Former Virginia star Ralph Sampson deserves induction into hall of fame

Ralph Sampson is among two men voted consensus national college basketball player of the year three times. The other is Bill Walton.

Sampson is among two named the ACC's top player three times. The other is David Thompson.

Walton and Thompson were long ago enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.


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Now is Sampson's time. He's among 12 finalists for this year's class and deserves to be elected.

No, his teams at the University of Virginia didn't win national championships like Walton's at UCLA and Thompson's at North Carolina State. Nor did the Cavaliers win an ACC tournament.

Moreover, injuries short-circuited Sampson's NBA career. But that shouldn't matter.

Every time Sampson stepped on a court, from Harrisonburg High during the late 1970s to the Houston Rockets in the mid-'80s, he changed the game. He was, at 7-foot-4, unimaginably tall for the times, but inside that frame resided a guard's skill-set.

Sampson could pass, handle and shoot with range. He was quick and agile. In short, he would have been a star at 6-4, too.

"The only thing that kept Ralph Sampson from being a perennial NBA all-star were injuries," said ESPN analyst and former Duke forward Jay Bilas. "This should be a no-brainer. … It's ridiculous that it's even a discussion point. That should be 'check this box and move on to something that requires rational thought.'

"He changed the whole game, the whole game. It was like playing against your dad in the driveway. You had no shot. I held him to 36 points and thought I did a pretty good job."

Bilas was a freshman in 1982-83, Sampson a senior. And indeed, in their first meeting, Sampson had 36 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots as top-ranked Virginia rolled 104-91. Bilas had four points, four rebounds and four fouls.

Sampson led the Cavaliers to the 1981 Final Four as a sophomore, and in his final three seasons, they went 37-5 in the thorny ACC. N.C. State was 32-4 in league play during Thompson's final three years, North Carolina 38-4 with Michael Jordan.

In ACC annals, Sampson ranks 14th in career points, fourth in rebounds and second in blocked shots He and former Wake Forest All-American Tim Duncan are the only players in conference history with more than 2,000 points, 1,500 boards and 400 blocked shots.

"My rule would have been, if Ralph doesn't touch the ball on every possession, you guys lose your scholarships," Bilas said.

Sampson's professional career held similar promise. Drafted No. 1 by the Houston Rockets, he was Rookie of the Year in 1984, MVP of the All-Star Game in '85 and playoff stalwart in '86 as Houston reached the NBA Finals.

He averaged 20.9 points and 10.7 rebounds over those three years, before his knees failed. Sampson never played another complete season, and the Washington Bullets waived him in 1991.

"Ralph's NBA achievements in his pre-injury years would probably put him in the top 10 of all-time NBA players," said East Carolina athletic director Terry Holland, Sampson's coach at Virginia. "Very few NBA players have had such high expectations and were able to live up to those expectations so successfully in their first three years. …

"It would be a shame if Ralph's untimely injury keeps him out of the … Hall of Fame in spite of his unprecedented achievements as a high school, college and professional basketball player."

The National Association of Basketball Coaches has established a separate college basketball hall of fame, for which Sampson is a lock. But when the 2011 class for the all-encompassing hall is unveiled April 4 at the Final Four in Houston, Sampson ought to be included.

Bilas recalls seeing Sampson in his latter years, as a Sacramento King. The sight was painful.

"He could not get up and down the court anymore because of his knees," Bilas said. "I remember thinking, 'These people have no idea how good this guy was.'"

David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime, and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

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