When Titans Clashed: An Oral History of Sampson, Ewing’s Epic ‘Game of the Decade’

December 8, 2022 By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

Official records from the University of Virginia’s men’s basketball clash with Georgetown University on Dec. 11, 1982 say 19,035 fans crammed into the Capital Centre to watch what many media outlets had dubbed “The Game of the Decade.”

Four decades later, Jimmy Miller, a sophomore forward on that UVA team, argues that attendance number might be off by at least one.

“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.  

Ralph Sampson and Ewing blocking each other during a game

This image from the game – with Ralph Sampson battling for position against Patrick Ewing – is displayed on the concourse level at John Paul Jones Arena. (Photo by Dan Grogan)

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.

Dueling Legacies

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.

Ralph Sampson Stamp

Sampson’s popularity was so immense that the UVA athletics department had to create a rubber stamp of his signature to use in replying to fan mail. (Photo by Paolo Fridman, UVA Athletics)

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.

A historic moment for the future of health in Virginia. | Learn more about the new UVA Manning Institute of Biotechnology.
A historic moment for the future of health in Virginia. | Learn more about the new UVA Manning Institute of Biotechnology.

Doug Elgin, UVA sports information director: I handled media relations for the football team in fall, the men’s basketball team in the winter – and then Ralph Sampson in the spring, which was a circus. The most difficult thing was to manage the media with the intention of whether Ralph would come back. In the spring, that really was a full-time focus for me.

Ralph Sampson, UVA senior center: I loved my teammates, I was on course to graduate at that time, I loved the University of Virginia as much as anyone ever had. I had great coaches – Coach Holland, Coach Larrañaga, Coach Odom – so I was enjoying what I was doing. Those were all things to stay.

Obviously, that Georgetown game was eventually put on the schedule, but that wouldn’t have made a difference for me at that point. If I was ready to come out and wanted to do it, I would have.

Despite being separated by fewer than 120 miles, Virginia and Georgetown had only played each other four times. A final chance to pit Sampson against Ewing was a made-for-television moment captured by game promoter – and future Virginia politician – Russ Potts. Potts, who ran Sports Productions Inc., invited bids from seven networks and syndicators. Turner Broadcasting System won, paying $575,000 for rights to the game. Sports Illustrated called it “the most important sports event ever to appear on ‘basic’ cable TV.”

Marchiony: There were very few college basketball games shown nationally at that time. This game – not only was it hyped because it was Ewing and Sampson, but it was one of the few games all year that was shown nationally, even those in the NCAA Tournament.

ESPN had just started in September in 1979 and wasn’t in a ton of homes back then. And relatively few people had cable back then. So for TBS to show the game, it meant that they felt they could make it worth their while financially.

In the summer of 1982, Marchiony hosted a news conference to announce the game. The speakers included athletics directors from both schools, Potts and TBS president Robert Wussler. A framed photo of the event still sits in Marchiony’s home office.

Marchiony: That just added to the mystique to the game. Because no one had a press conference to announce a regular-season game.

The Photoshoot

Media buzz only took off from there, climaxing with the Nov. 29, 1982, edition of Sports Illustrated. The magazine’s college basketball preview issue was loaded with Sampson-Ewing coverage. Curry Kirkpatrick wrote an eight-page feature story on the matchup that was accompanied by six illustrations of the two centers battling each other and a sidebar story on TBS’ role in the making of the game.

It's the magazine’s cover, however, that remains iconic. Sampson, on the top level of the cover, and Ewing, on the bottom, are lying on their sides. Ewing’s face is only seen once the cover pulls out to reveal another page. “I’m waiting for you, Patrick ...” reads the headline.

Elgin: SI wanted to get Patrick and Ralph together for the cover photo, but Terry Holland wasn’t about to take Ralph to D.C. for it, nor was John Thompson willing to bring Patrick to Charlottesville. And we talked about meeting in a little town in between, but it would have been too difficult.

So, SI decided to shoot them separately and have a fold-out cover. It was a very creative way to do that knowing you couldn’t get the two of them together for a photoshoot.

Sampson’s shoot was done in an event room at the Cavalier Inn. Elgin invited Dan Grogan, an independent photographer living in Charlottesville, to assist Sports Illustrated photographer Ronald C. Modra. Elgin figured Grogan, a 1975 UVA graduate who had photographed Sampson numerous times for various outlets, could help break any tension in the room and make the shoot run smoothly.

Elgin: Ralph trusted Dan.

Dan Grogan, independent photographer: Ralph could be reticent with these things. He was not very cooperative when he got to this shoot room and there was this big roll of seamless paper behind him.

Sampson: I wanted to get out of the photoshoot and get into practice. Get my weights in, get my schedule done. You’re messing with my schedule to play, so just tell me where to be. I did what I had to do and got out.

Grogan: I started making some gestures behind (Modra) to loosen Ralph up. I didn’t want to interrupt the shoot, but I knew what Ralph could be like when he was in a mood.

Elgin: Dan Grogan is the only reason Ralph was smiling.

Grogan: The photographer’s going, “Oh Ralph, that’s it! Ralph, work with me – that’s it!” And Ralph was starting to laugh.

Sampson: I didn’t know what their concept was. Like, “OK, you’re going to put us down side-by-side? How’s that going to work on the cover?” And it ended up working better for me because I was on the front and Patrick had the fold-out.

Curry Kirkpatrick, Sports Illustrated college basketball writer: At Sports Illustrated, I doubt we ever did a fold-out cover for college basketball besides that one. We very rarely ever did a double cover for anything.

Between the pre-game and post-game coverage – which featured Sampson on the cover of the Dec. 20, 1982, issue – Sports Illustrated dedicated a combined 16 magazine pages to Virginia-Georgetown.

Kirkpatrick: At SI, that much space was really only reserved for Super Bowls and World Series. This was truly unheard-of for a college basketball game. That tells you how epic this thing was, and how big those two guys were.

Since the magazine couldn’t arrange for them to get together in one place, Sports Illustrated was forced to get creative with this Ewing-Sampson cover. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The Game ... Finally

While all the hype would make you think otherwise, the Virginia-Georgetown showdown was NOT the season opener in 1982-83. The top-ranked Cavaliers had five games to play before their trip to the Capital Centre. The Hoyas, ranked second in the preseason poll, had six.

Wilson: Our coaching staff kept things routine. They didn’t talk about the Georgetown game; they didn’t talk about anything about that until it came up on the schedule.

Larrañaga: Coach Holland was so good at taking games one at a time. He did not emphasize Georgetown. He emphasized the next game. Who was our opponent? How do we get ready to play well against them? How do we build our confidence?

UVA’s precursor to Georgetown was a Dec. 8 stop at Duke University. Kirkpatrick’s story claimed that Duke’s famed Cameron Crazies student section peppered the Cavaliers with chants of “Georgetown! Georgetown! Georgetown!” UVA won the game, 104-91, to remain undefeated. The Hoyas did their part, too, sweeping their first six opponents. The only close call was a 70-66 overtime win over Western Kentucky University on Dec. 4.

Elgin: Georgetown was playing Western Kentucky right before our game and I was at a get-together at Terry Holland’s house with some coaches and others in the Virginia community. We were rooting like hell for Georgetown because a battle of the unbeatens would have been more front and center than had they lost in that game.

Ann Holland, Terry Holland’s wife: In those days, I didn’t have things catered. I cooked everything for everybody. That night, I was trying to get food and snacks and stuff so that everybody would have something, and there was just this tenseness. It wasn’t like the regular get-togethers we would have at the house.

I remember thinking, “What’s wrong with everybody?”

With Georgetown serving as the home team – though each school was allotted 9,000 tickets – Marchiony was in charge of handling media credentials for the Virginia game.

Marchiony: We got around 300 requests. I don’t know how many we ended up giving out, but press row, which was the length of the court, was full, as was the hockey press box. And there were some people in the press room. In fact, some of the people in the hockey press box went into the press room and watched it on TV because you could see it better.

The most suspicious request came from a radio station that wanted a seat for a photographer.

Action from “The Game of the Decade” at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Lisa O’Donnell Jones)

Before making the trip from Charlottesville, Sampson was dealing with an injury and an illness.

Sampson: I got hit in my thigh in practice and the bruise impacted my knee.

Obviously, I was going to play in the game regardless of what was going on, but then they drained my knee. I wore an ACE bandage the next day or two and got ready for the game. I was just focused on playing the best I could at that point in time.

Miller: Ralph had the flu, but because of the magnitude of that game, he couldn’t NOT play.

Wilson: I knew he wasn’t 100%, but I knew that Ralph was not going to back down from that type of talent. And I also knew that he, personally, was really looking forward to that type of talent.

Sampson: It wasn’t a matchup of me against Patrick, it was a matchup of Virginia against Georgetown. If we could beat their pressure, then we had a chance. The other things took care of themselves. I could go mano a mano against Patrick, he could go mano a mano against me. But who’s going to help? Coach Holland had a strategy.

Fans battled wintry conditions to pile into the Capital Centre for an 8:40 tipoff on a Saturday night. TBS and select local channels across the state showed the game for those who couldn’t get a ticket. Projections called for 24 million homes to tune in.

Miller: I remember feeling the magnitude of the game. You could cut the tension with a knife in that arena. You could feel that in the air. It wasn’t like anything else we had participated in up to that point.

Stokes: It was such a huge build-up. It was two gladiators, a heavyweight battle. You knew what you were going into. The electricity in that area that night, you felt it.

Marchiony: I remember sitting courtside before the game. This is just when the teams are walking out for the tip. I’m thinking, “This could be Ali-Frazier,” just in terms of the moment, the noise, the hype.

I don’t know if you were allowed to smoke in indoor arenas then, but you looked up and there was this haze with all the TV lights. I remember sitting there and thinking, “Wow, this is as big as it gets.”

Ann Holland: I remember Ann-Michael, my 6-year-old daughter, going, “Why is it so quiet?” And I said, “It’s like when the heavyweight champion comes in and everything’s quiet and then, all of a sudden, it’s going to be so loud that you’re not going to believe it.”

Myron Ripley, a freshman student at St. Anne’s-Belfield School and future UVA alumnus: My seat was on the line where the Virginia and Georgetown fans met, so I had all these Georgetown students near me. They’re yelling and cheering, so I start yelling back. This was the game of the decade!

And then, all of a sudden, I didn’t feel so good. My mom asked me what was wrong. I said, “I think I’m hyperventilating.”

Sampson scored UVA’s first three buckets of the second half – the second coming on a goaltending call against Ewing – to help stretch the Cavaliers’ 10-point halftime lead to 14 with around 17 minutes to play in the game. But the Hoyas, a group that featured a couple promising freshman guards in David Wingate and Michael Jackson, chipped away. The UVA advantage was down to 55-51 with around seven minutes remaining.

That’s when the night’s headliners truly stepped into the spotlight with a classic three-possession sequence – an uncontested Sampson dunk, followed by an Ewing slam in Sampson’s face, followed by three Sampson attempts at the rim, two of which were blocked by Ewing. The chaos ended when Ewing was whistled for a foul. Sampson, showing a burst of emotion, swung his arms emphatically.

Mullen: It looks like Patrick Ewing’s going to have a little baby hook – and then he dunks it! What the heck? And it’s really loud. Somehow, the way he threw the ball down, it made a bunch of noise through the back of the rim. And I swear there was a collective gasp among the UVA people, like, “What in the world just happened?”

Larrañaga: Ralph was really defending Patrick Ewing well. At a timeout, I told Ralph, “Look, he’s shooting his turnaround jumper. I think you can go ahead and block it.” I told him, “Back up just a little bit to get your timing right and your footwork right so you don’t foul him. And when he shoots that turnaround, leave your feet and block that thing.”

Well, the moment Ralph backed up a little bit, Patrick Ewing caught it and wound up and dunked it. And I felt so guilty that I had given Ralph some very bad advice.

Stokes: Ralph was as demonstrative as I’ve ever seen him. He’s such the mild-mannered Virginia gentleman who keeps a lot inside. When he started swinging his arms, that showed how bad he wanted it. You rarely saw that from the big fella.

It was a team game, but we all knew it was an individual battle as well.

Mullen: At this point in the game, it was really like two titans going at each other.

Miller: The intensity was like ... oh my gosh! It was like a heavyweight fight. These guys were just going at each other! That’s the memory etched in my mind.

Sampson: Patrick, he dunked on me, and I dunked on him. There were blocked shots here or whatever. That sequence of the game, you got to get hyped up about playing at that level and doing something that gets the team hyped up and the fans hyped up because everybody in the world was watching that game. It was fun.

Marchiony: I had a staff at that time of just me, one full-time assistant and as many students as I could get to help. For that game, the stats got all screwed up because the students got so caught up in the game, they forgot to record stats for stretches. A lot of numbers didn’t add up, so we had to watch a replay of the game to do the stats.

Score ard from UVA Georgetown Game

The game’s official box score reveals Sampson and Ewing led their teams in scoring, among other categories.

After the Ewing foul, Sampson made both free throws, adding to a final stat line of 23 points, 16 rebounds, seven blocks and two steals over 37 minutes. Ewing, who fouled out, also logged 37 minutes. He finished with 16 points, eight rebounds and five blocks. The Cavaliers made a series of free throws down the stretch – including two from Wilson to break a 61-61 tie with 3:15 left – to seal the 68-63 win.

John Thompson, Georgetown coach (as quoted in The Roanoke Times on Dec. 13, 1982): I came into the ballgame thinking Patrick Ewing was one of the most outstanding players in the country, and I didn’t see anything out there that would make me want to trade him.

Kirkpatrick: I was impressed with the overall game Sampson played. He played much better defensively than I thought he would. He was proving he was the better all-around player. Ralph just outplayed Ewing. That’s all there is to it.

Marchiony: I walked out of our locker room toward the interview room and Ralph was walking up to the steps to the interview podium with an IV in his arm. And somebody was holding the bag for the IV.

Sampson: The game was fun to play in, but I wasn’t feeling great.

Wilson: I can’t even describe the sense of relief – it was huge. Even though we didn’t talk about the pressure or let the pressure bother us, it was there. After we won that game and we were back at the hotel, you could see the sense of relief on every player. “OK, we got this one over with. Now we can move on with our season.”

Odom: My memory is of immense relief. “We won the game, now let’s get out of here!”

Larrañaga: You never want to lose a game like that. It impacts your recruiting; it impacts everything you do. Everybody wants to talk about it for long afterwards. It’s a whole lot better to talk about it after a win than after a loss.

Virginia, scheduled to play its next two games in Tokyo, was in a New York airport the following day, waiting out a snowstorm before boarding a connecting flight. With ample time to fill, Miller and Mullen reenacted the thrilling Ewing-Sampson back-and-forth into a tape recorder.

Miller: I’m doing play-by-play, I’m doing color. “Ohh, Ewing dunks on Sampson! Oh, Ralph blocked! A foul is called! Oh my!”

Mullen: I’m filling in the sounds of the crowd. “Ohhh! Ahh!” We’re going around interviewing people. Just a goofy, stupid college thing to do.

It’s been 40 years, but memories of this game remain just as fresh as they did in that airport. Sampson’s Charlottesville restaurant, Ralph Sampson’s American Tap Room, in the Barracks Road Shopping Center, displays the same large photo from the matchup that’s seen on the concourse at John Paul Jones Arena.

Sampson: It’s one of the most iconic games I ever played in. It was a good, good game. We won. The picture’s still up in John Paul Jones Arena, so hopefully it’ll have an everlasting memory on the fabric of the University of Virginia. My kids and my kids’ kids will be able to see that forever. It’s very special to me.

Media Contact

Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications