Basketball lineage is only part of their background

  • Article by: MYRON P. MEDCALF , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 22, 2011 - 10:42 AM

For Ralph Sampson III, Austin Hollins and Saul Smith, their famous fathers might have passed along basketball genes, but all three found their own identities on the floor.

The Gophers’ Ralph Sampson III (50) and Austin Hollins are sons of former NBA All-Stars in Ralph Sampson Jr. and Lionel Hollins, respectively.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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No matter how hard he tries, he can't hide.

Ralph Sampson Jr.'s 7-4 frame, the one that helped him win three national player of the year awards at Virginia in the early 1980s, betrays him these days as he tries to play the role of a normal dad.

That frame also makes it difficult for Ralph Sampson III to be a normal college player with the Gophers. His famous father travels the country to see his son's games, but it is the father who remains in the spotlight, constantly entertaining interview requests, photo-ops and a stream of handshakes from admirers.

Following a father with an elite basketball legacy is a common thread for the Gophers. Freshman Austin Hollins is the son of former NBA star and current Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins. Gophers assistant coach Saul Smith is the son of coach Tubby Smith and played for his father for four years at Kentucky.

The three sons share this trait: They say their fathers let them evolve into their own players.

During a Gophers victory over St. Joseph's in Philadelphia last month, Ralph Sampson Jr. tried to relax in the bleachers, but the stilts below his kneecaps towered a foot above everyone sitting in front of him. By halftime, he had on a headset during interviews with radio and TV outlets.

His stature in the basketball world virtually demands comparisons whenever his son throws up a sweet hook or blocks a shot barely leaving the floor. Still, Sampson Jr. said he allows his son to forge his own identity.

"No pressure whatsoever. We believe pressure comes from within, not from without," Sampson Jr. said last month. "He's handled it very well from a little kid until now. It's not about Dad and what Dad has done. It's about what you want to do."

Sampson III said he doesn't feel like he has to succeed his father's lineage. But like most sons, he said he loves to make Dad proud.

"Just him being there, just sitting there in the stands,'' the junior center said. "I know he's sitting there watching and critiquing, which makes me want to play up to his standards because at the end of the game, I want him just to sit there and say, 'I can't tell you anything because you've done it all.' But I haven't gotten to that point yet. After the game, he always has something to say."

Just Dad

Lionel Hollins sees some resemblances when he watches his son compete.

"He's taller than me,'' he said recently. "I know I was quicker and faster than him, but that might be debatable."

Hollins, a 6-3 guard who played in the NBA from 1975 to '85, didn't force any of his four children to play basketball. They all played, but only Austin developed a love for the game.

Although Lionel's exploits have included an NBA championship ring, All-Star appearance and lengthy coaching career, he said he didn't want basketball to define his children, having witnessed too many overbearing parents.

"I've seen it all through all of my kids' upbringing," he said. "They're on these travel teams, they spend all this money traveling around the country and the kids don't have any fun."

Austin Hollins said his exposure to basketball through his father enhanced his basketball IQ and shaped his instincts.

The latter is obvious when he finger-rolls on a fast break or intercepts a cross-court pass. But he credits his parents' emphasis on academics, not athletics, for molding him into a balanced Division I player.

"I want to do well in everything I do," he said. "It was my decision to play basketball. They didn't push me to play basketball. I just went with it and they were behind me the whole way."

T-ball to basketball

Sampson III also said he chose basketball on his own when he was a kid.

"I started off playing basketball at the YMCA," he said. "My mom signed me up for that. She also signed me up for T-ball. T-ball got a little boring for me because you're standing out there on first base and the ball would never come to me and I would just kind of stand there and get hot. I decided to make the complete switch to basketball because it was more exciting."

Saul Smith can relate to the experiences.

He withstood critics who assumed he earned his minutes because of his father. As a freshman, Saul was a point guard on the Tubby-coached 1997-98 Kentucky team that won the national championship.

The critics only inspired him to play harder, he said.

"For me, I had to deal with being a coach's son," he said. "You have a bunch of people that probably automatically think no matter what you do, it's never going to be good enough. That kind of fuels you a little bit."

Tubby Smith also coached another of his three sons, G.G., for two years at Georgia in the mid-90s. But he said his sons didn't face the comparisons that his players Sampson and Hollins have encountered.

"[G.G. and Saul] both were very capable players and understood the game extremely well," Smith said. "Those six years were probably the winningest years in my coaching career. ... It would be much tougher for a Ralph; it's much tougher on Austin. ... I wasn't any good, so my boys didn't have to live up to anything when it came to basketball. They were much better than I was. It was a big difference."

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