What I learned from Ralph Sampson
TWiB is away for a little while during spring break. Please enjoy this vintage non-birding post.
I met Ralph Sampson when the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch assigned me to cover the minor-league Richmond Rhythm during the 1999-2000 season, the franchise’s lone full season in professional basketball. Jack Berninger, the legendary T-D Sports Editor, put me on the schedule to cover one of the Rhythm’s first International Basketball League games, and I was more than eager for the opportunity. A year earlier, I had been writing a sports column for my college newspaper, the Kenyon Collegian in tiny Gambier, Ohio. Now I was fulfilling a dream by writing about pro ball.
Covering the Rhythm was a plum assignment for a part-time copy editor, even at the rate of $40 per story—and frankly I may have even taken the role for free. I knew that I would get to cover a lot of guys I grew up watching play in college and the NBA as a kid. Virginia sports fans would remember IBL stars like A.J. English, Derrick Johnson, Jason Miskiri and Kendrick Warren. The coach of the Rhythm was Sampson, and I was keen to be around the three-time college national player of the year.
When I showed up at the old Richmond Coliseum to cover my first game—it might have been against the long-forgotten Baltimore BayRunners—the 7-foot-4 Sampson was on his back next to the scorer’s table. The lights illuminating the advertising boards had gone out, and he was trying to re-connect some wiring during the pre-game shootaround. I had seen enough movies like “Bull Durham” and “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” to know that the IBL wasn’t going to be the big time, but still the image of Sampson fixing those wires has stuck in my mind. I was struck by the four-time all-star’s humility and resourcefulness.
The Rhythm went on to have a long, chaotic season. Attendance was terrible. There was constant roster turnover, and the team struggled to jell. In one notorious incident, a starting forward left the bench during a game because his car was being repossessed. I got to cover most of the team’s home games, and all along Sampson patiently answered my questions as I asked about roster moves and game strategy. He even sought me out before games to let me in on some behind-the-scenes details.
Somehow, with a few games left in the season, the Rhythm was in contention for a playoff spot in the IBL’s quirky postseason format. The team ended up making the playoffs with a record of 23-41 and went on to upset the Cincinnati Stuff to win the conference title. A few more fans were coming to games, and some of my stories started making it onto the front page of the T-D sports section. Again, a big deal. The team finally met its match in the IBL finals against the St. Louis Swarm, which swept to the title. Richmond had finally generated a bit of momentum heading into its second season, though ultimately a range of other factors kept the franchise from completing that season. And Sampson didn’t return as coach.
All of this has come to mind as I’ve watched Virginia return to the Final Four for the first time since 1984 when Sampson was playing center. It’s great to see that Ralph’s at the games now and enjoying the ride despite some legal troubles in recent years.
My career has taken me a long way from covering minor-league sports, but some of those lessons of grace and humility from Sampson have stuck with me. All we can hope to do is measure up to them in moments big and small like he did.
A portion of this piece appeared in April 7, 2019, editions of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Virginia went on to win the national title in 2019.