Former Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets general manager Ray Patterson enjoyed a long and respected career as an NBA executive, and we'd prefer not to sully his legacy just by highlighting one bit of hyperbole, but his on-record expectations regarding how well Ralph Sampson would fare in the NBA has to set the tone for how you regard the career of the former Rockets big man. From Fran Blinebury's piece on Ralph, here's Patterson's quote:
"Sampson is not going to be the player of the decade. He's going to be the player of the century -- the century. Ralph will dominate the league and change basketball. Forget about every other big man you've ever heard about. This is the guy who will be better than them all."
Nearly three decades later, we're well aware that Sampson hasn't turned into "the player of the century." And we highlight this quote not to embarrass Sampson, as he prepares to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, but to highlight just how significant his talents were, and point out the endless amounts of nonsense that dogged a frustrating NBA career.
Sampson's ascension to the Hall is likely a response to his combined NCAA and NBA work. Sampson was a phenomenon at the University of Virginia, earning three National Player of the Year titles while working in an era that featured a remarkable amount of talent throughout the Atlantic Coast Conference. Sampson never won a title, though, only making it to the Final Four once in his collegiate career.
Drafted first overall by the Houston Rockets in 1983, Sampson joined a team that wasn't miserable in terms of talent, just staid and without a lot of breakout potential. In players like Rodney McCray and Lewis Lloyd the Rockets featured a pair of wings that were solid enough, and around Sampson's age, but never in any real danger of making an All-Star team. Even in the loaded Western Conference, that's exactly what Sampson did during his rookie year — putting together perhaps his finest year statistically (21 points, 11 rebounds, 2.5 blocks in just 32 minutes a night, playing all 82 games) for a team that only won 29 games.
All those losses allowed Houston another chance at the top draft pick, which was earned through a series of coin flips in the days before the lottery. Though Michael Jordan was the reigning NCAA Player of the Year, John Stockton would go on to break NBA records in assists and steals, and Charles Barkley would look awful nice banging down low next to Sampson, the Rockets tested NBA orthodoxy in selecting another center with the top pick: Houston native, by way of Nigeria, Hakeem Olajuwon. Dream would be asked to start in the pivot with the Rockets, with the more versatile (though taller, by a little over four inches) Sampson moving to power forward.
Even in retrospect, it seems like the smart move. Sampson's whirling style and skinny (even for his era) frame were best suited for a big forward position that would allow him to roam and make decisions on the fly. Though Olajuwon would later go on to perfect the sort of footwork that would allow him to outmaneuver giants with moves a guard would envy, at that point he was a low-post monster under strict tutelage from Moses Malone. Even with all we know about Jordan, or Stockton, this is a move to be admired some 28 years later.
Houston dug it. The Rockets turned into a playoff team in 1985, with Sampson winning the All-Star game MVP along the way, and a 51-win championship contender in 1985-86. With a legendarily great Boston Celtics team seemingly poised to challenge the Los Angeles Lakers in an NBA Finals for the ages, the Rockets came out of nowhere to surprise Los Angeles in shockingly-fast 4-1 Western Conference finals win. The triumph was made official by Sampson's legendary twist shot at the buzzer in Game 5, a make that literally knocked Laker guard Michael Cooper off his feet:
The Rockets went on to lose to the Boston Celtics in the Finals, but some will tell you that no team in NBA history could have taken down that particular Celtics team in a seven-game series, least of all a Rockets team that still had its flaws. Nevertheless, the presence of Olajuwon, Sampson, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish battling for hoop supremacy in June set off a brief if inspired Twin Tower movement across the NBA. Sports Illustrated documented the influx of dual 7-footer frontlines in its 1986-87 NBA preview, and Pat Riley made literary hay with a book that chronicled his Laker team's work to secure the services of 6-10 Mychal Thompson to pair alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The worrying aspect of it all was Sampson's declining play. Though he played 82 contests in his second season and 79 in Houston's run to the Finals, his overall efficiency was declining along with his per-game numbers. Houston never had an All-Star-level point guard running the show, John Lucas worked well enough as the team's point man during the Finals run but his play was hamstrung by off-court troubles, and Sampson's turnover issues never sorted themselves out. In an era where defense was often an afterthought, Sampson still made fewer than half his shots in 1986 and 1987.
Strangely, despite his 7-4 frame (Ralph will be the Hall's tallest inductee when he takes to the stage on Friday), Sampson wasn't much of a shot blocker in Houston — averaging fewer than two rejections for every 36 minutes he played with the team. Despite the presence of the Twin Towers, Houston was merely a middle-of-the-pack defensive team during the 1986 Finals jaunt. Remember, this was before the injuries hit. A healthy "player of the century" nearing his athletic prime is not supposed to be coming through with a middling 16.9 Player Efficiency Rating on a team fighting for a championship.
More worrying were the drug issues that plagued the team. John Lucas was suspended after admitting to a cocaine problem the following season, and guards Lloyd and newly acquired Mitchell Wiggins were banned (and later reinstated, following treatment) for their off-court habits. Sampson, in an interview with the New York Times around the time of the banishment, was compassionate despite his disappointment:
Sampson said it was simply the power of the drug. ''Scientists have been trying to research the brain for years and they just can't get in there because it's too complicated,'' he said. ''Well, coke gets in there and says, 'Come on, we don't have any problems.'"
Ralph's own knee injuries hit in his fourth year, as Sampson missed nearly half the season and the Rockets lost to a Seattle SuperSonics team featuring the legendary Alton Lister at starting center. A frustrated Bill Fitch pushed the Rockets to deal Sampson to the Golden State Warriors in 1987-88 for Joe Barry Carroll and Sleepy Floyd. Even given Sampson's legendary hype, the move should have been looked upon as a huge win for the Rockets — Barry Carroll had a poor reputation, but he also was a consistent 20-point scorer for the four previous seasons, and he was a big man who played nearly every game. Floyd was the backcourt scoring threat the Rockets so badly needed even before the drug suspensions. Both flamed out in Houston, and the Rockets under Olajuwon wouldn't return to the Finals until 1994.
Sampson, sadly, would be long out of the league by then. A relatively healthy season followed in Golden State during 1988-89, but Sampson would tell you that he attempted to come back too early from knee and back injuries. I wasn't exactly slogging it out in the press rooms of the Bay Area back then, merely going off of "SportsCenter" snippets taken in before heading off to grade school, but I can tell that the best word to describe Sampson in this era would be "pained." Between the knee pads and his unsure gait, he just looked like someone who was ready to do something terrible to a ligament. He was an uneasy watch.
The stats, in his last season with significant playing time, tell the story of someone who probably shouldn't have been on the court. Ralph fouled quite a bit, he made only 45 percent of his shots, and turned the ball over with alarming frequency. A statistic like Player Efficiency Rating can often overrate athletic big men, turning someone like Chris Andersen into a star, but for a 7-4 guy to come through with an 11.3 PER, as Sampson did over 61 games in 1988-89? That's a bad, frustrating, year. Following it, he was traded to Sacramento for his former Rocket backup in center/forward Jim Petersen.
Sampson played just 51 games in California, shooting under 38 percent from the floor before his 1991 release. He briefly caught on with the Washington Bullets, a team in Spain, and the CBA before retiring to a life of never having to deal with this crap again in 1995.
So, yes, the NBA career was a disappointment. That's how promises usually end up, though. Ralph made no guarantees, at least personally, but his potential sure did — that height, those arms, that touch and the ability to glide from end to end like his generation's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
There's nothing wrong with that disappointment. Resulting disappointment just means there was something there to begin with, creating something even greater than the idea of endless NBA titles and players of the century honors.
Sampson's game, and a few lucky coin flips, gave the NBA a chance to try something special; pairing two players of center's height in one frontcourt. Sampson's abilities made it possible for David Robinson to tip-dunk Tim Duncan's knuckleball miss, or for one of the 97 lobs that Pau Gasol will throw Dwight Howard next season. He made it possible for the Minnesota Timberwolves to decide not to encourage Kevin Garnett to go on a 20,000-calorie-a-day diet, and for us to encourage Greg Oden to take as long as he needs before deciding to embark on another NBA run.
His presence also created expectations in Houston, making sure that the team's 1981 Finals appearance wasn't just a novelty blip. It pushed a cranky Hakeem Olajuwon to demand better teammates in 1992, for the Rockets to go for broke in deals for Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Steve Francis and Tracy McGrady, and it is defining Houston's desperate current attempts to land a star and move away from .500. Houston might be middling now and 17 years removed from its last championship, but that franchise has always been part of the Big Boy Crew. Much respect to Moses Malone and Del Harris, but it started with Sampson.
That's a significant legacy. Hard to pin down, especially on the NBA tip, and certainly with more questions than answers. Sampson made his mark, though. Even if it was only for 494 career playoff and regular-season games, don't let that bit of trivia act as his summation.
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- Ralph Sampson
- Houston Rockets
- Houston Rockets
- Hakeem Olajuwon