In Search of . . . Ralph Sampson, 1988

[This article, like many on this blog, come from Ray Lebov, better known for his dedicated work on Basketball Intelligence, or BI. If you’re looking for a reliable source of the best NBA reporting and analysis, you can’t go wrong with BI. For just $5 a month (or $50 a year), Ray will hand you a digital season and year-long pass to check in daily with pro basketball’s top pundits and read their latest insights on the association in all 30 cities. Intrigued? Then click here to learn more.

Last month, From Way Downtown featured a 1983 article highlighting Ralph Sampson’s highly anticipated entry into the NBA as a Houston Rocket. In this piece from Basketball Digest, we jump ahead in Sampson’s career to the summer of 1988. He’s now on his second NBA team, having been dealt by the Rockets to the Golden State Warriors in December 1987.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen, let’s get it done,” Sampson reportedly greeted his new teammates, walking out for his first Warriors practice. 

Though Sampson would be ready and willing to “get it done” in Oakland, his ailing knees and back wouldn’t be able. The NBA’s “next Jabbar” lasted less than two injury-plagued  seasons in Oakland. But before Sampson’s bad knees limited his mobility and crashed his NBA stardom, the San Jose Mercury News’ Bill Cornwell penned this article. It captures the new set of heavy expectations that awaited Sampson with the Warriors. Oddly, Cornwell makes little or no reference to the main issue: Sampson’s surgically repaired knee. Despite the omission, Cornwell’s article is well-reported and very much worth going “Way Downtown” for a few minutes.]

It was summer, and Ralph Sampson was in the Houston Rockets’ doghouse. Sampson, the immensely gifted 7-foot-4 forward/center, was not in Houston working out as the Rockets wished. Houston coach Bill Fitch made no secret of his displeasure. He wanted Sampson in Texas, preparing for the upcoming NBA season. The not-so-subtle implication was that Sampson simply didn’t care, that he wasn’t willing to work, to sacrifice. 

So, what was Sampson doing during the summer?

He was in Charlottesville, Va., where he had been one of the nation’s top collegiate players at the University of Virginia. Sampson, a native of Virginia, prefers to spend his offseasons in his home state. “You can’t believe how hard he worked in the weight room during the summers,” said Terry Holland, the basketball coach at Virginia. “You would have to have seen the intensity there to know what I mean. 

“He worked so hard, I took [the Virginia basketball team] to the weight room just to watch him. He was a terrific example.”

Ralph Sampson’s summer neatly capsules the paradox that has clouded his career. Sampson, who came to the Golden State Warriors in a trade that sent Joe Barry Carroll and Sleepy Floyd to the Rockets, is almost universally thought to be the classic underachiever. Yet this underachiever has had his moments. To wit:

  • NBA Rookie of the Year, 1984
  • NBA All-Star Game Most Valuable Player, 1985
  • Second-team All-NBA, 1985

But Sampson has never led a team to an NCAA or NBA title. And despite the personal honors early in his pro career, more—much more—was expected, especially from someone who earns a reported $2.4 million per year. 

To some, he is a man of extraordinary physical skills who has never cared enough about the game to become the superstar nearly everyone predicted he would be. To others, he is an  intelligent, introverted man who hides his emotions and passions from all but a chosen few. Those who hold to this view say it is wrong to interpret Sampson’s stoicism as indifference. 

But both detractors and supporters agree on one thing: Now that Sampson is the foundation of the rebuilding Warriors, we are apt to discover who this enigmatic 27-year-old man really is. 

The answer to that question most likely will come on the playing court, for Sampson reveals little of himself off the court. Asked to describe his personality, Sampson said simply, “I try to get along with everybody.”

Dick Vitale, a basketball broadcaster and former coach, said, “He hasn’t played up to his potential, that’s for sure. But you have to remember that he played out of position at forward in Houston. He just can’t be a forward. He’s a center.”

A well-known executive with an NBA team agreed that Sampson is still something of an unknown quantity after four years in the league. “Nobody questions his talent,” said the executive, who asked that his name not be used because he did not want to become embroiled in the Sampson debate. “He just hasn’t been as productive as he should have been. The reason I don’t know—and I don’t know of anyone else who can say for sure—I think it’s unfair to blame anybody at this point.”

Dr. Harry Edwards, a University of California sociologist who also is a consultant to the Warriors, issued one caution: “I’m very leery of all this instant psychiatry we see in the press about Ralph Sampson. Ralph is a complete and total human being. He has problems and concerns, just like everyone else. 

“Ralph’s a pro, he’ll go out and play his game,” Edwards said. “He’s not the sort of player to say, ‘Gosh, the whole thing’s riding on my shoulders.’”

But Vitale charged that Sampson has a tendency to seek scapegoats to explain his failures as a player. He cited a bitter outburst against Houston coach Bill Fitch as an example. Sampson claimed that his “only problem [in Houston] was with Bill Fitch.” Sampson also said that Fitch sought excuses for losing, overlooked players’ drug problems, and was afraid to field a winning team because he couldn’t “handle that kind of pressure.”

“That’s absurd, absolutely a joke, a farce,” said Vitale of Sampson’s comments. “The best thing for Ralph is for him to get on with his life, to stop looking back and blaming other people for his problems. Let’s face it. Ralph Sampson just has to get some mental toughness and tenacity.”

Fitch has labeled Sampson’s allegations “an absolute lie.” Curiously, just days before he blasted Fitch, Sampson was telling Bay Area reporters that he had taken the trade in stride and understood that “business is business,” and that reports of problems in Houston “were more of a media thing.”

“Family and friends in Houston were calling and were all upset [when they learned of the trade],” he said, “but I wasn’t crying.”

Holland said it was not the first time he had heard conflicting statements from his former player. “During the summer, he never really said anything negative against Fitch to me, and I asked him about it,” Holland recalled. “He kept telling me that he knew it was his responsibility to do what the coach wanted him to do. Evidently, he was able to hide his anger in that regard.”

There have been unattributed newspaper reports that Fitch became so infuriated with Sampson after a particularly dismal performance against Utah last December 10 that he stormed into the office of Rockets president and general manager Ray Patterson and issued an ultimatum: Either Sampson had to go or Fitch would go. 

Fitch denies that such an incident occurred. “I’ll walk out of here stripped naked if there’s any truth to that,” he said. “Yet everywhere I go, I read that.”

Sampson remains characteristically low-key when asked about the alleged ultimatum, which was said to have occurred after he shot 0-for-6 from the floor against the Jazz in 20 minutes of playing time. 

Patterson will not discuss the incident or any other aspect of Sampson’s Houston career. “Ray just doesn’t want to get into anything about Sampson,” said Jay Goldberg, Houston’s director of media information. “He’s just not going to say anything about it.”

Goldberg, who described Sampson as a “very kind person,” said the fan reaction to his departure has been mixed. “You either like Ralph or you don’t,” he said. “The reaction has been split. We’ve received phone calls and letters, and they’ve been pretty evenly split between those who were glad to see him go and those who weren’t.”

The lack of intense fan interest doesn’t surprise Holland. “Ralph simply can’t project himself to large numbers of people,” Holland said. “He works very hard internally, but he doesn’t show it, and some people take that to mean he doesn’t care. They’re wrong. The fans might not recognize how hard he works and how much he wants to win, but his teammates will.”

That sentiment is shared by Rodney McCray, Sampson’s closest friend on the Rockets. “He’s a guy who wants to win and play well,” McCray said. “He’s a low-profile guy. He’s a winner in my eyes. Sometimes, in fact, he plays too hard. He always has the intensity to play well.”

But Sampson’s low profile and his belief that basketball is a team game—not a one-man show—may be his undoing. Golden State expects Sampson to take charge. For now, he is The Franchise. 

“Ralph doesn’t want to be the whole show,” said Holland. “He’s basically an introvert who has been forced to be an extrovert . . . He is the ultimate yeam player. I don’t know, that could be a weakness in the pros when you are expected to carry a team. But I really think this is going to be a darn-good situation for Ralph.”

Vitale said he is waiting for a sign—any sign—that Sampson is ready to become a franchise player. “He is the man now,” Vitale said. “He is the star. He is the Springsteen. We’ve got to see some numbers now. My feeling is that Ralph is going to bounce back strong. I hope he becomes a happy person and a happy player.”

Sampson has adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward the whole affair. He takes nothing for granted, and the impression is that the Houston experience has left him a bit gun-shy, no matter how reassuring the Warriors front office is. 

When he is proclaimed as The Franchise, he notes that he is only one of 12 players. When former coach George Karl said the Warriors were “Ralph’s team,” Sampson said, “That’s what they told me in Houston, too.”

He also recalled that Patterson once said that Houston would “never, never, never” trade Ralph Sampson. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that Sampson said soon after the trade, the best piece of advice he received upon entering the NBA was never to unpack your bags. 

Upon hearing that, Karl told Sampson, “You can unpack your bags.”

Sampson smiled, but he looked like a man who might want to keep at least one bag packed—just in case. 

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