The tales are tall, the numbers huge. With Ralph Sampson, they always were.
The latter years, in which his knees finally betrayed him in the NBA, pecked away at his legacy, but his place among the games giants and specifically the ACCs best remains secure.
Friday night, Sampson, the 7-foot-4 force who changed rules and game plans in the ACC, was to join six other league players in the Naismith Hall of Fame more than 20 years after he played his final game.
Terry Holland, his college coach at University of Virginia, never understood the delay. Neither did Jay Bilas, the former Duke forward turned ESPN analyst who had to deal with Sampson in college.
The only thing that kept Ralph Sampson from being a perennial NBA All-Star were injuries, Bilas told the Newport News (Va.) Daily Press before this years vote. This should be a no-brainer. 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.
Sampson tackles Triangle
Sampson already was a two-time reigning player of the year about to win his third by the time Ernie Myers arrived at N.C. State in 1982.
We were warming up, and I looked down to the other side, and Ralph was leaning his elbow against the backboard, Myers said. It was like, Wow! Is he trying to tell us to not even think about coming in here?
Roy Williams, then a UNC assistant, called Sampson truly one of the greatest college basketball players of all time.
Sampson never lost against Duke, going 9-0 and averaging 19.8 points, 11.7 rebounds and three blocks. Twice he went for at least 30 points.
Dean Smith and North Carolina had the most success, beating Sampsons Virginia teams six of 10 times. Their biggest encounter was in the 1981 Final Four, where the Tar Heels advanced to the title game with a 78-65 victory. The following year, UNC beat Virginia 47-45 in the ACC tournament final, setting the stage for Smiths first national title.
Sampson went 7-3 against the Wolfpack, but the final two losses hurt the most. N.C. State entered the 1983 ACC tournament seeded fourth. The Wolfpack knocked off top-seeded North Carolina 91-84 in overtime in the semifinals to face Sampson and the Cavaliers.
The Wolfpack made 12 3-pointers to offset Sampsons 24 points and 12 rebounds. The Pack won 81-78.
There was no debate after their final meeting. Battling for a spot in the Final Four, but without the luxury of a 3-point line, the Pack ended Sampsons college career with a 63-62 victory.
The following morning, The News & Observer proclaimed State wipes away Sampsons dream.
NBA, knees and numbers
Sampson was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1983 NBA draft by the Houston Rockets. He was so coveted, Holland told the Virginian-Pilot, that the NBA invented the lottery because of him.
Sampson averaged 21.0 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks that year, finishing in the top five in the latter two. He scored 9 points in the All-Star Game and was named the leagues Rookie of the Year.
His breakout moment came in the 1985 All-Star Game, where he had 24 points and 10 rebounds, took home MVP honors and won praise from Magic Johnson.
You bring the ball up, and you take two guys into the paint with you, and then you just flip it over your head and here comes Sampson, Johnson told the Chicago Tribune. Wooo. Woosh. Wham.
He averaged 21.2 points and 16.6 rebounds in the 1985 playoffs and helped lead the Rockets to the 1986 NBA Finals. But his knees were breaking down. His minutes and production began to dip. He played more than 50 games just once after 1986.
Holland said, pre-injury, Sampson was on his way to becoming one of the top 10 players in NBA history. Ralph more than lived up to the huge expectations fans had for his NBA career, until injuries took their toll.