The night Ralph Sampson broke L.A. and the Lakers' drive for an NBA title repeat

·5 min read
Houston Rockets star Ralph Sampson and coach Bill Fitch talk to reporters during a 1986 NBA playoff series against the Lakers at the Forum.
Houston Rockets star Ralph Sampson and coach Bill Fitch talk to reporters during a 1986 NBA playoff series against the Lakers at the Forum. (Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images)

On Tuesday night the Lakers begin their quest for Championship No. 17. Thirty-four springs ago, they were the defending champs in pursuit of the franchise's 10th banner when they faced the underdog Houston Rockets, who were anchored by the Twin Towers of Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon. It did not go as planned, with the craziest of endings. In Episode 7 of the "Restarting the Clock: Legends of Sport" podcast, host Andy Bernstein speaks with Sampson about that finish and much more.

You can listen to the entire interview with Sampson here, as well as recent podcasts with Jerry West, Derek Fisher and Mike Breen.

Andy Bernstein: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because this particular episode has to do with the first round of the playoffs and legendary upsets. Who better than you to talk to? You broke a lot of fans' hearts that day, in ’86 at the Forum. I don’t think I had ever experienced, at that point in my career, as shocking an ending to a game, a playoff series, and a season for a team than the one you dealt the Lakers.

So, it’s the ’86 Western Conference finals. Houston against the Lakers. The Lakers had won the first game. You guys won the next four. Which was pretty shocking, with the Lakers coming off the ’85 championship, top seed. You were the No. 2 seed.

Ralph Sampson: We had just come off a very grueling series against Denver.

Bernstein: Yeah, you went seven with them. (Editor's note: The series went six grueling games)

Sampson: Seven games. Me and Hakeem had fouled out. And our bench won Game [6] for us basically. Craig Ehlo, Granville Waiters, Jim Peterson, Rodney McCray, Robert Reid, Lewis Lloyd, Mitchell Wiggins, all those guys that really won that game for us. And we were worn out. We were tired. And we had 48 hours basically to regroup to play the mighty Los Angeles Lakers at home, and they had been resting for a number of days.

Bernstein: Yeah.

Sampson: So, we got our tail beat the first game. And I think they thought we were going to back down, right? They thought we would kind of just give in because we were the young bucks on the block. We were just getting ready to take that ride to the top. But we regrouped. We had a meeting. I remember it like it was yesterday. We had a meeting of the team and said, it’s OK. Everybody get some rest and we’ll come back and we’ll make it happen.

We end up winning the next [four] games. And I tell Michael Cooper sometimes and Magic when I see them or talk to them, 'If that shot didn’t go in, we was gonna beat you anyway.' We was going back home. We would have won (Game 6) anyway back in Houston because they were tired, too.

Game 5 was a grueling game. I actually watched during the pandemic. It was on ESPN or NBA TV, so I watched it again, the fights over the bench when Hakeem and Kupchak got into it. And then [Hakeem] gets kicked out of the game and we go down to the wire. But as Rodney McCray says, it wasn’t the shot, it was [Rodney's] pass. He passed the ball out of bounds on the sideline in front of the Lakers’ bench. They put no one in front of him.

Usually you would have a defender in front of the guy that’s passing the ball. They had no one in front of him. And Kareem played me behind so I could get the ball. He’d maybe shoot in front of me, but he didn’t do that. So, I was able to get the ball on the direct pass from Rodney and then I… you know, sometimes how you practice crazy shots?

Bernstein: Yeah.

Sampson: You always want a game-winning shot as a kid, etc. I knew where the basket was. We only had, like, point nine seconds or some crazy not much time left on the clock, so we had to get something off quickly.

And I got a great bounce and it went in. But we were a tired team. They could have taken us down if they were motivated, but I think they thought we weren’t ready to take over the reins of the Western Conference at that point.

Bernstein: Do you actually call that a shot? Seriously, you just flicked the ball basically.

Sampson: You can call it a flick…

Bernstein: As I remember, it was like over your head.

Sampson: …you can call it a shot.

Bernstein: That was crazy.

Sampson: The problem is, did I follow through or not? I don’t know. Again, it’s one of those shots that you dream about. And playing against the world champions on their home court and then seeing Michael Cooper laying on the floor, that was one of the best feelings ever.

Ralph Sampson posts up against Magic Johnson.
Ralph Sampson posts up against Magic Johnson. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Bernstein: It didn’t just bounce once. It bounced four times as I remember. It was very reminiscent because as I was watching Kawhi Leonard’s shot last year against Philly in the playoffs, you might have had a little inkling of a memory there of the same thing. Just kind of watching that thing in slow motion just finally go in.

Sampson: It was great. Those shots during a game, they go forever. But it’s real time, there’s always so much. It bounces here. It bounces there. Everybody is on the edge of their seat. So, one of the best shots. It was like a football pass, right, a long touchdown pass. The ball is in the air so freaking long that you don’t know if the guy is going to catch it or not, and all of a sudden, somebody jumps up and catches it or intercepts it. It becomes a great, great memory.