When deliberating the names of greats that have made their way through Virginia’s basketball program, there is perhaps no name bigger than that of Ralph Sampson. When Sampson made his way to Charlottesville in 1979 from his nearby roots in Harrisonburg, he was already a giant, standing at 7 feet 4 inches and being heavily recruited by programs all across the country.
Even prior to inking his letter of intent to play for the Cavaliers, Sampson was destined to become a superstar based on his prolific play on the court at Harrisonburg High School. Undoubtedly, Sampson went on to become a household name among all Virginia fans, picking up three Naismith National Player of the Year awards in his four year college career.
Decades later, Sampson is returning 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 capacity. Sampson, in collaboration with Thompson Hospitality, will be opening Ralph Sampson’s American Tap Room March 14.
Not particularly known for being a restaurateur, Sampson expressed his glee about furthering his legacy in the Charlottesville area with the new venture.
“My years in Charlottesville laid the groundwork for a career that both myself and the city are proud of and for that I’m grateful,” Sampson said in a press release. “I’ve long had an interest in the restaurant business, and I’m looking forward to this partnership with Thompson Hospitality — providing a gathering place that brings people together around a shared love of sports, fandom and Cavalier pride.”
Ralph Sampson’s American Tap Room will be located approximately one-half mile from John Paul Jones Arena – the current home of Virginia basketball – just off of Barracks Road at 973 Emmet Street N. The establishment is set to feature high-quality foods with a sports bar vibe, aiming to provide an atmosphere for Cavalier fans.
The concept for the restaurant is unique one, providing sports bar seating and dining areas that feature a visual celebration of Sampson’s basketball career. Certainly, many future guests of American Tap Room will already be aware of the legacy Sampson brings to the table from his days on the court. While in the line-up for the Cavaliers from 1979 to 1983, Sampson was nothing short of spectacular and deserving of becoming one of the most decorated collegiate 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 in. In addition to recording 14.9 points and 11.2 rebounds per game during his freshman year, Sampson also posted an average of over four blocks per game. He steadily improved in years two and three, culminating in an outstanding senior season where he averaged 19 points and 11.7 rebounds per game to go with an improved 60.4 percent field goal percentage.
Individual statistics aside, Sampson’s leadership on the floor led the Cavaliers to various team accomplishments. Rewinding to the 1980-81 season, Sampson ushered Virginia to 29 wins as well as the No. 1 overall seed in the nation. In addition, the center’s efforts launched the Cavaliers even further in the NCAA Tournament as the team made their first Final Four appearance that year as well.
Prior to Virginia’s deep run into the NCAA Tournament, Sampson led the Cavaliers to a strong run in the National Invitation Tournament. The team went on to capture the NIT Championship that year in large part due to the efforts of the incomparable Sampson.
After cementing his legacy on the hardwood at Virginia, Sampson became the first pick of the 1983 NBA Draft when he was selected by the Houston Rockets. Evidently, Sampson’s collection of impressive accolades did not end in college as he won the NBA Rookie of the Year Award and played in the All-Star Game — just in his first year in the professional ranks.
During his nine full seasons in the league, Sampson maintained impressive numbers, averaging 15.4 points per game to go along with 8.8 rebounds per game. All in all, Sampson’s playing earned him the most distinguished honor of all players to come through the NBA, an induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball of Fame.
With such an impressive and storied career to his name, Sampson’s return and continuous connection with the Charlottesville area is intriguing. Potentially, the developments with Sampson’s restaurant venture is indicative of the connection athletes who play for Virginia maintain with the Charlottesville-Albemarle area even long after their departure from the University.
Interestingly enough, the opening of Ralph Sampson’s American Tap Room is not the first time the Hall of Famer has demonstrated 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 restaurant on the Corner.
Back at the time of the purchase, Sampson explained his appreciation for the tradition and history behind the restaurant.
“Just late nights with guys like Ricky Stokes, and coming here to have something to eat or pre-football games coming from the Lawn here and getting something to eat,” Sampson said.
Looking ahead, one of the goals for American Tap Room appears to be to carry on aspects of the history and tradition of Virginia — the athletics as well as the academics. Warren Thompson, the CEO of Thompson Hospitality — the group partnering with Sampson — emphasized this purpose as well as the aim of providing a meaningful environment and experience for Virginia faithful.
“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 lives on at American Tap Room,” Thompson said.
With the restaurant slated to open in just a few weeks, the possibility of other Virginia Athletics alumni following in the footsteps of Sampson will be something to keep an eye on. After all, former Cavaliers returning 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 remains no name bigger than that of Sampson to come through the University. Therefore, his leadership may yet again be the main driver for new successful ventures in the city for years to come.