Dawning of the Age of Ralph Sampson, 1984

[In 1983, the Houston Rockets hit the NBA jackpot. They won the draft rights to Ralph Sampson, pro basketball’s projected next dominant big man. Sampson, 7-foot-4, all arms and legs and even skinnier than Lew Alcindor, was incredibly mobile and skilled for a player his size. (I still remember my jaw dropping the first time I saw Sampson in college dribble between his legs like a six-footer and slice to the basket as no big man before him.) According to nearly every draft expert, Sampson couldn’t miss in Houston.

Today, many look back at Sampson’s body of NBA work and contend he had a good, not a great, pro career. Why? Sampson never quite walked in the footsteps of Russell, Chamberlain, and Jabbar to dominate and change the pro game. But this raises an obvious question: Were the expectations of Sampson’s total NBA domination ever realistic? 

The best source to wade back into this unique moment in NBA time is to read Roland Lazenby’s Sampson: A Life Above the Rim. The book captures Sampson, the moment, and the hype well. But if you don’t have a copy of Roland’s book, take a look at this article about Sampson the NBA Rookie from writer Peter Alfano. The article appeared in the Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball, 1984.]

It probably would not serve any worthwhile purpose to caution the basketball fans in Houston about getting too high on expectations. They most likely would not take seriously the oratory of Rockets’ general manager Ray Patterson should he attempt to tell them about the facts of life, such as rookie mistakes and the value of a supporting cast. No, let’s face it, the mighty Sampson is coming, and history says this means the Houston Rockets can look forward to winning an NBA championship in the near future. 

What will be forgotten quickly in the city whose professional basketball team finished with a rather unprofessional 14-68 record last season is that Ralph Sampson, the 7-foot-4 All-American center from the University of Virginia, did not lead his team to even one NCAA championship in four years. In Houston, they will blame this on Virginia’s guards, its coach Terry Holland, or Ralph’s academic advisor, who nagged him to keep studying. Champion or not, Virginia was a dominant force in the college game during Sampson’s undergraduate years, and he was a dominant player. 

Now, like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and, to a lesser extent, Bill Walton, Sampson is expected to usher in an era of his own—“The Age of Sampson.”

This is a lot to ask of anyone, when anything short of fulfilling expectations may be considered a failure. Essentially, this is what happened to Sampson in college, where Virginia’s many victories were glossed over because they were not accompanied by an NCAA title. Sampson was portrayed as a moody, sometimes lackadaisical player who did not respond well when a game was on the line. 

But none of this seemed to frighten away the pro scouts, who first began making passes at Sampson when he was just a freshman. Remember, it was no less a basketball authority than “Red on Roundball” who offered Ralph $1.5 million to leave school after his first year and join the Boston Celtics. Red Auerbach, the Celtics’ president, was flabbergasted when Sampson turned down Celtic pride for a chance to pursue a degree. 

The suitors were not easily discouraged, though. Sampson was tempted, even pressured, to leave college for big bucks, fast cars, and the many wonders of an NBA roadtrip to Detroit, Cleveland, and Kansas City. Although he came close to leaving school after his junior year, when the Lakers came courting, his education and his enjoyment of the college experience won out. 

Perhaps because he was able to stick to his beliefs and display his intelligence in a classroom, Sampson has seen his stock continue to rise, despite the disappointments he has suffered on the basketball court. “He is an intelligent kid who has kept his feet on the ground,” said Knicks general manager Eddie Donovan. “Houston is going to be that much better with Ralph around. His presence alone won’t win the championship this season, but it will give them a good start. He can make everyone around him look better.”

Donovan is the master planner who built the Knicks into a championship team in the late ‘60s, then he remains one of the old hands around the NBA. He can recall the expectations and the impact Russell, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, and Walton had on their respective teams. If Sampson can be rated among them based on his performance in college, then the Rockets certainly will be the most-improved team this season. 

Consider, first, the arrival of Russell in 1955. He changed the focus of the center position from offense to defense. Russell brought to the pros two NCAA titles, earned at the University of San Francisco, and an Olympic gold medal. He did not lack credentials. 

In order to acquire the draft rights to him, the Celtics traded Cliff Hagan, a forward, and center Easy Ed Macauley to the St. Louis Hawks. There were cynics then who intimated Boston had given up too much for an untried rookie who was a whiz kid in college. “At the time,” Donovan said, “everyone thought Russell would be good, but no one thought he would be as great as he turned out to be.”

In 1955-56, the Celtics had finished second in the East with a 39-33 record. In Russell’s first year, they were 44-28 and NBA champions. In all, Russell’s teams won 11 championships in 13 years. 

“Of course, there were guys like Tommy Heinsohn, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, and others on those teams,” Donovan said, “so Bill didn’t have to be a scorer. He placed a great deal of emphasis on defense. Until then, centers like George Mikan and Neil Johnston had been offensive players. Bill and those Celtic teams are a living example of what it means to play defense.”

Chamberlain, at 7-foot-1, was four inches taller than Russell and physically more intimidating. He had been an outstanding athlete in high school and college, where he ran track, performing in the high jump and shot put, and displayed those basketball talents. But this physical superiority also worked against Chamberlain. His coaches never were sure whether he should overpower the opposition on offense, concentrate on defense like Russell, or play both tirelessly. “In all fairness to Wilt,” Donovan said, “his coaches never seemed to know how to project him.”

Chamberlain, of course, still reigns as the all-time leading scorer in NBA history with 31,419 points. He is the only player in league history ever to score 100 points in a game. Wilt  accomplished this against the Knicks, March 2, 1962. He played on a championship team in Philadelphia in 1966-67 and again with Los Angeles in 1971-72, yet he is remembered as not having one frequently enough. 

Still, in 1958-59, Philadelphia was 32-40. The following season, Wilt’s first, the Warriors’ record was 49-26. 

As Lew Alcindor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led UCLA to three consecutive NCAA championships. The Milwaukee Bucks were among the dregs of the NBA before they drafted him in 1969. They finished with a 27-55 record that season. But in 1969-70, Abdul-Jabbar led basically the same team to a 56-36 record, which was overshadowed only by the emergence of the Knicks as champions.   

“Kareem was expected to be a little of Russell and Chamberlain,” Donovan said. “Everyone knew he would be even better in the pros than in college, where they use so many zones. Because the colleges put in the no-dunking rule when Kareem was playing, he became a better shooter.”

Abdul-Jabbar was more graceful than Russell or Chamberlain. He seemed to have more agility. He was deceptively strong. When Donovan is asked to compare Sampson to any of his predecessors in the pivot, the player he mentions is Abdul-Jabbar. 

“I think Ralph will be great,” Donovan said. “But it will take time. You know, when you draft a guard or forward, you can hide them a little bit. But a center is out there against one. Ralph will face Jabbar and (Moses) Malone and (Robert) Parish, and he will have to learn. But I see a lot of Jabbar’s skills in him.”

Among the eras that never materialized was one that should have belonged to Walton, who returned to the court just last year. Houston fans can take heart in knowing, however, that, even in his injury-plagued first season in 1974-75, Walton helped the Portland Trail Blazers win 11 more games than the previous year. In his only healthy season, the following year, he led the Blazers to the championship. “That’s a tragedy,” Donovan said. “Bill could do everything well. He passed like a third guard, and he could shoot the hell out of the ball.“

Sampson, too, is a fair outside shooter. A weight-training program added strength to his upper body, and his arms no longer resemble twigs extending from a tree trunk. 

In the pros, teams will not be able to suffocate him with a variety of zone defenses, depriving him of a chance to get the ball more often. Sampson’s supporters say this is the reason he was not even a bigger force in college. “Just because Ralph is a great player doesn’t mean this isn’t a team game,” said Jeff Jones, a former teammate and now a graduate assistant at Virginia. “Ralph just didn’t have control as a center.”

“Getting him the ball wasn’t as easy as people think,” Jones added. “And then, the tendency is to get it and shoot it no matter where you are. With Ralph, you want to get him the ball where he can do something with it.”

Russell had Cousy, Chamberlain had Guy Rodgers, Abdul-Jabbar had Oscar Robertson, and Walton had Lionel Hollins. In the pros, as well as in college, every good center needs a handout from his favorite guard. 

Sampson will not join in any debate about how well his Virginia teammates supported him. He said he does look forward to an opportunity to rid himself of the shackles imposed by the zone. “It will be man-to-man,” he said. “You can fake and go to the basket, do a lot of things. Forward, center, guard, I’ll play anywhere. I look forward to experiencing what I can do.”

His critics charge Sampson has used the zone-defense argument as an excuse to hide that he is not a take-charge player. They point to the fact that the Atlantic Coast Conference had a three-point basket last season, and a player had to shoot from just 18 feet away. It was called “The Sampson Rule” around the ACC, because many felt it would force teams to respect the outside shot, to guard against a cheap three-pointer, thus opening the middle for the big man. Instead, it was rarely a factor against Virginia. 

A lack of intensity in Sampson’s game seems to be his most-obvious shortcoming. He bristles, though, when asked about this. “It’s a negative question, and I’m not going to answer it,” he said. 

Some have said he was bored by the college game; others have suggested he was frustrated. In any event, his motivation and drive will be worth monitoring in Houston. 

Sampson will be used to the scrutiny. It has been a part of his life since high school. He is from Harrisonburg, Va., and was declared a natural resource during the recruiting war that marked his senior year in high school. Sampson himself called a press conference one afternoon to announce he had not yet made up his mind where he would attend college. 

When he chose Virginia, there was a mixed response. Basketball fans in the state rejoiced, and visions of ACC and NCAA titles danced in their heads. Academicians were concerned. Virginia is one of the finest educational institutions in the country. Some people questioned whether Sampson belonged there. 

Like many freshmen, Sampson was out of place at first. He was away from home for the first time and naturally quiet and shy. His height has made him feel self-conscious and unable to be just one in a crowd. Wherever Sampson went, he stood out like a skyscraper among thatched cottages. 

“I was away from home and in a different setting and environment,” Sampson said. “I was shy and laid back. I was a new person and wasn’t comfortable. But that had to change eventually.”

He did not confide in many people. Even among his teammates, he was withdrawn and seemed aloof. “When he came for his visit when he was still in high school, he was maybe insecure around people,” Jones said. “In that first year, we didn’t want to make him uncomfortable, and he didn’t want to step on any toes. But I remember that when we finally started playing well that first year was when Ralph came out of his shell. He got along with the guys and would play practical jokes.”

Mostly, though, he was an observer and still is, according to Ruth Payne, an academic advisor of Virginia. “Ralph is never going to be the life of the party,” she said.

Payne said this was a perfectly natural response. For a long time, now, Sampson’s every word and deed had been chronicled. What brought him out of his shell—at least in the company of friends and fellow students—was the ability to succeed in the classroom, not on the basketball court. 

“Ralph was raised to be polite and used to do everything everyone told him,” Payne said. “He was pulled hither and yon. Now, he is taking control of his life. And when you first have power, it is human nature to abuse it. It becomes a new toy.”

Thus, Sampson’s relationship with the news media is often strained. He does not offer information and will be as brief as possible. The sports information department at Virginia was frustrated time and time again by Sampson’s uncooperative nature. The school’s sports publicity arm was trying to promote him for national awards, and yet Ralph wouldn’t make himself available for interviews. 

“He’s pretty honest,” Payne said, “but I’m sure Ralph knows what image he wants to project. But to be able to handle all that he has had to as well as he has is amazing.”

Ironically, Sampson was a speech communications major who graduated on time last May and wants to be a sports announcer someday. When asked how he would interview someone such as himself, he said, “I would try to make the person feel comfortable. I would make the interview a conversation, not a question-and-answer thing.”

He learned his lessons well. Sampson was a C+ student who worked as hard as any student, Payne said. In fact, the advisor said, the task of the athlete at Virginia is more difficult, because he is expected to complete the normal curriculum in addition to playing. In the classroom, through discussions and in speeches, Sampson was able to communicate his feelings about his unusual situation. “I really grew more as a person than as a player here at Virginia,” he said. “I know what I could and couldn’t do. People learned how to approach me. A lot of students thought it was great to be me, and other times some thought, ‘I wouldn’t want to be him.’”

So, Sampson was honored for his contributions to Virginia by being given a dorm room on The Lawn, that wing of Thomas Jefferson’s university reserved for distinguished students and faculty. As a junior, Sampson called the basement apartment of Holland’s house his home. A warm relationship with the coach and the coach’s family helped Sampson make up his mind to stay in school. 

But that is over now. Sampson is stepping into the real world at last, leaving academics behind. He will learn about the business of basketball, not just the game. And the relationships are bound to be different than they were in the ivy-covered halls. The question is: Will Sampson retreat once more into that impenetrable shell?

“I can’t go back to school, unless it’s graduate school,” he said. “It’s going to be exciting to play in the NBA, though. I’ll have to make adjustments. There are going to be good times and rough times. It might be a circus, but I’ll try to control it.”

He realizes he will be besieged in every city on the road, where reporters will ask tiresome questions. He will also learn quickly the 82-game season is only a prelude to the playoffs. “That is when the pressure comes,” Sampson said. 

He will listen to the comparisons being made to other centers. He will try to answer why the Rockets aren’t winning enough or he isn’t scoring enough. He will be booed by the hometown fans for the first time. And chances are Ralph Sampson will be Rookie of the Year. 

“I have to deal with what I am,” he said. “I try to be the best I can be.”

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