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NBA legend Sampson assisting at Padres camp

Club invites Hall of Famer to 'pick his brain' behind the scenes
MLB.com @AJCassavell

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Ralph Sampson has never been one to blend into a crowd.

This week, the 7-foot-4 Basketball Hall of Famer is at Padres camp. The organization invited him to the Peoria Sports Complex to assist behind the scenes.

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Ralph Sampson has never been one to blend into a crowd.

This week, the 7-foot-4 Basketball Hall of Famer is at Padres camp. The organization invited him to the Peoria Sports Complex to assist behind the scenes.

Sampson is merely an observer during the team's morning workouts, where he towers over members of the Padres' front office. Even from the sidelines, his presence is massive.

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One player joked that when he shook Sampson's hand, "it tickled my elbow." Padres 6-foot-10 right-hander Chris Young told manager Andy Green, "He makes me feel small."

But despite Sampson's stature, he's taken a back seat at Padres camp, learning the ropes of a new sport -- but one he's always loved.

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"At a young age, I played, I pitched a little bit, and then my size kind of overtook baseball, and I started to focus on one sport," Sampson said. "I love this game. Baseball is interesting to me, especially the strategy. I love being outside, the field, the fans."

Sampson, who resides in Los Angeles, visited Petco Park several times during the offseason. His initial Padres connection came through managing partner Peter Seidler, who attended the University of Virginia with Sampson.

Members of the Padres' coaching staff and front office met with Sampson during the offseason. They came away impressed with his world view.

"I've really enjoyed his takes on just about everything," Green said. "His mind works really well. He's got some philosophical things that might marry up with our organization."

Sampson arrived at Padres camp over the weekend. In that time, he's gone to dinner with groups of players and members of the Padres' staff. He's also sat in on various meetings around the complex.

It's not an uncommon occurrence. The Padres often invite guests to Spring Training, and they'll have several speakers over the course of camp. Of course, most of those guests aren't quite so conspicuous.

"When you're 7-foot-4 and a basketball Hall of Famer, it's hard to blend in," quipped Padres general manager A.J. Preller.

Preller, a lifelong basketball fan, recalled watching Sampson play for the Rockets in the 1986 NBA Finals.

"One of the lucky things when you work in pro sports, you sometimes have access to people you grew up watching, and you definitely have respect for guys who have done great things in different sports," Preller said. "You see a guy that was basically a legend, in terms of high school, college and eventually the NBA. And you pick his brain, trying to see if there's any similarities, commonalities he can bring to the baseball side."

Sampson was a three-time college player of the year at Virginia before he was drafted by the Rockets in 1983. He'd go on to win Rookie of the Year the following season, and he'd amass more than 7,000 points and 4,000 rebounds over a nine-year NBA career.

Toward the end of that career, Sampson dealt with numerous knee and back injuries, which kept him off the court for long stretches. One of those "commonalities" Preller talked about was dealing with adversity -- particularly rehabbing injuries -- and bouncing back. Sampson has plenty to offer in that regard.

Sampson is quick to note that the first bridge between the two sports is the hard work and behind-the-scenes process necessary for success.

"They've gotten here for a reason," Sampson said. "They're talented, they have athletic skills and have been playing baseball since a young age. You see that, but you have to understand to mold it, shape it: 17-, 18-, 19-year-old kids are still very young in this game. It's a process you've got to go through, and they have to understand how to undertake that process."

The Padres have certainly enjoyed Sampson's presence, and it's a possibility he'll be around the club on an occasional basis when the regular season hits.

"Obviously in different sports, it's a different culture, different challenges," Preller said. "From our standpoint, it's a great opportunity to bring Ralph in, have him see some baseball, watch some baseball and figure out where it goes from there."

Sampson has done far more listening than talking at Padres camp. He's still learning the ins and outs of baseball.

Upon his arrival, he was particularly surprised at the size of the complex and the total number of players in the Minor League system. He pointed out what a huge undertaking it must be to build a World Series-caliber team. He's happy to help any way he can.

"How can I use my career and my life to help them a little bit in one way or another, personally?" Sampson said. "Just life lessons, life skills, from making your bed up every day to being a professional player at the top level and maintaining that level.

"I think I can help with that. I'm getting my feet wet with the language of baseball, learning the kids and learning how I can instill those values."

AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.

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