It used to be an every-generation event in college basketball, a heavyweight battle between the top big men in the game. The most-celebrated clash came on Jan. 20, 1968, when Elvin Hayes helped Houston stop the 47-game winning streak of Lew Alcindor and UCLA in front of 52,693 fans at the Astrodome.
That matchup was billed as “The Game of the Century” and was unequaled in hype until Dec. 11, 1982, when Virginia’s Ralph Sampson and Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing squared off for the mythical title of “best big man in his generation.”
The hype machine had become more sophisticated since 1968. Sports Illustrated set up the game with a pull-out cover of a prostrate Sampson and Ewing. An enterprising sports promoter named Russ Potts had put together the event and sold the TV rights to the nascent cable company Turner Broadcasting System. The basketball cognoscenti descended on the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., and breathless comparisons to battles of yore like Hayes-Alcindor and Russell-Chamberlain were made by Red Auerbach and Abe Lemons.
The game was played without a shot clock or three-point line, as if trying to force the action into the painted area. As the players gathered for the tap, Sampson almost seemed to dwarf Ewing, who was listed as four inches shorter. Despite his advantage in height, Sampson came from the finesse tradition of big men, whereas Ewing was the classic banger.
The matchup seemed destined not to live up the advanced billing in the first half, with Sampson drifting mostly around the high post and Ewing, who picked up two early fouls, anchoring the middle of a 2-3 zone. When Hoyas coach John Thompson elected to go man-to-man, 6-7 power forward Bill Martin mostly checked Sampson. Virginia went into halftime with a comfortable 33-23 lead. The stats at the break: nine points, eight rebounds and four blocks for Sampson, as compared to five, six and two for Ewing.
The Cavaliers quickly extended their advantage to 14 points early in the second half, and it looked like there would be no “Game of the Century Redux.” But Georgetown’s incessant defensive pressure sparked a 10-2 run that put some wind back in the sails of the Hoyas.
Once the game tightened, there was a back-and-forth between Sampson and Ewing that befitted all the similes and metaphors spent on the game. With Virginia nursing a four-point lead, Sampson spun away from Ewing and took a lob pass from Rick Carlisle (who, then and now, always seems to be described as “cerebral”). Ewing couldn’t recover, and Sampson was free for a vicious dunk. That put a charge into Ewing, who sprinted down the court and awaited the ball down low. Once he got it, Ewing turned and threw down an earth-rattling, one-handed jam over the Go-Go-Gadget arms of Sampson.
Now the crowd was rocking, this was the battle royale they paid to see. Sampson took it right back at Ewing. This time, Sampson’s shot was returned to sender, and Ewing did the same to Sampson’s follow-up. Sampson wouldn’t be denied and was fouled on his third attempt.
Virginia made nine of 10 free throws down the stretch to win, 68-63. It could never match Hayes-Alcindor, but Sampson-Ewing had some transcendent moments.
The college game became more guard-oriented in the following years. Big men increasingly became more multi-dimensional, eschewing the traditional back-to-the basket repertoire. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the best big men weren’t even going to college. Add it all up, and there has yet to be another battle on par with Hayes-Alcindor or Sampson-Ewing.