When deliberating the names of the greats who have made their way through the Virginia basketball program, there is perhaps no bigger name than Ralph Sampson. When Sampson traveled to Charlottesville in 1979 from his nearby Harrisonburg roots, he was already a giant, standing 7-foot-4 and heavily recruited by programs across the country.
Even before signing his letter of intent to play for the Cavaliers, Sampson was destined to become a superstar due to his prolific play on the Harrisonburg High School field. Without a doubt, Sampson has become a household name among all Virginia fans, winning three Naismith National Player of the Year awards during his four-year college career.
Decades later, Sampson returns to the city where he propelled his career to eventually become the No. 1 overall pick in the 1983 NBA draft in a much different title. Sampson, in conjunction with Thompson Hospitality, will open Ralph Sampson’s American Tap Room on March 14.
Not particularly known for being a restaurateur, Sampson expressed his joy at continuing his legacy in the Charlottesville area with the new venture.
“My years in Charlottesville laid the foundation for a career that I and the city are proud of and for that I am grateful for,” Sampson said in a press release. “I have a long-standing interest in the restaurant business and look forward to this partnership with Thompson Hospitality, a gathering place that brings people together around a shared love of the sport, fandom and Cavalier pride.”
Ralph Sampson’s American Tap Room will be located approximately half a mile from the John Paul Jones Arena, Virginia’s current basketball stadium, just off Barracks Road at 973 Emmet Street N. The facility will high quality with a sporty touch bar atmosphere, aiming to create an atmosphere for Cavalier fans.
The restaurant concept is unique, offering sports bar seating and dining areas that present a visual celebration of Sampson’s basketball career. Certainly, many future American Tap Room guests will already be aware of the legacy Sampson brings to the table from his days on the court. While on the Cavaliers roster from 1979 to 1983, Sampson was nothing short of spectacular and deserved to become one of the most decorated college players of all time.
In his first season at Virginia, the Hall of Fame center averaged a double-double in the 34 games he played. Along with averaging 14.9 points and 11.2 rebounds per game in his freshman year, Sampson also averaged over four blocks. per game. He steadily improved through the second and third years, culminating in a stellar senior season where he averaged 19 points and 11.7 rebounds per game to go with an improved field goal percentage of 60.4. %.
Individual stats aside, Sampson’s leadership on the field has led the Cavaliers to various team accomplishments. Returning to the 1980-81 season, Sampson led Virginia to 29 wins as well as the No. 1 seed in the nation. Additionally, the center’s efforts propelled the Cavaliers even further into the NCAA Tournament as the team made its first Final Four appearance that year as well.
Prior to Virginia’s deep run in the NCAA Tournament, Sampson led the Cavaliers to a solid run in the National Invitational Tournament. The team won the NIT Championship that year largely due to the efforts of the incomparable Sampson.
After cementing his legacy on the Virginia hardwood, Sampson became the first pick in the 1983 NBA draft when he was selected by the Houston Rockets. Clearly, Sampson’s collection of impressive accolades didn’t stop at college as he won the NBA Rookie of the Year award and played in the All-Star Game – just in his freshman year. in the professional ranks.
In his nine full seasons in the league, Sampson has maintained impressive numbers, averaging 15.4 points per game and 8.8 rebounds per game. Overall, Sampson’s play earned him the highest honor of any player to come through the NBA, an induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball of Fame.
With such an impressive and storied career under his belt, Sampson’s return and continued connection to the Charlottesville area is intriguing. Potentially, the developments with Sampson’s catering business are indicative of the connection athletes who play for Virginia have with the Charlottesville-Albemarle area even long after they leave college.
Interestingly enough, the opening of Ralph Sampson’s American Tap Room isn’t the first time the Hall of Famer has shown interest in the local restaurant industry. Just under a year ago, in April 2021, Sampson was part of the ownership group that purchased the iconic White Spot on the Corner restaurant.
Upon purchase, Sampson explained his appreciation for the tradition and history behind the restaurant.
“Just late nights with guys like Ricky Stokes, and coming in here to eat something or pre-football games coming from the lawn here and getting something to eat,” Sampson said.
Going forward, one of American Tap Room’s goals seems to be to continue certain aspects of Virginia’s history and tradition – athletics as well as academics. Warren Thompson, CEO of Thompson Hospitality – Sampson’s partner group – underscored this goal as well as the goal of providing a meaningful environment and experience for Virginia worshipers.
“Bringing this concept to Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia – both Ralph’s and my alma mater – is an exciting opportunity for Thompson Hospitality, and we hope Ralph’s House will live on at American Tap Room,” said Thompson.
With the restaurant slated to open in a few weeks, the possibility of other Virginia Athletics alumni following in Sampson’s footsteps will be something to watch. After all, the return of former Cavaliers to Charlottesville with new projects is a dynamic that is not all that new. Alumni such as Chris Long or Malcolm Brogdon have also contributed to the area in recent years.
However, there is still no bigger name than Sampson to come through the University. Therefore, his leadership could once again be the main driver of successful new businesses in the city for years to come.