CHARLOTTESVILLE — Forty years ago, Ralph Sampson made a recruiting visit to the University of Virginia, flying over the clam-shell dome atop University Hall in a helicopter and seeing his name written on the roof.
“Ralph’s House,” is what a group of UVA students had painted atop the arena.
Saturday, Sampson and fellow UVA basketball great Dawn Staley got to drop the ceremonial plunger, setting off 549 pounds of explosives and bringing Ralph’s House to the ground for good.
“It’s surreal,” the now-58-year-old Sampson, the only three time national player of the year, said moments before the 10 a.m. demolition. “When you start to see it fall, it’ll be sad. There will be memories that pop back. When it’s not there anymore, it’s going to be something that is going to be well-missed by a lot of people, a lot of athletes and a lot of fans.”
Opened in 1965, U-Hall — as it came to be known — was the home court for the Cavaliers’ men’s and women’s programs and housed offices and locker rooms for most of the school’s other sports, as well.
Saturday morning, Sampson and Staley, who led the Virginia women to three Final Fours and won three Olympic gold medals with Team USA, were joined by many of the most iconic names in their program’s histories, including former coaches Terry Holland and Debbie Ryan.
“It was my home,” said Ryan, who coached UVA to those three Final Fours. “’Most of my career was spent there. It’s hard to watch her go down today. It’s really hard to watch her go down.”
Ryan, who served on planning committees for the university’s athletic department, said she knew for a long time that the day would come that U-Hall would be demolished for some other use. Grass practice fields are planned for the site of the old arena, once the rubble is cleared.
It wasn’t until this past week that it really hit her emotionally.
“When everyone started interviewing me, that’s when I started to feel sad about it,” Ryan said. “It’s just got so many memories, so many great times in there. Great, great things happened in University Hall.”
Staley was a part of many of those great things. Now the coach at South Carolina — where she won a national championship in 2017 — Staley was recently named the coach of USA Basketball for the upcoming Olympic games in Tokyo in 2020.
Still, she made time to travel to Charlottesville to be there Saturday’s implosion.
“Driving here and thinking about what was going to take place, there was a certain sadness that came over me because of what it means to me,” Staley said. “The memories of U-Hall — the people, the basketball, the sisterhood that was formed.”
Five minutes before 10 a.m., UVA athletic director Carla Williams addressed a crowd of supporters, former players and coaches. Then Sampson, Staley and board of visitors member Robert Hardie, pushed down a ceremonial detonation plunger as the order was given to fire the explosives, triggered with over 3,200 lineal feet of detonating cord, setting up the charges in 468 locations around the columns and ring beam that held up the dome.
Over a dozen explosions could be heard, followed by a pause and then another loud set of blasts. The east side of the dome collapsed first, a second or two before the west side came down. The entire demolition lasted less than seven seconds.
That’s all it took to bring down Ralph’s House.