knee injuries – one after the other after the other. In the next six years, Ralph endured three major surgeries and as many trades – to Golden State, then Sacramento, then Washington. With each setback, he put aside his ego and worked harder. Yet sometimes it seemed the more he tried, the more he was misunderstood, his humility confused with indifference. Some said he didn’t have enough muscle. Others said he was too soft. Too versatile. Too good for his size. In the words of former Rocket Kenny Smith, “When it comes to Sampson, everybody seems to want to go for the easy negative instead of looking for the truth.”
But Ralph never fought back with words, never bothered to explain that his troubles had nothing to do with talent or heart – only bad knees and fickle fate. He told himself he had nothing to prove to anyone but himself, and just kept doing his best, until the end finally came. Then he quietly hung up his sneakers and looked ahead to the next chapter of his life.
Since retiring, Ralph’s first focus has been fatherhood, and you can’t find a line-up of more successful, wholesome children anywhere. His daughter Rachel graduated with honors from Stanford and now works at ESPN. Ralph Sampson III, a Minnesota grad with his dad’s disposition, will be entering the NBA this season. Robert, who looks eerily like his father, is a tenacious forward at East Carolina. And so on down the line to his youngest two, Anna and India, sweet girls who adore their dad. They will all tell you that their father has taught them the value of determination, integrity, and hard work.
After his own family, Ralph’s passion is working with kids nationwide. He has run numerous camps, done motivational speaking, and is the founder and chairman of the Winner’s Circle, a foundation that works to ensure quality education for children. As always with Ralph, he walks the walk. When he was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame last year, he asked to run a clinic for Kansas City youth, something that had never been done before, and spent hours talking to kids and giving them inspiration to follow their dreams and always do their best. In his acceptance speech later that weekend, he continued to deflect attention, as he always has, expressing gratitude to his family, his teammates and coaches, the University of Virginia, and the game he loves.
There is no set route to enshrinement in the Naismith Hall of Fame. Some players are immortalized by their contribution to one franchise, others by a count of their championships, still others by their signature moves or personal records. Ralph will be remembered for his imposing height, his versatility, and his dominance in all aspects of the game of basketball. He will be remembered for his exquisite moves, majestic presence, and soft shooting touch. He will be remembered as the most graceful center of any generation, the rare big man who could do it all. And to those who know him well, Ralph Sampson will be remembered as the player and person who has always, always done the best he could, where he was, with everything he had.