What’s the greatest high school senior class ever? According to Ralph Sampson, that’s not even a debate. You guessed it, Sampson thinks it’s his, the class of 1979. In a recent podcast interview with Andrew D. Bernstein of Legends of Sport legendary NBA star recalled the recruiting process he went through before becoming a member of the University of Virginia.
“The recruiting process was crazy. Today, you have AAU; you have all these recruiting services. There was none back then! That year you had the likes of myself, James Worthy, Clark Kellogg, Isiah Thomas. You had a class of Hall of Fame guys. Supposedly the best high-school class ever – 1979.”Ralph Sampson, Legends of Sport
Having grown to 6’7″ already in his 9th grade, 7’1″ high-school phenomenon was reportedly drawing 2,000-3,000 crowds, which always included 20-30 collegian coaches, with his stellar performances for hometown Harrisonburg HS. Already at that level, he attracted the attention of the NBA.
Faced with just tremendous interest, Sampson and his high-school coach had a huge list of all potential schools, receiving a handful of recruiting letters on a daily bases. But at one point it was all just too much, it demanded too much time and effort, and Sampson and his high-school coach Roger Bergey found an exciting way to narrow down the list of potential colleges for the most recruited prospect of all-time.
“We set these rules up – we called them the Sampson rules. You had to follow those rules. If you broke those rules, we got you off the list. We had almost like the Final Four. We boiled it down. Back then, you could take six visits. I took four. I go to UCLA, and they didn’t have a coach at that time. Take a trip to Hawaii; I didn’t want to go that far. So, I took Virginia last, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia Tech.”Ralph Sampson, Legends of Sport
In Lexington, Kentucky, Sampson met with the Wildcats assistant coach Leonard Hamilton and enjoyed his recruitment process. His mother, Sarah Sampson, who, after he visited the UK, told him to keep his composure and patience.
“You can imagine myself, Sam Bowie and basically seven high-school All-Americans on that team, Joe B. Hall coaching, etc. And I left there with the idea because they had Rupp dormitory where you had your room, an eight-foot bed, everything you needed there, right? The next year they banned that, but it was the best visit I had. But my mother said, ‘wait a couple of days, settle down.’”Ralph Sampson, Legends of Sport
At Chapel Hill, North Carolina, legendary coach Dean Smith designated Al Wood, brilliant Tar Hell guard whom Sampson admired at the time, to show him around the campus. Interestingly, during the visit, 7’4″ Sampson somehow got lost circling the campus.
“We took the visit, and I got lost on campus for like an hour and a half. Al said, ‘Just walk over to the Carmichael, and we’ll see you when you get there.’ That was a good visit as well. Imagine me playing with Worthy, Al Wood, Henry Black, Braddock, Doherty, and Michael (Jordan) would come in, it would be another, you know, story-telling. Great coach Dean Smith, and all the other guys as well.”Ralph Sampson, Legends of Sport
Intriguingly, if Sampson became a Tar Heel, he would have joined forces with James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Michael Jordan, Kenny Smith, and Brad Dougherty, forming the mightiest NCAA team of the 1980s. The inside presence of the eventual College national player of the year for three years in a row (1981, 1982, 1983) would have made Tar Heels invincible for the rest of competition, propelling them to certainly reach more than just one NCAA championship title during that era (1981).
Then, more of due respect, Sampson visited Virginia Tech. This college offered quality education and plenty of minutes on a basketball court since all of the Hookies starters were going into their senior year. Sampson would have indeed thrived at Virginia Tech, but the only problem was that the team competed in a Metro Conference.
“They were in a Metro Conference, Louisville was the only one in that conference that meant anything. The weak conference, good school. Their players were basically all juniors going to be seniors, so I only had the one year to play with them, and then everybody would have been gone.”Ralph Sampson, Legends of Sport
At the very end of the long and exhausting recruiting process, Sampson visited the school closest to his home – the University of Virginia. Still undecided, it was his mom who urged him to finally decide on where he will continue his academic education and basketball career.
“Coach Holland is an amazing coach; the ACC is one of the best ever conferences in the world. Great education. So, I was on track to do a lot there. My parents could see me play every night. I took that more seriously as I approached it, and I go into my high school arena, not knowing, still questioning where I wanted to go.”Ralph Sampson, Legends of Sport
Having committed to the University of Virginia, the 7’4″ power forward thrived under the coaching leadership of head coach Terry Holland. Fascinating the ACC, NCAA, NBA, and the world with his most unique skills and abilities for his size, he led the Cavaliers to an incredible 112-23 W-L record over his four-year tenure.