Commentary

Pair emerges from fatherly shadows

Sophomores Klay Thompson and Ralph Sampson III carve out careers of their own

Originally Published: August 10, 2009
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Klay Thompson made shots at the Colorado Springs, Colo., tryouts and subsequently made the Under-19 U.S. team that eventually won gold in New Zealand this summer.

Ralph Sampson III didn't do either.

Thompson doesn't look like his father Mychal, the former No. 1 overall pick in the 1978 NBA draft out of the University of Minnesota. You wouldn't know he was Mychal's son unless you were well-versed in his background and had a bio handy.

[+] EnlargeRalph Sampson
AP Photo/Darron CummingsSampson was three-time National Player of the Year at UVa. He now cheers on his son from the stands.

You can't miss Sampson III, though. He isn't 7-foot-4. But he resembles his father enough -- and the name is a giveaway. His father was also the No. 1 overall pick, in 1983 by the Houston Rockets. A three-time national player of the year at Virginia, Sampson is arguably one of the most dominating college players in the past 50 years.

But despite all the similarities, the burden on both of these young men isn't comparable.

Thompson relishes his role as the leader of the Washington State Cougars, a team that could end up being a bit of a sleeper in the Pac-10 under first-year coach Ken Bone.

Sampson is expected to increase his role for a rising team at Minnesota, a squad that shocked the establishment early last season with a win over Louisville and that made a surprise trip to the NCAA tournament. This season, Sampson, who averaged 6.3 points and four boards as a freshman, will be a key contributor for a Gophers team that should start the season in the top 25.

Their roles are not the same, but for a few days in June, you could see how they each handle the pressure of trying to live up to their name.

This isn't a new phenomenon. Sons of NBA players have come through before and will continue to do so in the years to come as the stars of the '70s, '80s and (gulp) even the early '90s make their way to college.

The Currys, Stephen and Seth, have admirably held up Dell Curry's name. Patrick Ewing Jr. made solid contributions at Georgetown after a rough start to his college experience at Indiana. The Jordan boys, Jeff and Marcus, shouldn't be expected to even come close to their father, Michael. That's just not fair. Jeff Jordan was a walk-on at Illinois and after two seasons he decided to give up hoops. Marcus Jordan, the younger brother, is headed to Central Florida. There are plenty more.

Still, the name Ralph Sampson III is hard to ignore. You expect to see Sampson enter the gym as a tall, slender big man, altering and blocking shots. Instead, you get a developing big man still trying to find his way. That's fine as long as everyone is patient.

"Right now, it's very hard to differentiate myself from my dad and from the name," Sampson III said after a Team USA trials practice in June. "When people see my name, all they think about is my dad. They expect me to play like he did and do things like he did. I know that it's out there. I just try to play my game."

There is a natural curiosity factor with Sampson III. You wait, you watch and you wonder how he handles everyone naturally expecting him to be someone else. It's not right. But it's hard to dismiss.

"My dad left his imprint on basketball and made history and now it's up to me to make my own history," Sampson III said.

He has his visions on the NBA. He has the size at 6-11, 230 pounds, but the skills need work. He isn't dominant. He can have a presence, but it's going to take time. Playing for Tubby Smith should help him become an even better defender. His father's shot-blocking created a niche and his face-up game was somewhat revolutionary at the time for a big man.

"He's still got that jump shot and can hit it from the 3-point line," Sampson III said. "He's still strong in the post."

But Sampson III knows everyone is watching each time he plays.

"There have been quite a few frustrating moments on the court," he said. "You get people who want to carve out their slice of someone son's son. There are people in the stands that will say, 'He didn't play like his father did.' That's why I have to go out and play my game, not for anyone else, but me. I've got to stay grounded in my faith and go out and play hard."

Sampson's father has had a bit of a turbulent post-career. According to a story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Sampson II served two months as part of a plea agreement offered by federal prosecutors in a case involving mail fraud and unpaid child support. He owed money to the mothers of two children he fathered in the 1980s.

"I always looked at my dad as just a dad and that it was cool that he played basketball," Sampson III said. "I never got into his fame. I didn't watch any of his games until I started getting into basketball. Growing up I never focused on my dad's fame."

[+] EnlargeKlay Thompson
AP Photo/Ben MargotKlay Thompson led WSU in 3-point and free throw percentage as a freshman. He returns as the team's leading scorer.

Growing up, Thompson wasn't aware of his father's talents, either.

"I didn't know he was so good in college," said Thompson, who was Wazzu's third-leading scorer last season (12.5 ppg as a freshman) and is the top returning scorer. Thompson averaged 7.8 points in 19.3 minutes a game for the gold-winning Americans. "I didn't know he was an All-American, the player of the year, the No. 1 pick. I was shocked he was that good. I didn't know he was picked over Larry Bird. We never talked about it."

That alone is somewhat amazing. They never spoke about it? And Klay wanted to play basketball, too?

"I saw a game tape of him playing against Magic Johnson and Michigan State and I didn't know he was that good," Thompson said of his father, who played his first eight seasons with the Trail Blazers and later won two championships with the Lakers. "Now that I know, I tell him he was decent. But I don't brag to my friends. I don't want it to go straight to his head."

The elder Thompson does have plenty of reason to brag about his offspring, however. The oldest son, Mychel, was Pepperdine's second-leading scorer as a sophomore last season. Another son, Trayce, was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in this summer's MLB draft.

Klay Thompson said his father, who is currently a radio color commentator for the Lakers, gave him plenty of space to explore his passion. Klay played multiple sports but settled on hoops. But unlike Thompson III, he doesn't play the same position his father did. Mychal played up front. Klay is a slender wing, driving to the hole as much as possible.

"This has been pretty cool to see the sons of NBA players," Thompson said while in Colorado Springs. "I'm going against Ralph Sampson just like my dad did. I'm going against Seth Curry, just like my dad with his father. I think it's going to be cool for them to watch their sons be successful on the college level."

But that's where we all hold a responsibility of sorts. Ralph Sampson III has the name he can't ignore. But he can't be compared to his father. It's not close. It shouldn't be. They are two different players, with different sizes and different body types.

The same is true for Klay Thompson. It's essentially the case in almost every instance. Sampson and Thompson enter their sophomore seasons on teams that are expected to surge forward. But they should feel responsible to make good on their promising careers for their respective coaches, for themselves and for their programs -- not because of their famous fathers.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com