If John W. “Ned” Sampson had been born in a different decade or to white parents, more people might know about his life, especially his achievements on the basketball court.
But Sampson was born in Robeson County in 1929 to American Indian parents, so much of his life was charted from the beginning. Opportunities for American Indians in the Jim Crow South were limited, and Sampson would not travel far to display his athletic talents, starring in basketball, football and baseball at what was then Pembroke State College .
His best sport was probably basketball as he averaged 24.3 points per game during his senior season in college. Legend has it that after Sampson played against a traveling team of collegiate all-stars, Dick Groat, an All-American at Duke University, wrote him a letter saying he was the best basketball player Groat had ever faced. That is high praise.
Sampson is a member of three halls of fame — his alma mater’s, now The University of North Carolina at Pembroke; as a 2005 inductee into the North Carolina High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame, a recognition not only of his playing ability but of his long career as an educator and coach in Robeson County; and as a charter member of the Robeson County Sports Hall of Fame.
Sampson died last week at the age of 84, following the Jan. 11 death of his wife Eva, who worked for decades at the Pembroke university. Feb. 6 would have marked 60 years of marriage for the pair.
Sampson’s story is another demonstration of how a sports story can be something larger. Sampson had reason to be bitter, born into a society that kept doors closed for trumped up reasons, but he used sports as a vehicle to bring people of all races together onto a field or basketball court, where the rules didn’t bend in favor of anyone based on skin color, and friendships could be forged through competition and understanding.
In doing so, Sampson helped open doors for Robesonians of color, including his son Kelvin, a former head basketball coach of Oklahoma and Indiana universities, and now an assistant coach for the NBA’s Houston Rockets.
To know Sampson was to like him. He was often at athletic events at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and although declining health in recent years robbed him of the mobility that he displayed on athletic venues, his welcoming smile was a fixture until the end.
Sampson is no longer with us, but his legacy will live on through thousands of people, many of color, who as young students watched him negotiate life’s injustices with great dignity, humility and ability while giving them a template on how to win in life even when its playing field is tilted.