Ralph’s Little Cousin
Sophomore Guard Sees Sampson As Mentor
Posted: November 30, 2012
HHS’s Damien Sampson shoots over teammate Henry Cruz during practice Thursday. (Photo by Stephen Mitchell / DN-R)
When he was 9 or 10 years old living in Atlanta, Sampson recalled his older cousin taking him to NBA games in the city to watch the Hawks play and breaking down every play to reveal a treasure trove of basketball nuances – some of which probably went over his head.
“I was just little,” Sampson said. “I was just looking for the dunks.”
That quickly changed as he began developing a mature basketball I.Q., thanks to his cousin – Naismith Hall of Famer and former Harrisonburg High School star Ralph Sampson.
“When he was living [in Atlanta], like every weekend we was having a workout,” Damien Sampson recalled. “… He’s gotten me ready and taught me everything to help get me to where I am today.”
The 15-year-old Sampson recently moved back to Harrisonburg with his mother, Nia Sampson, just in time for his sophomore basketball season. His first day of school at HHS was the day after Thanksgiving, and he’s been practicing with the Blue Streaks for less than a week.
So, understandably, Sampson has been behind on the learning curve. He saw only about six minutes of action in Tuesday’s season-opening 60-31 loss at Charlottesville, and HHS first-year coach Scott Joyner said Sampson and his teammates looked nervous on the floor, as if their hearts were pounding out of their chests.
“The more they play together, the more comfortable they’re going to be,” said Joyner, who called Sampson “a smart kid” with a raw, “natural ability.”
Personally, Sampson gives it two to three more weeks before he has a firm grasp of Joyner’s system.
As for cracking the starting lineup?
“I don’t know, because I have some great seniors ahead of me,” said Sampson, a 6-foot shooting guard who worked his way up to varsity as a freshman at 5A Norcross High and even started in a regional tournament. “… But [if I don’t start], I’ll just look at coming off the bench and putting up a bunch of points.”
The smooth-talking Sampson exuded a cool confidence after practice Thursday evening, donning his everyday look of Jordan 7 Raptors on his feet and basketball shorts, as well as a corduroy jean jacket. But he expressed even more confidence about the Streaks as a team, despite the Charlottesville rout.
Sampson talked up senior guards Seth Kardos – who played but was limited to 13 minutes Tuesday coming off ankle surgery – and Brian Rodriguez, as well as Joyner’s disciplined style of coaching, concluding that Harrisonburg has all the pieces to be a state-caliber team.
“It’s actually better than my old high school,” Sampson said of Joyner’s fast-paced scheme and coaching philosophy. “Strict and the way he coaches and the way he wants us to play. And obviously, it works because he’s got some state rings. … I like it because it keeps me on task. It won’t let me slack. I can only go up because he won’t let me go down.”
For Sampson, who refers to his 7-foot-4 cousin Ralph as “uncle,” the move back to Harrisonburg from Atlanta was nothing new. Born in Harrisonburg, he moved to the Georgia capital in the second grade. He returned to Harrisonburg, citing homesickness, to reunite with extended family in the seventh grade, but moved back to Atlanta a year later.
Now, he’s back – in part to help care for his grandmother, Francis Sampson, on his mother’s side.
HHS is happy to have another Sampson in the lineup.
“He fits in perfect,” Joyner said. “He’s just one of the guys. He’s a quiet kid. A hard worker, and he’s very cerebral.”
Helping in the transition, Damien Sampson – who is also cousins with junior teammates Chris Whitelow and T.J. Kirkland – is familiar with all of his teammates, he said, having played with them under Joyner in a summer circuit. Even while living in Atlanta, he visited Harrisonburg “every summer” and as often as he could on school breaks.
Ralph Sampson, who was hired in October as a player development coach for the Phoenix Suns, was modest in describing his involvement in Damien’s life.
“I’ve seen Damien play a little bit in Atlanta. A few games,” said Ralph Sampson, who has two sons currently playing basketball: Ralph Sampson III (D-League) and Robert Sampson (East Carolina University). “… The sky is the limit. For any kid at that level, you can have potential if you work hard enough.”
Ralph is no stranger to bloodline-related questions, but he said they aren’t bothersome. In fact, he likes seeing the family tree unfold in various basketball arenas – even though he said he hasn’t done much research to see just how far his height genes trickle down.
“I mean, I got boys who play college basketball and NBA developmental league. I get it all the time,” he said. “It’s not a big deal. … It’s a good thing to see.”
Similarly, the short-curly-haired Damien Sampson gets more than his fair share of extra attention as a Ralph Sampson look-a-like.
“I get that a whole lot,” he said. “People say I look like one of his kids… even without knowing my last name.”
A name that obviously carries a lot of weight in Harrisonburg. But the younger Sampson said he’s used to that, too, and even embraces it as an aspiring collegiate player.
“I definitely want to play at the next level and the next,” Sampson said, “and be one of the greats, just like my uncle.”