For a moment Saturday, it will be like the ’70s all over again in Charlottesville, only this time Ralph Sampson won’t be viewing University Hall from a helicopter.
Sampson, the former Virginia All-American and three-time national player of the year, will be one of the dignitaries given the honor of detonating U-Hall, the home for UVa basketball teams from 1965-2006.
“If you’ve seen the pictures, there’s not really much left there to blow up,” Sampson said earlier this week. “I’m just hoping I don’t blow myself up.”
It’s only fitting that Sampson is involved in the festivities, given his experience on a 1977 recruiting visit, when he arrived at an arena with the words “Ralph’s House” spray-painted on the roof.
“Schools do a lot of things during recruiting,” Sampson said. “You go to Kentucky and they take you to a horse-racing track. I didn’t really pay attention to what Virginia had done till after the fact.”
Maybe that’s because the Virginia staff wasn’t involved in the “Ralph’s House” affair.
“I was like ‘did they really do that?’” said the Cavaliers’ coach at the time, Terry Holland, who has returned to Charlottesville in retirement. “You’d surely think you would have stopped something like that if you knew about it.”
One of the masterminds was a Virginia player named Tommy Hicks, a transfer from Tulane, where he had played for Charlie Moir.
When Moir accepted a job to coach at Virginia Tech, Hicks decided to transfer to UVa and play for Holland, who earlier had recruited him for Davidson.
Hicks had to sit out a year and had a checkered two-year career once he became eligible for Virginia, but 40 years later, he remains a part of UVa history.
“I sort of have my name on that one,” said Hicks, referring to the Ralph’s House affair.
After college, he tried out for the NBA’s Utah Jazz, earned a masters degree in sports administration and now works as a financial adviser. He’ll miss this weekend’s affair to visit Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
At UVa, Hicks had lived in the basement of a house owned by backers Landon and Bessie Birckhead and got to know their son, Frank, who was later part of a rooming arrangement with Hicks and two others.
“One night, we were having dinner and we were looking at ways to top off our graduation,” Hicks said. “So we came up with this hair-brained idea. The four of us got about 30 cans of spray paint and sort of made arrangements to get into U-Hall.
“We had a hacksaw and a pair of bolt cutters in case we ran into some obstacles. High on one side, there was a [auxiliary] press box and we had to walk across a catwalk. After practice one day, we checked out how the press box was locked up.
“We got ourselves a key to the facility and, about 2:30 one morning, we packed up and off we went.”
The crew included prominent Richmond dentist Russell “Rusty” Cleveland, a past basketball team manager referred to by Hicks this week as Perpetrator No. 2. Also involved was another of Hicks’ roommates, Bobby Edwards, a future lawyer.
“I had just been accepted to MCV Dental School and was petrified that if caught, I’d have a much different career path,” said Cleveland, who holds the distinction of having been in attendance for the first and last games at University Hall in 1965 and 2006.
“I sure have enjoyed telling the story, and it seems like just yesterday. We still wonder if we would even know Ralph without that crazy adventure. I’m glad I won’t be on the roof Saturday.”
It’s uncertain what role the late Birckhead, also a basketball manager, had in the execution of the paint job, “but out of respect, I’ve been including him because his kids would think it was cool,” Hicks said.
“The funniest thing is, there was no dry run. We got there and somebody had left the door open after football practice. We threw some rocks and made some noise to make sure no one was there scoping us out.
“We didn’t know how dangerous it would be. We’d never been up there before.”
Cleveland apparently reached into his backpack for spray paint at one point and the container started rolling down the roof, which was sloped.
“We started to run after it but the roof gets a little steeper,” he said.
The container rolled off the roof and slammed into the sidewalk about the time that a police car swung through the parking lot. The police car never stopped.
“Architecturally, it wasn’t the best writing, but we got the job done,” Hicks said of the paint job. “We immediately called The [Charlottesville] Daily Progress and said, ‘Hey, Ralph’s visiting tomorrow. There’s something you might see over at U-Hall.’
“That was the story. I don’t know how much difference it made [in Sampson’s decision] but the bottom line was, it was still a cool thing to do.”