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Entrepreneurial Attitude Bolsters Sampson's Success

Even as a young girl growing up in Clinton, she showed off her entrepreneurial skills by working a homemade Kool Aid stand or other times holding cookie sales outside of her home.

"If I made 50 cents or $1, I was rich because I made more than my friends did in a whole week," she said. "My friends would go into the tobacco field or the cotton field, but I wasn't doing that mess. No way. That was not for Tonya."

Sampson refused to buckle under the pressure to act like everyone else.

For that reason, she was a pioneer in North Carolina women's basketball. While other women were signing with Connecticut and other big-name schools, Sampson decided to make her mark on a smaller, less recognized program.

"I was recruited by about every school you could name," she said. "I knew I wanted to stay in North Carolina so my family could watch me play. ... It was a blessing just to have a scholarship. (UNC) didn't have someone to give them that punch, and I guess I was that person."

But back then, college wasn't a place women flocked to solely for athletics. Instead, they had to have another reason if they were to find success.

"When I chose Carolina, it wasn't where the team was, but where it was going to take me for my future," she said.

So in 1991, when Sampson enrolled at UNC, she aimed for a bachelor's degree in recreation administration, and a business minor.

But her academic pursuits didn't keep her from excelling on the basketball court.

As a freshman, Sampson averaged 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds, bringing her skills to a struggling squad. But instead of playing forward, like she did at Clinton High School, Sampson was utilized as a guard by UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell.

As Sampson became more comfortable in her role, she ended up scoring the second-most points in UNC history: 2,143 in 123 games.

"She liked to go lift weights the day that we had a game because it made her feel strong and powerful and that was what Tonya brought to our team," Hatchell said. "She played that way, and it rubbed off on everybody else."

Hatchell said it was Sampson's attitude that drove the team to success in 1994, when UNC secured the national championship -- its first and only one.

"She was one of the first players that came and hugged my neck and lifted me off the floor," Hatchell said. "She said to me, 'Coach, we accepted the challenge, and now we're feeling the exhilaration of victory.' Because I had always preached that to her ... that's what she said to me."

Teammate Charlotte Smith-Taylor said Sampson was why UNC women's basketball became a national caliber team.

"I think you could categorize her amongst players like the Magic Johnsons and the flashy type players," said Smith-Taylor, currently an assistant UNC women's basketball coach. "She was pulling all kinds of tricks out of the hat and moves that really wowed the crowds."

Upon graduation, Sampson ranked in UNC's top 10 in nearly every category, including rebounds, assists and steals.

The WNBA didn't exist in 1994, so Sampson decided to follow her two loves in life -- business and basketball. She cranked up multiple businesses and then decided to play basketball overseas.

Currently Sampson runs her own business, Universal Services Mortgage, and because of a stress fracture in her leg it is one of her primary focuses.

But before the injury, which she incurred playing for Pussihukat in Finland, she ran her business after her morning workouts.

"I was doing my business here while I was in Finland," Sampson said. "It was easy because of the time frame. I had to juggle working an extra four to five hours after I got home after practice."

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Using e-mail and the telephone, Sampson worked with just an office assistant and a processor for the loans to keep her business afloat.

And despite her involvement as a private investor, she isn't satisfied.

"I'm chasing a dream to make the WNBA," she said.

But Sampson said her age and the fact she hasn't played competitively for three years most likely will hinder her goal. That's no problem, though. She has plans, as long as they don't involve working for anyone else.

"Sometimes I want to coach, and sometimes I don't," she said. "I'm more of a teacher than a coach. I'd rather stick to the fundamentals than the X's and O's."

The Sports Editor can be reached at sports@unc.edu.