IF IT IS TRUE, as Ralph Sampson says, that "you can't hide seven feet tall," then it is easy to understand why a three-time college basketball player of the year, four-time NBA All-Star and someone who is actually 7'4" has never disappeared despite playing his last professional game more than 20 years ago.
Sampson is no longer the center of attention the way he was as one of the most heavily recruited high school players ever, or during his career at Virginia and with the Houston Rockets, but at 55 he remains a towering public figure. He has a small business development and marketing company called Winner's Circle that specializes in telecommunications, and he splits his time between Atlanta and his native Harrisonburg, Va., where he helps care for his parents, especially his father, Ralph Sr., who overcame a battle with lung cancer and is currently undergoing radiation for prostate cancer. (Ralph is working to establish a Ralph L. Sampson Sr. Cancer Fund at his alma mater and in his hometown.)
During his frequent visits to Charlottesville, Sampson prefers to watch the Cavaliers "peacefully," but it's hard for fans to ignore someone who took the program to heights it has rarely reached since. During his four seasons, 1979--80 through '82--83, Virginia won 83% of its games, the 1980 NIT championship and three ACC regular-season titles, and reached the 1981 Final Four. But it is one of Sampson's 23 losses that people remember most.
On Dec. 23, 1982, the top-ranked Cavaliers lost in Honolulu to Chaminade, an NAIA school, 77--72. It is one of the more improbable upsets in sports history, and it helped give rise both to the Maui Invitational, which debuted in 1984 and will conclude its 32nd edition on Nov. 25, and to an unlikely friendship. Sampson and Merv Lopes, the coach of the Silverswords' team that felled the giants, have remained in touch. Earlier this month Lopes called Sampson from an office in Los Angeles, where the ex--Chaminade coach is trying to drum up support for a movie about the game.
"It would be fun to be a part of something like that," says Sampson, "if you tell the right story, and not just the game itself." Sampson's own story is proof that the best tales are never just about the game.
"I feel that crisp breeze in the air, and my body starts to jump a little knowing basketball season is right around the corner."
ROCKY WIDNER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (HEAD SHOT)
NOREN TROTMAN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (ACTION)