On Saturday morning Ralph Sampson III will take the court in venerable Williams Arena for the final time. During his career, he became one of five Gophers to ever score 1,000 points, collect 600 rebounds, and block 200 shots. No player has achieved that since Michael Bauer nearly a decade ago. For many Gopher fans, his career will be considered a disappoint. To them, I ask why?
No Gopher basketball player in recent memory has faced as much derision from the hometown not-so-faithful than Sampson. When he played poorly he was accused of not caring or being lazy. When he played well, he was criticized for not playing well in other games. It is fair to say he did not live up to expectations on the court, but those expectations are never fair.
If Ralph Sampson III’s name was Sam Ralphson, would anyone be disappointed. For some reason, many seem to have thought that having a famous father would automatically lead to on court success. Because his father was one of the greatest college basketball players ever, surely he would follow successfully in his father’s foot-steps. In some ways he did. Both Sampson III and his father were finesse players more comfortable on the perimeter. Both maintained a stoic expression on the court. Neither were eager to beat their chest to intimidate an opponent or to pump their fists to play to the crowd. The elder Sampson was six inches taller than his son though, and those six inches were enough to lead to divergent successful careers. Ralph Sampson III inherited his father’s name, demeanor, and half of his DNA, but there should have been no expectation that he would automatically inherit his father’s success.
His name alone set up those unfair expectations. However, it should have been obvious from the moment he signed with the Gophers that those expectations should be adjusted. According to ESPN, as a high school recruit Sampson III was rated 89 out of 100. Players with this ranking are expected to be starters after their first season, and contributors all four seasons. They are not expected to be program changers or even game changers. In the Big Ten freshmen class of 2008, there were several players rated the same as the Gopher center, and few had comparably successful careers. I wouldn’t trade him for the likes of Stan Simpson ,Tom Pritchard, Nick Freundt, or Ian Markoff.
It has always amazed me that such a seemingly calm player could cause such agitation among supposed fans. Throughout his career, more expletives per game have rained down on Sampson from the upper rafters of The Barn than arch-enemy Bo Ryan. Those profanity spewers considered it a personal affront that he did not show enough emotion. However, while they saw someone who supposedly did not care, I saw a player that seemed to care too much. He seemed to play nervous, afraid to make a mistake. He always seemed to think too hard, which caused too slow reactions. In those fleeting moments when he did not think, and instead just reacted, he was a formidable player.
And if his supposed lack of emotion was a result of not treating basketball, a kids game after all, as if it was the most important thing in the world and the most important thing in his life, is that necessarily a bad thing. Sampson III saw first hand from his father that basketball greatness does not guarantee happiness or success off the court. College basketball is great fun and a great distraction sometimes from the often long and cold winter, and sometimes from the long and cold moments of life. However, it is not life. Thankfully, he understands this, even if the critics in the stands don’t.
Of the three members of the Gopher freshmen class of 2008, only Ralph Sampson III will graduate from the University of Minnesota. He is the only one of the three who played all four years for the Golden Gophers. He is the only one that did not flee from adversity or flee from team rules.
Before you question how tough he is or how much he cares, remember that he stuck around. And then ask yourself if you would have stuck around too.