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Wahoo Memories: Ralph Sampson

U.Va. fans and alums share stories from Ralph Sampson's playing days.

Thomas Campbell-US PRESSWIRE

On Monday, we asked you to share with us your stories and memories of Ralph Sampson's time at the University. Whether by email or by Facebook, we got some great ones. Most seem to center (pun very much intended) on the fact that he is really really tall.

Below are some of our favorites. They haven't been checked for accuracy or statistically verified, because this is about memory, not history. And the best memories seem to live on that fine line between truth and reality. That's way too deep for a sports blog. Without further ado, your memories.


Art, Class of 1980: I was at Ralph's first game. The opponent, I don't remember who, held the ball off the opening tip for a couple of minutes. On the Hoos first possession, Ralph ran down the floor and gave the point guard (Tommy Hicks, I think) the secret signal for an alley-oop; he pointed at the basket three or four times. Hicks flipped the ball up, Ralph slammed it down, and the crowd went crazy.


Ron, Class of 1980: I was fourth year Ralph's first year at the University. I was acquainted with fourth year player and pre-med student Mike Owens from a chemistry lab course a few years earlier, so I had a good idea of just how tall Mike was, compared with my 6' 0." One day I saw Mike across the parking lot adjacent to New Cabell Hall and noticed the person he was speaking to was even taller than Mike. Then, as I got closer, I realized Mike actually was standing on a step above the other student and still looking up at him. That was Ralph. I know what the stats say about how tall he is but, as far as I'm concerned, "a step+ taller than Mike Owens" was all I needed to know.


Heather, Class of 2001: I graduated from UVA (CLAS/EDUC ‘01), but I also grew up in Charlottesville. When I was 4 years old, Mom was pushing me in a grocery cart at Kroger. I spotted Ralph Sampson, and apparently yelled extremely loudly, "Hey Mom, it's Ralph, it's Ralph!" causing other people to stare and embarrassing my mother. He either didn't hear me or ignored us. Do you remember the TV show "Greatest American Hero"? I wasn't excited to see Ralph because of his basketball skills, I tended to confuse him with the Ralph on the show and thought he had super powers.

Later in the shopping trip my mother was reaching to get something from the top shelf, and was startled by Ralph's face looking back at her... from the next aisle over. The man was so tall he could easily see over the gr​ocery shelves.

I was talking to Mom about this story to make sure I got it right, and she reminded me that she and Dad were at his last home game, and somewhere she still has one of the "Ralph's last home game" buttons.


Ron, Class of 1982: I remember one weekend early in Ralph's first year, my future wife had come to Charlottesville to visit, we were driving down Alderman Road and Ralph was standing at the bus stop in front of O-Hill with a large crowd of others. He was towering over the entire crowd and really stood out, my girlfriend asked innocently, "Was that Ralph Sampson?" I laughed and replied, "Probably, we've only got so many 7'4" guys around here." We had to turn around and drive by one more time for another view. I'll never forget it.


Jeff, Class of 1984: We had a huge come-back win at Chapel Hill from about 17 points down deep in the second half. (Al Wood would get revenge in Philly later that season unfortunately.) Thousands of students make a trip out to the airport to greet the team—rode in the trunk of a car out there. Everyone was partying on the tarmac (security was a little different back then) waiting for the plane to arrive around 2:00 AM. Ralph was the first one off and the place goes crazy. He asks for some room so the team could get off the plane and crowd parted like the Red Sea.

[Ed. note: Jeff sent a ton of great snippets, including this one—Chanting "Give it to Buck" after Ralph blocked about a half dozen or more of Buck Williams' shots vs. Maryland.]


Tammy, from Midlothian: Ralph was two years behind me and my only real recollection of him around Grounds (and off the court) was seeing him stand on the bottom step of the buses so he wouldn't hit his head. Many years later, though, he was incredibly kind to me and my son in an incident I'll never forget. I enrolled my son in Ralph's day-long basketball camp here in Chesterfield County when he was about 10 or so. Connor had heard me tell stories of seeing Ralph around Grounds, the NIT win, etc. At the end of the day, Connor said to Ralph "My mom says she remembers seeing you around Grounds and watching you play ball. Do you remember my mom?" Of course, I'd never met Ralph, but he responded to my son "Of course I remember your mom. She was a really nice lady." OK, it was a flat-out lie, but a kind and generous thing to say to the kid and still makes me tear up. It just showed a real decency of character and a sense for what was the right white lie to tell a kid. So thanks, Ralph. Connor and I still remember that. And he still has the t-shirt from camp that you signed for him.


David, Class of 1990: I was fortunate enough to be a ball boy during Ralph's 3rd and 4th years at Virginia. At the time, I didn't realize how special Ralph was or how special it was for Virginia to be ranked atop the nation for so many weeks during Ralph's career.

His shot blocking was incredible. Not too many players even challenged him. Ralph didn't just block shots, he spiked them. It was not uncommon for them to land 10 rows up in U-Hall. Basketball purists suggested that he should have caught them or tipped them to himself like Bill Walton. I thought that was ridiculous. Because of the way Ralph blocked shots, he intimidated everyone he faced. I saw players shoot over the backboard trying to keep their shot out of Ralph's reach.

Even though UNC had James Worthy, Sam Perkins and Michael Jordan, they didn't compare to Ralph in college. Those were some of the glory days of the ACC with great players all over and many future pros. But at the time, they were mere afterthoughts to Ralph Sampson. The ACC new it too and I don't think the powers that be in Greensboro, Chapel Hill nor Durham liked it either. It seemed awfully convenient to experiment with the shortest 3 point line in the nation (17'9") during Ralph's junior year.

Ralph's final home game (and the final time I would be so fortunate to serve as ball boy) was very memorable to all Virginia basketball fans. The final seconds were ticking down and I think Maryland was up 2. There was so much tension and suspense because Maryland had played a great game and were poised to send Virginia and Ralph home with a loss on Senior Day. Ralph was fouled and had 2 free throws with a few seconds left. I was worried because while Ralph wasn't a bad free throw shooter, he wasn't the best free throw shooter either. He made the first one. A lot of pressure to make the second and put the game into overtime. Ralph missed but in the blink of an eye, he grabbed the rebound that was tipped out, spun and made the winning jump shot. U-Hall erupted and it was a fitting end to Ralph's time there.


Thanks to everyone who contributed. If one of these stories jogs your memory, or if you remember things just a little differently, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.