Thirty-plus years ago, Harrisonburg was the quintessential “sleepy college town.” The Nighthawks played the occasional gig at The Elbow Room, Gus grilled irresistible chili dogs at Jess’ Quick Lunch, and James Madison University emerged from its former life as a state teachers’ college for women.
This was not where you expected to fine an honest-to-goodness sports phenom. But there he was at Harrisonburg High, all 7-feet, 4 inches of him.
He brought basketball icons to Harrisonburg. He prompted at least one opponent to practice with brooms and turned games into spectacles.
Monday, the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame announced that Sampson and 11 others comprise its 2012 induction class. The honor is long overdue.
Few players affected a game like Sampson, and not just because of his size. At Harrisonburg, the University of Virginia and in the NBA, Sampson was as comfortable, sometimes more so, roaming the perimeter as he was in the low post. He was quick enough to defend small forwards, smooth enough to shoot from 17 feet.
Sampson and North Carolina State’s David Thompson are the only three-time ACC players of the year. Sampson and UCLA’s Bill Walton are the only consensus three-time national players of the year.
Prior to Sampson, Virginia had never won an NCAA tournament game. The Cavaliers won seven in his final three seasons and reached the 1981 Final Four when he was a sophomore.
That should end any debate about Sampson’s credentials, his lack of a national or ACC championship notwithstanding.
But Naismith electors often focus on players’ NBA careers, and Sampson’s was derailed by knee injuries. That said, consider his first three professional seasons, all with the Houston Rockets.
He was the 1984 rookie of the year and MVP of the ’85 All-Star Game. In 1986, he helped the Rockets reach the NBA Finals — they dusted the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in five games before losing to the Boston Celtics in six games.
Sampson’s combined averages for those three seasons: 20.9 points and 10.7 rebounds. In his first three NBA seasons, future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan averaged 22.0 points and 12.0 rebounds.
Duncan (Wake Forest) and Sampson, by the way, are the only players in ACC history with career totals of more than 2,000 points, 1,500 boards and 400 blocked shots.
But while Duncan, an unheralded prospect from the Virgin Islands, was understated and nuanced on the court, Sampson was the show. Win or lose.
Demand to see him at Harrisonburg was such that the Blue Streaks played some games at JMU’s Godwin Hall. Suffice to say, we basketball mavens on campus flocked.
One of Harrisonburg’s area rivals — I believe it was Lee High of Staunton — prepared for Sampson by having the second string defend the first with raised brooms.
When college recruiting season arrived, Sampson actually took an official visit to JMU, which to this day must rank as the program’s least-expensive entertainment bill. No air fare or hotel. But plenty of parties. I attended one or two, and when the Big Fella ducked through the doorway, jaws dropped.
Sampson chose Virginia over Kentucky, North Carolina and JMU, and after Sampson’s freshman season, Boston Celtics legend Red Auerbach traveled to Harrisonburg, hoping to persuade Sampson to turn pro. A gaggle of us media knotheads — I was working for the student radio station — waited outside Sampson’s home for Auerbach to emerge, but his pitch proved fruitless.
In Sampson’s sophomore season, Cavaliers coach Terry Holland was gracious enough to play the Dukes in Harrisonburg. The bandbox that is Godwin Hall was never louder, and Virginia was lucky to escape, 53-52, against a quality JMU team that upset Georgetown in the NCAA tournament.
But Sampson was less-than-ordinary for his homecoming, scoring 10 points, missing 5-of-6 free throws and committing seven turnovers. Such games were rare.
As a senior, Sampson schooled a Duke freshman named Jay Bilas, outscoring him 36-4 in a 104-91 Virginia victory. Bilas remembers it still.
“He changed the whole game, the whole game,” Bilas told me last year. “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.”
Enshrined last year in the College Basketball Hall of Fame, Sampson is the sixth ACC player elected to the more renowned Naismith Hall in Springfield, Mass. The others are North Carolina's Billy Cunningham, Michael Jordan, Bob McAdoo and James Worthy, and North Carolina State's David Thompson.
ACC coaches in the Naismith Hall are Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, N.C. State's Everett Case and Kay Yow, and North Carolina's Frank McGuire, Dean Smith and Roy Williams.
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