What if Ralph Sampson had followed with his first impression during recruiting?

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: twitter.com

When Ralph Sampson was trying to decide where to play college basketball in 1979, he narrowed his long list of suitors down to six, then a final four: Virginia, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Kentucky.

While Sampson eventually chose Virginia, where he went on to become only the second player in college basketball history to become a three-time national player of the year, the Cavaliers could have just as easily lost the prized recruit to one of the other pursuers.

During a virtual Town Hall with the Town of Bridgewater this week, Sampson shared several stories, including memories of his visits to those last four schools on his list. Thanks to Mark Griffin, senior associate director of admissions at Bridgewater College, for allowing us to participate in the Zoom session.

Terry Holland and his staff had to be sweating bullets after Sampson visited Kentucky, where Joe B. Hall was head coach. The Wildcats made a huge impression on the Harrisonburg High School phenom.

“Kentucky was my best visit,” Ralph said on the virtual session. “Leonard Hamilton (now the head coach at Florida State) was an assistant coach at Kentucky then, and we developed a good relationship.”

Sampson said that Kentucky had him picked up by an FBI agent for his trip to Lexington, Ky. He was also impressed by the state-of-the-art dorm rooms for Kentucky players at the time.

“They had Sam Bowie and a lot of good players,” Sampson said. “There would have been seven All-Americans on that team if I had gone there.”

He enjoyed his visit there so much that he told his mother that he was going to commit to Kentucky. His parents convinced him to wait and see what the other schools were like.

Ralph went on to rank his other visits, and the results may surprise you. Sampson said his second-best visit was Virginia Tech, his third was North Carolina, and his fourth was Virginia.

Sampson didn’t elaborate much on his visit to Tech, coached by Charlie Moir.

However, Ralph explained that while he was on his visit to UNC, Al Wood was taking him on a tour of the Chapel Hill campus.

“Al said he had to go do something and told me to meet him back at Carmichael Auditorium (Carolina’s arena prior to the Smith Center), and I got lost on campus,” Sampson said. “Dean Smith got mad and blamed Al for me not going there.”

Surprisingly, UVA was his least-favorite visit, even though he committed to the Cavaliers. He had been to Charlottesville many times prior, and helped Harrisonburg win two state titles at University Hall.

Sampson said UVA picked him up in a van and drove him over the mountain to Charlottesville for his official visit. Upon arrival, Virginia’s coaches had a helicopter waiting in a field to take Sampson on an aerial tour of campus.

It so happened that the night before, Tom Hicks and friend snuck into UHall, armed with black spray paint, and painted “Ralph’s House” in huge letters upon the white, clam-shelled arena roof. The ‘copter made a point of flying over the structure so that Sampson could see the artwork.

Sampson said that he wasn’t crazy about getting in a helicopter to begin with, although he later really appreciated the “Ralph’s House” paint job. In fact, during the Zoom session, Sampson used an aerial photo of the “Ralph’s House” photo as his backdrop.

“They definitely wanted me to see that,” Ralph chuckled.

Obviously, it made quite an impression, even though he didn’t spend the entire alloted 48 hours for his visit in Charlottesville and went home early.

Not long after his visit, the NCAA banned such aerial tours of campuses on official visits for recruits.

Sampson accompanied his nephew, Braxton Key, on the court for UVA’s pregame senior recognition ceremonies in March (Photo by John Markon).

Sampson said he eventually chose UVA for a variety of reasons.

“It was close to home, so my parents could come to all my games,” Ralph said. “They had a great coach in Terry Holland and a great coaching staff including Coach Page (Craig Littlepage). I knew they had some really good players already there in Jeff Lamp, Lee Raker, Jeff Jones and Terry Gates, who was my right-hand man while I was there. I knew I could get a great education.”

That following season, Ralph’s freshman year, Virginia went 24-10, was sixth in the ACC, and the Cavaliers won the NIT (which was a much bigger deal then than now). Ralph was the NIT’s MVP. The following year, UVA went to the Final Four and lost to North Carolina, as Al Wood went off in the semifinals.

The Cavaliers did feature Lamp, Raker, Jones, Gates, Craig Robinson and Lewis Lattimore.

That same season, Kentucky went 29-6 and won the SEC, and as the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Mideast, the Wildcats lost to Duke in the regional final. Kentucky’s team included Bowie, Kyle Macy, Fred Cowan, LaVon Williams, Derrick Hord, Dirk Minniefield and Dwight Anderson.

Meanwhile, Carolina went 21-8, second in the ACC, and was a No. 3 seed in the Midwest, and lost to Texas A&M in the second round.

The Heels featured Wood, James Worthy, Mike O’Koren, Jimmy Black, Rich Yonakor and Dave Colscott.

The Hokies went 21-8 and finished second in the Metro Conference. Tech was the No. 7 seed in the Mideast and lost in the second round to No. 2 seed Indiana.

Moir’s team featured Dale Solomon, Wayne Robinson, Les Henson, Jeff Schneider, Dexter Reid and Reggie Steppe.

Sampson said that his latest business venture is his involvement with a company in Harrisonburg and the Tidewater in hemp oil and CBD oil, hoping to rescue farmers going out of business in the Shenadoah Valley.


  1. Walter Aubrey Pace says:

    Great article. Confidential. Hovey Dabney and I spent hours with the family trying to convince Ralph to let our Trust Department manage his money. We had just bought the company with headquarters in Winchester that had offices in Harrisonburg and I was running it. He was signing his big contract. He had to go big time and you know the story. It is amazing where he would have been if we had handled it. I think about it often. See ya, WA

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