The big question about Ralph Sampson on the eve of his pro debut last week at the Scope in Norfolk, Va. was: Would the 7'4" Sampson, whose legs and shoulders were noticeably more muscular—the result of an intensive weight-training program—than when he was wearing the uniform of the University of Virginia, give indications of becoming as dominant an NBA center as Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Or would Sampson indicate that he's destined, as his detractors say, to be no more than a glorified power forward in the pros?
The questioning was a bit premature because this was an early summer all-star game, of the sort that often are pickup affairs at best. Still, its pivotal figure would be Sampson, the most eagerly awaited pro player since Abdul-Jabbar came out of UCLA as Lew Alcindor 14 years ago. Heightening the drama was the fact that the next franchise player was scheduled to tussle with today's No. 1 center, Philadelphia's Moses Malone.
Unfortunately, Malone was a no-show in Norfolk because, he said, the tendinitis in his right knee had flared up. So the 230-pound Sampson instead faced San Antonio's 7'2", 260-pound Artis Gilmore, who's not exactly a slouch. In 39 minutes against Gilmore and his relief, Chris Engler, Sampson displayed a varied arsenal of jump shots, left-and right-handed hooks and spin moves. He scored 20 points on 10-of-17 shooting and had 15 rebounds. He also showed leadership in sparking his squad of former ACC standouts from 12 points behind a team of NBA players in the fourth quarter to within two. Sampson & Co. ultimately lost 138-133.
On the other hand, there were a number of apparent flaws in Sampson's game. Gilmore seemed to move Sampson about the court at will. He easily posted up down low en route to scoring 20 points of his own, and, defensively, he used forearm pressure to repeatedly push Sampson out of point-blank range. On one move, Sampson spun into Gilmore and was stopped dead in his tracks by his immovable opponent.
Sampson was also having his problems at the other end of the floor. "You could tell that defense was his weak point,"' said the 76ers' Marc Iavaroni, who tutored Sampson for a year while serving as a graduate assistant at Virginia. "You can't let Artis get the ball within five feet of the basket like he did, but Ralph will learn. On a scale of one to ten, I'd say it was about a seven."
To Sampson himself, that was good enough. "It was my first time against NBA players," he said after the game. "All I wanted to do was have some fun."
In the three months since the end of his collegiate career, Sampson had been having anything but fun. Inundated with requests for interviews and questions on his prospects with the Houston Rockets, the team that had won a coin toss to get first crack at him in this week's NBA draft, Sampson chose to talk to only a few select friends and family. In fact, Sampson-ites have his younger sisters, Valerie, 20, and Joyce, 18, to thank for his debut. He admitted he was playing in Norfolk to afford his siblings some fun in the sun at nearby Virginia Beach.
Nonetheless, money was still a major consideration in this game. Sampson and his yet-to-be-named representative—an early favorite is Tom Collins, Abdul-Jabbar's man; another possibility is ProServ, the agency that furnished players for the all-star tour—are expected to ask for a contract in the neighborhood of Malone's king's ransom.
Of course, there was the risk of injury in the Norfolk game, and even though Sampson was insured for more than a million dollars, the question was why did he play? Easy: to show his future Houston employers how much he's worth and to strut his stuff against that old Rocket, Malone.
That was a worthy gamble, but when Malone regretted, the evening threatened to turn into something of a non-event. After a few perfunctory warmup layups, Sampson went up for his first pro jam, a massive whirlybird job, but instead clanged the ball off the back of the rim. And it wasn't until 8:18 of the opening quarter and after three misses that the crowd got what it paid for, Sampson sinking his first shot, a lefthanded jump hook from the lane over Gilmore.
For much of the game Sampson seemed content to rebound, throw an outlet pass and hang back to admire his handiwork. But late in the game, when Sampson's critics claimed he used to disappear from Virginia games, he caught fire, igniting the sellout crowd of 10,258 and his teammates. Sampson snuffed a dunk attempt by Gilmore and made an open-court steal.
Then came the pi√®ce de résistance. Taking an outlet pass from the Nets' Buck Williams at midcourt, Sampson went into a fancy dribble-drive, topping the move off with a double-pumping layup over a wave of defenders that would have made a guard proud. "He's exceptionally quick," the Bullets' Ricky Mahorn said later. "He did things that I've never seen any big man do."
So why were there still nagging questions? "I think he'd make a damned good power forward, but if he plays center he'll definitely need a tough player alongside him," said Williams. "He's not going to be able to do it all alone." Also, Sampson set up offensively on the left side of the court—where he could easily turn for a righthanded hook or dunk—fewer than five times. "I hope his work habits are good," Williams said. "Every night in the NBA someone will be testing him to see what he can do."
After a short stint in August with Golden State Warriors talent consultant Pete Newell's summer workout group for pro players in Los Angeles, Sampson should next be seen in the Rockets' training camp. There, he'll unquestionably make his presence felt. Said one observer, referring to a Houston substitute center, "I think he's got just a little something on Chuck Nevitt."