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In his placid life as a Virginia gentleman and his stormy life in the NBA, Ralph Sampson is searching for a new way to play the game

Thomas Jefferson designed the grounds of the University of Virginia so that form and function would know exactly what to make of each other. The campus centerpiece is The Lawn, a grassy expanse surrounded by a perfectly matched set of residences, classrooms and outbuildings that the American Institute of Architects declared during the Bicentennial to be the nation's finest architectural achievement. But if you walk away from the Rotunda at the head of The Lawn, and continue on down the grassy terraces toward Cabell Hall, you soon come upon a place so exceptionally serene that it seems to disrupt Mr. Jefferson's well-laid symmetry.

It's this spot that Ralph Sampson, 26, came to favor during his four years at Virginia. "I had most of my classes down in Cabell," he says. "When you walked there, you could feel the closeness of the campus. Sometimes people you knew would get together and lean against the statues. You'd be talking and enjoying The Lawn, and respecting it, too."

At first blush, Sampson's favorite swatch of green has the look of a Founding Fathers' center circle, with two of the Fathers poised for the tip-off. To one side stands the statue of a young George Washington propped against his sword, eyes fixed straight ahead. Across the way, in his own cul-de-sac of boxwoods and hedges, is Jefferson.

Old Tom, however, isn't staring George down. He's slumped in a chair, a man in his 70s looking spent but content. And on the pedestal there are these words: "I am closing the last scene of my life by fashioning and fostering an establishment for the instruction of those who come after us. I hope that its influence on their virtue, freedom, fame and happiness will be salutary and permanent."


First off, we should establish that the Jerry Sichting Incident was a trifle, a mere bagatelle in the annals of Ralph Sampson outbursts. Why, before it—before the 7'4" Sampson swung at Sichting, a Boston Celtics guard 15 inches shorter than he, to earn ejection from the penultimate game of the NBA finals last spring—Sampson had punched the Nuggets' Bill Hanzlik and then flipped the bird to the Denver crowd with both hands; and slammed the ball to the floor and kicked a chair during an ACC game at Maryland; and said of a Georgia Tech player named Lee Goza, "If I had a gun, I would have shot him."

Sampson had no business wheeling and clocking Sichting and certainly, as the Houston Rockets' captain, had even less business getting himself tossed from a game the Rockets could ill afford to lose. And if his nationally televised eruption wasn't ignominy enough, Sampson dishonored his major subject at Virginia, rhetoric, by uttering what is always frankly referred to as a "barnyard epithet" into a CBS microphone when asked about the Sichting thing. That only cinched in the public mind the burgeoning perception of Sampson as a profane, surly and hypersensitive loser.

It's all very tidy and trendy, this reading of Ralph Sampson. There's only one problem: Those who know him best are given to passionate dissent from it. While no one excuses the slugging of Sichting, there are those who resist the simplistic casting of Sampson as a villain. "People say Ralph's not a winner," says Roger Bergey, the plainspoken Virginian who coached him at Harrisonburg High. "Well, we won two state championships with him. UVa won 112 games in four years. Houston went from 14 wins to the finals in three years. Is that not a winner?

"And he got his degree. Who nowadays is doing even that much?"

The degree is indeed a worthwhile starting point, for choosing to pursue it took perspective and patience, and actually getting it developed perseverance and more patience. Despite Sampson's natural ability, he has a natural disability, too—a learning disorder that makes reading difficult. But with hard work in high school he earned a grade point average that made him eligible to play ball as a freshman at Virginia.

Similarly after being pushed around in high school by Mike Madden, a 6'4", 240-pound kid from archrival Lee High down the Shenandoah Valley in Staunton, Sampson worked to make himself strong almost beyond utility. By his senior year at Virginia he could curl a 90-pound dumbbell, something no one on the Wahoo football team could do.

No, rather than not caring, Sampson cares to a fault. His degree and his strength are both measures of how hard he'll work when he wants to do well. Between the desire to achieve and actual achievement, however, there are many barriers, and he has repeatedly run up against two.

One might be called Lashing Out. Sampson wanted to shoot Lee Goza because Goza spat at him. He went on his chair-kicking rampage at Maryland because a Terrapin tough named Mark Fothergill had gouged him with elbows. He treated the Denver fans to double-barrel middle digits because Denver's Hanzlik had been all over Sampson and suckered him into losing his cool.

The same pattern held with Sichting, who had been scratching and clawing on defense and had said something that set Sampson off. NBA centers of enormous size and gifts are supposed to put up with more than other players do, and dish out less, as part of the rite of passage that will make them great. Yet Sampson seems loath to enter into this contract. As Terry Holland, Sampson's coach at Virginia, says, "I don't condone what he did, but to him, you can't just sit and take it. You have to punch back. Ralph thinks playing physical isn't playing by the rules. But he has to accept that niche in the rules where you can play physical, just like Kareem has."

The other barrier between Sampson's wanting to achieve and actually achieving might be called Clutching Up. As a freshman at Virginia, he was so juiced to do well that he would hyperventilate before games. "Ralph's problem isn't a lack of effort," says one Sampson observer. "He really wants to be great. But isn't wanting something too much the classic definition of choking?"

Indeed, Sampson's career is peppered with instances of his production not matching the moment: the 3-for-10, 4-turnover, 4-goaltend performance in the '81 national semifinals loss to North Carolina; the senior-year debacle against tiny Chaminade in Hawaii, when a 6'8" kid (from Lee High, no less) outscored him; and Game 1 this year against the Celtics, when he scored two points.

Two points. Count 'em: two. The Boston Globe called it the day "Ralph Sampson earned the rights to endorse Milk-Bone dog biscuits."

Because it got him bounced from such a crucial game, the Sichting thing sticks in the mind as a convergence of Sampson's worst instincts—of Lashing Out and Clutching Up—and demands an explanation, if not a pardon. "We needed to win very badly, and I didn't want Boston to win a championship on our home court," he says. "Never having been at that level of basketball before, it was all very emotional. I've learned from that. I'm a player who should be in the game. I'm the captain. I regret getting thrown out, throwing the punch. I overreacted. Next time it'll be different. Next time I'll try to take somebody out by playing harder. It was something done in the heat of the moment."

The Rockets won Game 5 because of, or in spite of, 1'Affaire Sichting. Faced with a Game 6 back in Boston Garden, Sampson insisted that he wouldn't be bothered by the hostile crowd. "The phone," he said, "will be off the hook." But as Game 6 wore on and the Celtics began to cook and the Garden crowd brandished SAMPSON is A SISSY signs, the calls from Boston fans were clearly getting through. He finished with eight insignificant points in the Celtics' 114-97 rout. "If he'd have accomplished what his heart was feeling in the locker room," says Rockets coach Bill Fitch, "he'd have beaten Boston all by himself. But he needs a consistency of temperament. The more control you have of your talent [and Fitch's premise is that Sampson has much yet to master], the sooner the tightness and anxiety disappear. Then you can do your job in a rocking chair."

Given his son's good fortune, Ralph Sampson Sr., 50, could retire to his own rocking chair, but he continues to work at a Harrisonburg window-frame factory. The leap he took over two rows of seats to come to his son's defense when Ralph Jr. was knocked down during another Virginia-Maryland game belies the fact that Sampson père is a deacon of the First Baptist Church. His wife, Sarah, is an even-tempered and country-friendly woman, born on Mr. Jefferson's birthday, April 13, and raised as 1 of 12 kids on a farm outside Harrisonburg. She wouldn't let young Ralph take his shirt off in public as a child, because he was so skinny she feared people would fault her for not feeding him. Sarah Sampson talks much more than her husband.

For the most part, Ralph's temperament matches his mother's. But his occasional flare-ups seem to be the result of "gunnysacking," the process of accumulating frustrations until they must be given a full-bore venting a la Papa. "Once he builds up, he's like his dad," Sarah Sampson says. "There were two or three times Ralph made me want to forget."

Yet Ralph's paternal grandmother was a stickler for decorum and politesse, and the Sampson family values are the kind you'll find all over Virginia, where civilization has been applied in almost suffocating layers. Even the Harry Byrd machine, which dominated the commonwealth's politics for much of this century, passed stern antilynching laws while resisting desegregation and conducted its affairs without a hint of scandal. Sampson not only grew up in this world but spent four years at its finishing school.

And so it's disorienting to see him act barbarously. It may be a stretch to say Sampson is expected to be a Virginia gentleman, but he does hold himself to a high standard. There was the episode from his sophomore year at Virginia, when he missed an exam before the Cavaliers were to travel to Philadelphia for the Final Four. The professor called him in and chewed him out for the oversight, then demanded several days later that he come in immediately to pick up the test papers—behavior that Ralph, rightly or wrongly, considered rude and uncivil. A passing grade clearly hung in the balance, yet Sampson refused to go in and make up the test. Sizing up his grade point average and figuring he could afford the F, he told his academic adviser he would rather flunk the course than once again face someone who had so violated his sense of decorum. "She's forgotten to be a lady," he said of the professor, "and I'm afraid if I go back to her office, I'll forget to be a gentleman."

Inexcusable as his lashing out may be, that tale shows how Sampson's streak of vigilant moralism can be the source of something better than fisticuffs. Given time to think things over, he steered clear of a situation he knew would bring out the worst in him. In the crucible of competition, however, when a Goza or a Fothergill or a Hanzlik or a Sichting does not behave like a gentleman and Sampson has no time to weigh his options, he has so far proved unable to control his impulses. His desire to do well overpowers his civilized pedigree.

Sampson makes all his own decisions, hurried or considered. For four straight years, beginning after his senior season in high school, he alone decided to pass up offers from NBA clubs, including a solid bid from the Celtics and a possible spot with the Los Angeles Lakers. When he turned down the Celtics after his freshman season, he did so only after the most careful consideration. He prepared a talking paper for a speech class, listing the pros and cons of each option. He studied Bill Russell's Second Wind, paying particular attention to the great center's impressions of race relations in Boston. And he solicited all relevant information from coaches and advisers, and family in Harrisonburg and Boston.

Sampson's ultimate reasons for remaining at Virginia—he liked campus life and being close to home and the opportunities to earn the degree and win a national championship—were all laudable. Yet when he announced he would stay, Celtics president Red Auerbach exploded: "It defies common sense. It's ridiculous. If he were an intellectual genius and was planning on being a surgeon...then I'd buy it.... [But Sampson and his parents] are being hoodwinked by a few glad-handers."

There was no hoodwinking. There were no glad-handers. Sampson is asked now whether he resented Auerbach's remarks. "No. The Celtics mean a lot to him. He was just saying what he felt."

In the heat of the moment?

"In the heat of the moment."


Mr. Jefferson so believed in the importance of independent thinking that he had the Rotunda serve as his university's library rather than its chapel. The spirit of that decision abides at Virginia today and is one reason the school excels in fields other than grain-alcohol partying. Yet college athletes are rarely encouraged to think for themselves, and on most campuses a class of the sort Ralph Sampson took as a sophomore would be considered subversive.

The Psychology of the Gifted Athlete, a seminar taught by a sports psychology professor named Robert Rotella, brought together six of Virginia's finest athletes—two female cross-country runners, a female heptathlete, two football players and Sampson. Rotella led the class through weekly discussions of the stresses and joys of having special gifts, and their ramifications in other spheres of life. "Anytime people start putting the label of potential on you, those same people will turn around and tell you you haven't reached it," Rotella says. "So you have to determine your own expectations and decide for yourself whether you're successful or not. I don't know how many times we said it in that class: Potential is something that hasn't happened yet.

"The thing we value so much in our culture is freedom. Yet if you're talented enough, you're deprived of it."

To help his students escape the tyranny of a society that sets goals for them, Rotella encouraged them to set goals for themselves. "I'd never done that in high school," Sampson recalls. "I just tried to be the best person and best basketball player I could be. I didn't want to set a goal and reach it and then be satisfied and stop."

Yet Rotella kept prodding. So Sampson went ahead and set the most ambitious goal he could imagine, in effect daring Rotella to pronounce it unreachable. And Rotella, sizing up his student's gifts and work habits, couldn't bring himself to do that.

Sampson still has that goal: To reinvent basketball's big man as a fluid prototype, someone who integrates skills from the other spots on the floor. In Yeagerian terms, Sampson wants to push the envelope. "I've been playing center most of my life," he says. "To this day I'm most productive at center. But why waste dribbling, running and passing? If I can play guard, it'll add dimensions to my game, to the Rockets and to basketball."

Guard is the freest position on the floor, and so much of Sampson is revealed in the style of play to which he aspires. On the court he has chosen not to be typecast as a skyhooking center, just as, off it, he chose the normalcy of graduating from college in four years. Both decisions amount to breaking the shackles of what is expected of someone possessing his talents.

As a senior Sampson lived in one of the 54 rooms on The Lawn, a privilege accorded only to Virginia's most exceptional leaders and seldom to its athletes. In his application for the room, Sampson wrote: "Although I know that much of my future will be centered around basketball and athletics, I've come to realize there is much more to life." That Sampson had to move off The Lawn in the midst of his senior year because of the attention he drew suggests he wasn't able to act on that realization. And when asked if there's one thing he would like people to know about him, he still says, "I'm just fortunate to have the height that I have, and that someone invented the game of basketball. But I want to be respected, just like everyone else, as a human being."

That sentiment may speak once again of the Virginia gentleman within. Consider his difficulties with Fitch. Last fall the Houston coach ripped his captain to reporters after an exhibition game, charging that Sampson wasn't in shape. Sampson overheard Fitch, and was furious that the coach wasn't making allowances for a pulled thigh muscle. Sampson took his anger to the papers himself, saying Fitch could trade him if he was dissatisfied with his play. The two are civil to each other now, but Sampson felt affronted and doesn't conceal his coolness toward Fitch.

Yet for the moment the two do agree on the wisdom of Sampson's fluid big man "experiment," even as others ask why Sampson flounders around out on the floor, launching dainty jump shots and trying to dribble behind his back. Why would anyone with a body so singularly lean and strong not keep it near the basket, where it would be of real use? "Maybe this 'experiment' is Ralph's way of justifying 'playing soft,' " says Roland Lazenby, author of Sampson: A Life Above the Rim, an account of Sampson's years in Virginia. "But it does show the intellectual in Ralph. He's striving for a synthesis. He really doesn't have his identity because he's experimenting. Ralph's not the kind of person to pull out a soapbox and get up on it and sing, 'I did it my way...,' but he is doing it his way. The question is, will the niche that he someday finds suit the fans? He says he doesn't care, but underneath, any performer does."

The greatest immediate problem with Sampson's commitment to the experiment is that it's postponing the grimy task of mastering the paint. At Virginia, Holland tried in vain to persuade Sampson to develop a single bread-and-butter move, like Kareem's skyhook, or Kevin McHale's turnaround. Even the Rockets' Akeem Olajuwon, Sampson's frontcourt helpmate with the Rockets, has developed an unstoppable trunk-spin boogaloo thing he does in the lane. But Sampson says, "I don't want just one move. I want to be master of all of them. I want to have two or three moves, where they know it's coming but don't know how or from what direction."

Fitch calls such a move a "basic," and he, too, has tried to get Sampson to perfect one. "All great players have a basic, something that's 9 out of 10, like a free throw," Fitch says. "But it's more important that people talk about what a great player he is five years from now than what a great player he is right now. Ralph is just getting to the point where a couple of things are almost automatic, and I think this is the year you'll see one or two moves actually reach that point."

So much of what Sampson will ultimately do, though, depends on what he'll be asked to do. For the moment, the emergence of the 6'11" Olajuwon allows Fitch to indulge Ralph's experiment. Just as Houston is the only major American city with no zoning laws, the Rockets chose to erect skyscrapers almost indiscriminately along their front line, and Sampson was bumped out to power forward after his rookie season to accommodate Olajuwon's arrival. At Virginia, home to all that architectural correctness, the Cavaliers faced nothing but strict zone defenses, which, Holland says, "really didn't give Ralph any room to develop that one move." In college Sampson was a victim of zones; in the pros he is, in effect, a victim of zoning. "It may mean he won't be the most dominant big man ever to play the game," Holland says, "even if it may serve Houston extremely well."

Holland also says, "Basketball will never destroy him, because it doesn't consume him." Yet there is no one to whom that fact might be more troublesome than Fitch, one of the NBA's most demanding coaches. Fitch admits to no complaints about a lack of desire in Sampson. The coach says that the night after their spat last fall, "Ralph nearly hurt himself, he played so hard." But Fitch was angry that Sampson had spent much of the preceding summer in Europe when he could have set a captain's example by whipping himself into shape. Sampson doesn't deny Fitch's point; he just stands on the principle that the summer is his time. Says Lazenby, "Is Ralph the kind of person who'll say, 'I'll put up with this s.o.b. because he's good for me'?"

He probably is. Sampson knows very well that one important goal, a goal he needed no professor's prodding to set, has gone unfulfilled—a championship. Sampson is the rare center of promise to enter the NBA without an NCAA title in tow. Russell won one. So did Kareem, and Bill Walton and Patrick Ewing. Even Wilt came within a triple overtime loss of one. "To some degree he finds simply going into the low post and throwing in a hook shot disinteresting," Rotella says of Sampson. "But I expect him to see that there's a time and a place for developing that one move. That comes out of wanting to win championships. And that's why he'll develop it."


On a lazy day in August, Ralph Sampson has picked up a friend named Wallace Banks, who's no taller than Jerry Sichting, and tooled into downtown Harrisonburg for lunch. They walk into Jess' Quick Lunch, a place on the courthouse square. Nobody asks for an autograph.

Jess used to run a slim, belly-up lunch counter, but now there's an annex with big TV consoles at either end; each is tuned to a different network's soap opera. "You really only have to watch the soaps on Mondays and Fridays," Sampson says. "That's the only time anything happens. Mondays they have to hook you for the week, and Fridays they need to carry you over the weekend. Wednesdays you might want to tune in. Something may happen Wednesdays."

Today is a Wednesday, so Sampson has one eye on a TV set as he answers a question about the shot he made against L.A. in the playoffs, the at-the-buzzer Buddhist prayer wheel that eliminated the Lakers and put the Rockets in the finals, where Sampson had brashly predicted during the preseason they would end up. Where does that shot rank?

"It ranks," he says. Something—either the distraction of the soap or regret that he never really had a chance to savor that shot—has turned his responses laconic. "Very high. Maybe second."


"The degree."

Of course, the Rockets went from beating L.A. to losing to Boston, and so do Sampson's thoughts. "Everybody goes by what you did last," he says, turning from the TV screen. "No one goes by the whole run of your career."

"It's like listening to the radio and then cutting it off," says Wallace. "That last song keeps going 'round in your head. Everybody talks about the fight, and the two points [in Game 1]. No one talks about what it took to get there."

The media do most of that talking and have since Sampson was a high schooler and his mother began storing his press notices in a laundry basket. Sampson has never cottoned to the press and its intrusive ways. He realizes, however, that it was the media that made him a celebrity, that it was not something he sought.

He has nonetheless begun to do more than merely acquiesce in his own fame, particularly as he begins to see its potential. He comes from a part of Virginia where there was little slaveholding and where, as a result, relatively few blacks today reside. But as a second-semester senior he did use his influence on behalf of the university's Black Student Alliance in its dispute with the administration over the recruitment of minority students and the promotion of faculty members. Many in the athletic department found Sampson's involvement unsettling; others suggested he had been exploited. But as usual, it was a considered decision. "I said, 'Look, I'm a focal point at this school. Give me your gripes and we'll go from there,' " says Sampson. "Me and two or three others, we went in with the dean. A lot hasn't gotten done, but it was a start. I wish I'd gotten into it earlier."

Over the summer he has become involved in several other projects. In Harrisonburg, where he spends off-seasons at his parents' home, he is setting up a community tutoring program through the churches to supplement the guidance available at the local high school. In addition, he has delivered numerous drug education speeches around the country.

Sampson is an incorrigible straight arrow, although in college and afterward he has been exposed to drugs and seen what they're capable of. Long before he ended up as Sampson's teammate on the Rockets, John Lucas visited Harrisonburg on behalf of the University of Maryland, trying to woo Sampson to College Park. The
Sampsons still laugh at how Lucas, all natty in a suit, slipped in some manure on his way to watch Ralph play. Two seasons ago, when Lucas returned from his second tour of cocaine rehabilitation, Sampson adopted Lucas as his charge. "Luke would okay things with Ralph before going out after games," says the Rockets' forward Jim Peterson. "Luke would propose something and Ralph might say, I don't know, you'd better check in with me.' "

It seemed incongruous, the glib veteran reporting to the taciturn greenhorn. When Lucas went AWOL in the midst of last season with another cocaine relapse, "It really tore Ralph up," says Teresa Rennoe, a friend of Sampson's from college. "It wasn't just the human suffering that John went through, but that it happened in spite of all Ralph had done. For a long time after it happened, Ralph couldn't talk about it."

Now, when he appears before youth groups, Sampson never fails to mention how Lucas had the world in his pocket and still messed up. Luke is the perfect example, the fallen star that kids can recognize and relate to.

Cousin Raymond is different. Raymond Williams is Sarah Sampson's sister's son, eight years Ralph's senior. He had lived with the Sampsons for several years as a child, even sharing a bed with Ralph. At 6'4", he was the ballplayer who taught Ralph the rudiments of the game, and Ralph honored him by wearing his number at Harrisonburg High. But Raymond moved north, to Boston, where he fooled around with drugs and got into trouble and was put in jail. Sampson believes that with a few breaks, Raymond could have played in the NBA. "When I was 11 or 12, I remember going up and visiting him in prison—and the effect it had on me," Sampson says. "He was released right before we won the state [high school] championship one year. Running downcourt right after tip-off, I could hear Raymond yell from the stands, 'I made it! I'm here!' "

Because of Luke and Raymond and his own desire to be normal and not (in more than one sense) high, the fight against drug abuse seems to be Sampson's natural calling. In July, up at a basketball camp near D.C., Sampson delivered his Get High on Sports rap and asked, as he always does, for a show of hands: Who has used alcohol? Pot? Cocaine? And one kid who had confessed to doing coke insisted that he would use it again. So Sampson put him in the lane, in a defensive stance, and had him slide from side to side; and he asked the kid, as he slid, whether he was sure he would use coke again. The kid said yes, he was sure. So Sampson kept at it, and after about 20 minutes of sliding, the youngster, exhausted, finally cried uncle.

Sampson has an abuse problem, too, and almost every day this past summer his mom and his sisters, Valerie, 23, and Joyce, 21, sent him shuffling defensively across the lane of his own little purgatory. "No technicals this year," Sarah Sampson says. "We're working on it. Think of the money he'll save!"


On March 24, in the city that he shunned as a college freshman, that had corrupted his cousin Raymond, that would be the site of the ignominious end to his '85-86 season, Ralph Sampson took a bad fall. It came in the second quarter of a game at the Boston Garden as he was gathering in an offensive rebound. He landed hard on his heels, then toppled backward until his upper body and head struck the floor violently. He remained supine for nearly seven minutes, with a bruised back, partial paralysis and "pain in places I didn't know I had."

Sampson repaired to Charlottesville for three days to recuperate. When he rejoined the Rockets, what some people had always called his surly edge had been dulled and burnished.

"In college people asked, 'What if you get hurt?' " he says. "It never bothered me at that time. But then it did happen. That fall woke me up to the importance of living right every day so there'd be nothing you'd regret. To treat people like they treat me or even better. To give back to Harrisonburg what it's given me, or even more. Things that go around, come around. Hopefully, I'm just beginning to get to the point where I find out why I'm out there."

Sampson phrases that last sentence with a wonderful felicity. Its meaning is ambiguous, as though the sentiment could apply just as much to his professional as his personal life. "Some people in Houston expect that he'll take the first big contract that comes along [after the coming season, his last in a four-year pact]," says Fitch. "But he's patient. He's the guy who started at Virginia and ended at Virginia. I'll bet my life that he won't be happy until he brings a championship to Houston."

Rotella wishes that, whatever they are, Sampson's current goals be kept secret. Otherwise Sampson might be publicly held accountable for them, when he should only have the burden of a private accounting. Alas, Sampson is so confident that he'll succeed in his basketball experiment that he speaks openly of it. But as the teacher who introduced him to the notion that potential is something that hasn't yet happened, Rotella is entitled to share a final, heretical thought on the subject. It is this: "Probably the most enjoyable way to go through life is to never reach your potential."

Imagine it: the possibility of Ralph Sampson playing out the rest of his career, getting his 20 points and 15 rebounds each night, making the playoffs and the All-Star Game each year, but also selling thousands and thousands of cartons of Milk-Bone dog biscuits. And being perfectly content. Arf, arf.

At the very least, figure on a house in the Shenandoahs for Sampson, equidistant from Charlottesville and Harrisonburg, "so it's not more than a 20-minute drive to either one." A few restored cars in the driveway. A robust stereo system pumping out slickly arranged rhythm and blues with lots of tenor sax. And if his routine is anything like it's been this past summer, he'll be up early each morning to run—though he would never admit it, Sampson wants to prove something to Fitch this fall—and then come back to the kitchen to cook piles of French toast for his sisters.

But that's as much speculation about what might constitute Ralph Sampson's future happiness as we're entitled to. The final reckoning is for the son of the woman who was born on Thomas Jefferson's birthday to do, in his dotage, during some walk down The Lawn.

The fruits of the experiment and the bread-and-butter "basic" and the championship and the respect of the public, all have potential, real potential. They are all things that haven't happened yet. But the degree has happened, and it will allow him to close the last scene of his life with a peace that should be both salutary and permanent.







Although he's slammed by his critics for not being a winner, Sampson led Harrisonburg High (below) to two state titles, Virginia (center) to 112 wins and the Rockets to the NBA finals.



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Sampson was bloodied by an elbow in Game 2 of the finals in Boston; in the playoffs against L.A. he merely boiled.



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Rotella helped Sampson set his goal of reinventing the role of the big man.



Holland urged Ralph to work on one basic move, but Sampson wanted to master them all.



Fitch doesn't always see eye to eye with Sampson but believes he'll one day be great.



Ralph cuts a dashing figure on his regular morning run at home with his buddy Wallace Banks.



Team Sampson includes sisters Valerie (left) and Joyce on the flanks, parents Sarah and Ralph Sr. in between.



Uncles James (left) and Wilson Blakey work the land where Ralph wants to settle.