- The Washington Times - Monday, December 11, 2006

Twenty-four years ago tonight, the joint was jumpin’ at Capital Centre in Landover.

That expression might not have been original, but the headline event certainly was: Virginia’s Ralph Sampson vs. Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing in an epic battle of college basketball 7-footers who were giants in the truest sense — and sensation — of the word.

And, oh yes, their teams also were playing.

How big was it? Previewing the matchup in Sports Illustrated, Curry Kirkpatrick likened it to epic roundball confrontations like Alcindor-Hayes and Russell-Chamberlain. Somehow he avoided mentioning the ongoing scrap between Good and Evil, but that imagery would have worked, too, with the graceful Sampson and the scowling Ewing filling the respective roles.

What’s more, Virginia was coached by personable, smooth Terry Holland and Georgetown by hulking John Thompson Jr., whose insular, suspicious manner rubbed off on his troops and led to a negative public perception ultimately known as Hoya Paranoia. His teams went to three NCAA championship games in four years, and many fans elsewhere were delighted when the Hoyas lost two of them (to North Carolina in 1982 and whopping underdog Villanova in 1985).

The pre-Christmas clash between Sampson and Ewing on Dec. 11, 1982, was arranged by sports promoter Russ Potts, later an unsuccessful Virginia gubernatorial candidate, and a capacity throng of 19,035 crammed every cranny of Cap Centre. By agreement of the coaches, the game was played the old-fashioned way, meaning without a shot clock or 3-point baskets.

Sampson was a 7-foot-4 senior from Harrisonburg, Va., who had been the nation’s most widely sought recruit four years earlier. His offensive and defensive moves were extraordinarily smooth for so big a man.

Ewing was a 7-foot sophomore from Jamaica, by way of Boston, and his arrival instantly turned Georgetown’s program from promising to potent. It was no surprise, considering Ewing’s limited basketball background, that he relied primarily on brute strength rather than finesse, As a freshman, he starred on a team that lost the NCAA title game heartbreakingly to Michael Jordan’s Tar Heels when guard Freddy Brown made an errant pass in the final seconds.

Now the two centers were tangling head to head, and pregame speculation ran rampant. Sampson himself previewed the impending battle this way: “I won’t stop him, and he won’t stop me. It’s who outthinks whom.”

Said Ewing, undoubtedly prompted by his cautious coach, “I don’t think either of us can beat the other team single-handedly.”

Finally, they threw up the ball, and the evening pretty much belonged to Sampson, who accumulated 23 points, 16 rebounds and seven blocks despite a case of the flu and a swollen knee. Afterward, Ralph insisted, “I don’t feel I played well,” a statement few onlookers agreed with.

Ewing did not disgrace himself with 16 points, eight rebounds and five blocks, but as so often happens, individual and overall experience proved decisive. His supporting cast, which included three freshman starters, had trouble getting the ball to him in the paint, although Patrick graciously said, “I thought they did the best they could.”

And, by the way, Virginia won the game 68-63.

For Ewing, the result surely helped toughen him for scraps to come. There had been reports that he was academically unfit for college, and lunkhead fans in other venues often chanted insults like “Patrick can’t read!” Yet the Rev. Timothy Healy, Georgetown’s president, defended the young man emphatically, saying, “Had Patrick Ewing been a Washington resident and gone through our [remedial education] program as he did in Boston — and had he been 3 feet high — we’d have taken him.”

Father Healy, of course, was a big basketball fan.

After leaving Landover, the teams and their centers went about their basketball business. With Ewing averaging 17.7 points and 10.2 rebounds, the Hoyas put together a 22-10 season, losing to Syracuse in the Big East tournament and Memphis State in the NCAA’s Midwest regional. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers finished 29-5 as Sampson averaged 19.1 points and 11.7 rebounds, losing to eventual national champion N.C. State in both the ACC and NCAA tournaments.

The following season, Georgetown avenged its loss in the 1982 finals by defeating Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma team 84-75 to win its only national title. Ewing, the first of many super Georgetown centers (Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Roy Hibbert), now watches his son, Patrick Jr., play for the Hoyas.

No other game in either team’s season, however, created as much of a buzz as the December duel between big Patrick and bigger Ralph. Nor, come to think of it, have many showdowns since.

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