“I felt like I was a spectator in that game,” Miller said. “At one point, I was ready to get up and applaud.”
It’s been 40 years since Miller, who actually played for 16 of the game’s 40 minutes, felt like a bystander that night in the Landover, Maryland venue (which was demolished in 2002). He wasn’t alone.
“If you were to look back,” former Cavalier guard Othell Wilson said, “you’ll see a lot of us standing there watching.”
Miller and Wilson, just like the 19,000 in the stands and the millions across the country watching their television screens, were focused on two large and gifted men: Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing and Virginia’s Ralph Sampson.
One had led his team to the national championship game nine months earlier. The other was soon to be named the best player in college basketball for a third straight season. Both stood over 7 feet tall. Both were on the verge of becoming top picks in the National Basketball Association draft. Both are now members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Back then, the matchup was being compared to a legendary heavyweight title boxing match.
“Felt like (Muhammad) Ali-(Joe) Frazier,” said Doug Elgin, UVA’s sports information director from 1980 to 1983.
In modern times, you might only anticipate this kind of duel prior to tuning into HBO on Sunday nights.
“You know in ‘Games of Thrones,’ when the two sides are battling, and each side has the unique giant creature?” former UVA forward Tim Mullen said of the popular fantasy television drama. “This was kind of like that. Just two people that were physically in a different space than everyone else on the court.”
It would sound like a myth, if it didn’t really happen.
The story of No. 1-ranked Virginia’s 68-63 win over No. 3 Georgetown in December 1982 is much more than a final score. It was a big-money television deal, months of unprecedented hype, a peculiar photoshoot, an electrified arena and a sequence for the ages.
“Ralph and Patrick,” former Cavaliers guard Ricky Stokes said, “they were everything as advertised.”
The following is a reliving of that epic event – and the extraordinary hoopla that surrounded it – told through the recollections of those who remember it best. Their titles represent their status on Dec. 11, 1982.
Long before they faced off, Ralph Sampson and Patrick Ewing were highly sought-after recruits who more than lived up to expectations in college. Sampson’s combination of talent – by December 1982, the senior had already been named National Player of the Year twice by The Associated Press – and size – a rarely seen 7-foot-4 – naturally made him a literal Big Man on and off Grounds.
Jimmy Miller, UVA sophomore forward: Ralph is why I ended up choosing to come to Virginia. The academics, the school, Coach Terry Holland, all those things checked off boxes for me, but they had this phenom. No other person on the planet was like him at the time.
Tim Mullen, UVA sophomore forward: No matter where you were with him, it was a spectacle.
Ricky Stokes, UVA junior guard: It was every day, every meal, every bus ride, every game. We went to Japan and Ralph went to the restroom and there were 100 reporters there.
Othell Wilson, UVA junior guard: Even the people who didn’t know who he was, just because of his size, they were fascinated with him.
On the road, we had to do things a little bit different than normal teams because of Ralph. We wouldn’t walk right through a hotel lobby or anything. We would have to have special instructions to go underneath or go the back way.
Dave Odom, UVA assistant coach: I remember being out on a Sunday night with the team. We’re in this very nice steakhouse in Charlottesville and everybody’s eating and here comes a couple of parents with their kids. And they walk right up to Ralph as if they owned the place and said, “Ralph, can I have your autograph? Can I have your autograph?”
Kim Record, student assistant in UVA sports information office: One of my responsibilities was to read Ralph’s fan mail – he got a lot – and sort of respond. We had a rubber stamp of his signature that we would use on photos we’d send back.
There were lots of letters from young kids – “I want to be like you” – and there were letters requesting, you know, wanting to go out with him.
While Sampson had established himself as college basketball’s premier big man, Ewing, as the Roanoke Times noted, was quickly becoming Sampson’s “heir apparent.” The 7-foot Ewing had a scintillating freshman season in 1981-82, earning a trophy case full of honors, including the Big East Conference’s Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards. Though the Hoyas fell in the 1982 national championship game to Michael Jordan and the University of North Carolina, Ewing made a statement with a 23-point, 11-rebound, three-steal, two-block performance.
Jim Marchiony, Georgetown sports information director: The hype on Patrick started when he announced he was going to Georgetown – and it didn’t stop.
Prior to Ewing’s arrival, Georgetown played its home games at the on-campus McDonough Gymnasium with a capacity of around 4,000. That changed in 1981.
Marchiony: The demand for tickets was just so great that we had to move the games to the Cap Centre.
Though it was a 40-minute drive from Georgetown’s campus in Washington, D.C., the Capital Centre was home to the NBA’s Washington Bullets and the National Hockey League’s Washington Capitals and had considerably more room to host those wanting to get a glimpse at Ewing and his imposing 6-foot-10 coach, John Thompson.
Jim Larrañaga, UVA assistant coach: There’s no question that Georgetown had this mystique about them. And I think John Thompson used the phrase, “Us against the world.” And they built a wall around that and built strength within that wall to prepare for any battle or any war that they were going to wage.
Marchiony: John had a rule that freshmen weren’t allowed to be interviewed until the second semester of their freshman year. So that kind of added to the aura of the whole thing.
Mullen: To a lot of people, Patrick Ewing was one of the scariest players in the country. But he was my mom’s favorite non-UVA college player. She thought he had the sweetest smile.
Despite spending three weeks in February ranked No. 1 in the country, UVA’s 1981-82 season ended in the regional semifinal round of the NCAA Tournament with a loss to the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Sampson, for a third straight year, was projected to be the top pick of the NBA Draft. He again had a decision to make on whether he’d return to school or go pro.