Ralph Sampson hopes the city's newest professional sports team, the Rhythm, has every Richmonder marching to the same beat.
When Ralph Sampson spreads his arms out to make a point, it's hard not to notice.
Sampson is seated at one end of a table in the "war room" of the still-sparse Richmond Rhythm offices, upstairs in the 6th Street Marketplace. Along the wall behind Sampson, cards with the team logo, a stadium seating chart for the Coliseum and other team information just manage to draw attention away from stacks of files and literature from the previous tenant.
Sampson is talking about what it's going to take to make the Rhythm, part of the new International Basketball League, a successful, thriving player in downtown Richmond. Sampson is the team's executive vice president and general manager. He was hired in April by team owners Charles and Wanda Gill, Chesterfield residents who own Gill's Limousine Services Inc.
It's going to take a lot, and Sampson knows it.
"What I've done is load up the plate," Sampson says, gesturing to illustrate the platter in question. As long as the 7-foot-4-inch Sampson's wingspan is, that's a very broad plate. "You know, when you sit down to eat, you got to load up your plate as much as you can, and sometimes you can't eat it all. I know what I want to do, and if we can get a good portion of it done, I think we'll be successful."
Richmond's last flirtation with professional basketball, the Richmond Rage of the American Basketball League, ended less than spectacularly two years ago when the professional women's team left for Philadelphia and the ABL folded soon after.
But basketball is back. The Richmond Rhythm will host a predraft camp June 17-19, and draft a team on July 19. The inaugural IBL season kicks off Nov. 26, and Sampson thinks with the right mix of players, promotions and family fun, the Rhythm has a good chance to become a big hit.
Sampson, who hasn't ruled out coaching the Rhythm, was looking to get back into pro basketball late last year, when a nascent Continental Basketball Association franchise in St. Louis contacted him. During the course of Sampson's negotiations with officials in St. Louis, the franchise jumped the CBA and joined the IBL. When Richmond was awarded an IBL franchise, it made sense for Sampson, a Harrisonburg native and University of Virginia star, to stay put. "I looked at it and decided this is going to be pretty good, and I can stay right here in Richmond," Sampson says.
Entrepenuer Arthur R. Cipriani Jr., who was a founding member of the Natural Gas Clearinghouse, an international energy firm, is the main force behind the IBL, and the league's chief executive officer. The league will begin in eight cities, including San Diego, California, Las Vegas, Nevada, St. Louis, Missouri and Baltimore.
Sampson thinks Richmond and the region are primed for pro ball and family entertainment. And that's his vision for the Richmond Rhythm. Sampson recalls the popularity of the American Basketball Association's Virginia Squires, which featured a young Julius Erving, fresh out of college. "Richmond enjoyed that," Sampson says. "And Richmond enjoyed the Rage." He also says that the NBA has earmarked the Richmond-Tidewater corridor as ripe for NBA expansion. And a January 1999 article in Street and Smith's SportsBusiness Journal cited Hampton Roads and Richmond as first and fourth, respectively on a list of areas ready for major-league expansion franchises.
"Certainly there is a market for this level of basketball," says Scott Schricker, sports marketing director for the Metro Richmond Sports Backers. He says that the East Coast Hockey League's Renegades and the Triple A Richmond Braves consistently rank in the mid- to-upper echelons of their respective leagues in terms of attendance. So did the Rage. Schricker explains that they left not because Richmond wasn't supporting the team, but because the ABL had its eyes on bigger markets. In the ABL's fight with the larger-market Women's National Basketball Association, the Rage moved to Philadelphia, a much larger market, to try to capitalize on the popularity of its star, Dawn Staley, a Philadelphia native.
"I certainly think there's a market for [the IBL] in Richmond," Schricker says.
"We feel it's very necessary for Richmond to embrace the team," Sampson says. "But you've got to let Richmond embrace you." Sampson says that means giving the team time to grow, and providing entertainment for everyone, all afternoon and evening on game days.
Components of the IBL structure should help. First, there is a territory clause in the draft that says teams have the right to draft and try to sign local players. That means that Richmonders can look forward to seeing more of local standouts like Kendrick Warren and U.Va's Harold Deane, two players Sampson says he would be happy to have on the Rhythm. And the league has a mandatory community-involvement component that will get players into the city, in community centers, hospitals and off-season basketball camps.
But Sampson acknowledges that it's going to take more than that to fill the Coliseum with basketball fans. It's going to take entertainment, and events for all ages. He envisions a concourse filled with activities for children, like free-throw contests, face painting and even interactive computer labs. Along different demographic lines, Sampson outlines plans for the Rhythm Club, a pregame meeting place with cocktails and appetizers for networking professionals.
"Between the hours of 4:30 and 7, 7:30 being game time, when they go into the game, we would hope that the concourse would be pretty jam-packed with people wanting to come and be entertained," Sampson says. "We can go get a ball right now and play outside, and we might get to two or three people to come and watch, and that's fine. But we need the Coliseum full."
Sampson's expansive optimism is nearly contagious. "My thing is, Richmond has to get ready and support it," he says. "Because it's here. And it's time to get with
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