DULUTH, GA.  — It's Thursday afternoon. Ralph Sampson III emerges from the locker room wearing the de rigueur pregame wardrobe for basketball players everywhere -- baggy sweats, iPod earphones, 100-yard stare.

It is 90 minutes before his last high school basketball game, a lopsided playoff loss that will end a career spanning three schools and two states. After Thursday, the next meaningful game for Sampson III, the son of the legendary Ralph Sampson, will be played in a Gophers jersey next fall, when Sampson will be heralded as Tubby Smith's signature recruit at Minnesota.

Tonight, though, Sampson is thinking about the Wheeler Wildcats. Walking with his head down -- as if, at 6-11, he has bumped his head on a few too many doorjambs -- Sampson leans against a wall, closes his eyes, listens to the music and waits.

• • •

Aleiza Sampson saw Ralph III's basketball prowess foreshadowed when she was still married to Ralph and her son was wearing diapers. "When he was 2 months old, he flipped from his stomach to his back," Aleiza said. "He walked when he was 8 months old. I can remember one time his cousins were playing with a ball, running around the playpen, and Ralph stood up and with one arm grabbed the ball and fell back into the playpen.

"I was like, 'Wow.' That was an early sign that he was going to be very special."

One of Ralph III's earliest memories is his parents urging him to dunk on a Nerf hoop.

"And he would dunk with expression," Aleiza said. "... When he was 2, we had this plastic Wiffle ball set, and he could hit a hand-pitched ball. So his hand-eye coordination was great. And when he was old enough, he and his dad and brother would go outside and play 'Horse.'"

By the third grade, Ralph III wore a size 9 shoe, and his father was telling reporters, "No question, he'll be better than me."

• • •

Sampson's Northview High team and Wheeler are playing in the regional semifinals, at Sprayberry High. Sampson sinks a couple of smooth three-pointers in warmups.

He wears jersey number 50 and an inscrutable expression, just like Dad. The resemblance is remarkable: Sampson III, 5 inches shorter than his father, is Mini-He.

The game begins and Wheeler, a state power, is in a different league. Aleiza says that Ralph III has a badly bruised knee that is affecting his play, that he's normally an "inside-out" player who on this night is forced to play in the high post.

Sampson blocks Wheeler's first shot. He handles the ball deftly and tries to swat every shot within range of his long wingspan, but a late burst gives Wheeler a big halftime lead, and Sampson jogs to the locker room without changing expression.

• • •

Ralph III's parents, after 17 years of marriage, divorced in 2003. Aleiza moved to Alabama with the kids "for personal reasons," and Ralph III's high school team won a state championship his freshman year.

Upon moving back to Georgia, Sampson won a private school state title before transferring to Northview, the public school in his district.

"When he was 10, he went to Florida with an AAU team and they won the national invitation tournament," Aleiza said. "He was named to the all-state tournament team when his team won the state title in Alabama, and he started as a freshman. He was impressive.

"Then we moved back to Georgia and he played for a private school and they won, and he was named to the state tournament team again."

While Ralph III's star was rising, his father was living a Greek tragedy.

• • •

Long before there were college recruiting blogs, Ralph Sampson became one of the most sought-after prep basketball players in history. Recruited by every basketball powerhouse, he settled on Virginia and coach Terry Holland.

He won three national player of the year awards in four years and took Virginia to a Final Four.

His size, combined with his ballhandling and shooting, made Sampson a unique and historical figure in the game.

The Houston Rockets chose him with the first pick in 1983. Sampson became NBA Rookie of the Year and a four-time All-Star. With Hakeem Olajuwon, the other Twin Tower, he helped Houston to the NBA Finals, where the Rockets lost to the Celtics in five games and Sampson took a famous swing at Jerry Sichting, now a Timberwolves assistant.

Knee injuries led to a trade to Golden State, which dealt him to Sacramento for Jim Petersen, now a Wolves broadcaster. After three surgeries and perhaps too much eagerness to return too quickly from injury, the knees were shot. He was waived by Sacramento in 1991, played 10 games that season with Washington and finished his career with eight games in the Spanish League.

At 32, his career was over. He became an assistant, making $16,000, for Lefty Driesell at James Madison.

His travails would not be limited to the realm of basketball. With eight children born to five women, Sampson would find his finances and reputation under attack.

• • •

Wheeler's half-court trap and intent on keeping Sampson from the basket turn the second half into an exercise in moral victories.

Northview coach Steve Bombard urges his players to drive, and Sampson responds by drawing a few fouls.

"The one thing we've been trying to get him to do the most is be aggressive going to the basket," Bombard says. "If you come to practice, he'll catch the ball at the top of the key, he'll pump fake or pass fake and just take it to the hole and dunk it.

"We're trying to get that confidence into the games."

Sampson fouls out with 4:38 remaining, with 14 points, nine rebounds, nine blocks and three assists. Sampson finishes the season averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks.

• • •

Ralph's father does not show. Ralph III says his dad makes most games and that he and his brother Robert, a 6-7 sophomore forward on the team, see him regularly.

Aleiza, who declines to answer questions about her ex-husband, said he was confused about the game time. Attempts to reach Ralph Sampson on his cell phone this week were unsuccessful.

Sampson might be gun-shy about publicity. Even during his glory years, he sometimes drew criticism for playing a soft game, for dominating less than a skilled 7-4 player should.

Those headlines were bouquets compared to the ones after his playing career ended. After working with Driesell, Sampson became an entrepreneur, running youth sports camps, then becoming general manager and then coach of the Richmond Rhythm basketball team.

He received $539,060 in 1999 in deferred income from the Kings and $134,765 the next year, according to a sworn statement by a special agent for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

That information came to light in 2003, during his first battle over child support in federal court.

In 2001, Sampson reported $11,207 as his yearly income. "The money runs out, people run out," Sampson once said.

Sampson worked as a marketer for an Atlanta mortgage-banking business and attempted to sell a plan for voice communications over the Internet. About two weeks before implementing that plan, he was arrested at home by federal agents.

He served two months as part of a plea agreement offered by federal prosecutors in a case involving mail fraud and unpaid child support.

Sampson was forced to pay $300,000 he owed the mothers of two children he fathered in the 1980s and pleaded guilty to a mail fraud charge tied to a $43,000 SUV he bought in 2004 through one of his corporations. The government dropped its charge that Sampson lied about his income and financial status during his arraignment after his 2005 arrest in Atlanta in another child support case. He was charged with failure to pay $250,000 to another woman with whom he had a child in 1987; that case was settled.

• • •

Ralph III is folded onto a narrow wooden bench in an empty locker room, alongside his brother and Bombard. He's friendly and soft-spoken. His mother says he's an "A-B" student who was impressed by Minnesota's academics as well as by Smith.

Sampson chose Minnesota over Kentucky, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.

"Coach Smith was what attracted my attention to Minnesota," Sampson says. "They were also the first school to offer me a scholarship."

The brothers are obviously close. They joke about their 1-on-1 games and the collateral damage of dunking at home.

"Robert was outside, trying to practice dunking, and he was hanging on the rim, which loosened it," Ralph III said. "I was going to go out there and show him how to do it, and when I went up and dunked it, I pulled the whole basket off the side of the house."

Ralph III is asked what his goal is for his Minnesota career. "My No. 1 goal," he says, "is to win a national championship."

• • •

During the trial, attorney James Roberts asked Judge James Spencer to consider Sampson's work with children and read a letter of support from former Virginia coach Terry Holland.

"If Ralph Sampson has a flaw, it's that he can't please everyone or meet their expectations," Holland wrote.

Roberts said Sampson stopped paying child support when his NBA money ran short, citing bad business decisions by a sports agent that depleted Sampson's funds. At the end of the case, Spencer said: "I've not seen one thing that convinces me Mr. Sampson is a bad person, a terrible person. He was unable to pay, not unwilling to pay."

"I have great kids," Sampson told the St. Petersburg Times last year. "And I always tell my kids and the ones I work with, the glass is half full, not half empty. This has been going on a number of years, but I've gotten through it. And I've always looked ahead, because I want to make sure that what happens in the end will show people what Ralph Sampson is all about."

• • •

Aleiza is in the stands with friends and family, fretting about the lopsided loss, saying Ralph III's knee didn't allow him to play his best.

"My mom, she's probably the backbone of my career," Ralph III says. "She's been the one pushing forward. She's been there every step of the way and has supported me from the beginning."

Ralph III is one of his father's eight children, but he is the only one with the name that will be recognized in every gym in America. During the Wheeler game, one fan points and says, "His dad is like 7-6!"

What's it like to be the next Ralph Sampson?

"I know people recognize the name because of my dad," he said. "I know they have a lot of expectations. I just try to live up to being myself and find myself in the game of basketball."

Aleiza regrets that a visitor missed Sampson helping win Northview's first playoff game.

"You should have seen him Tuesday," she said. "He was all over the court."

As the son rises and the father recovers, that description can mean different things to different Ralph Sampsons.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. • jsouhan@startribune.com