There they were, together on the same team, the young millionaires who have greatly altered the Houston skyline—and may someday do the same to the NBA's. Coin flips brought them both to the Rockets—the 7'4" Ralph Sampson in 1983 and the 6'11" Akeem (The Dream) Olajuwon last spring. As they made their debut as a duo last Saturday afternoon in Dallas, there was confusion for a moment as to who would jump center against Maverick rookie Sam Perkins. Sampson ended that by gesturing Olajuwon to the circle. Once the game began—Akeem lost the tip, by the way—they were by no means the odd couple some had expected them to be.
In a 121-111 Houston victory, Olajuwon, who played center, scored 24 points (22 in the second half when he controlled the lane as if he were back in the Southwest Conference playing for the University of Houston against Rice) and had nine rebounds. Sampson, who was a power forward, had 19 points and a game-high 13 rebounds. "Well, I guess the court was big enough for them," said Rocket coach Bill Fitch.
It's a little early to reserve places for Sampson and Olajuwon in the Hall of Fame or, for that matter, to expect the Rockets to run over the rest of the NBA as easily as they did the Mavs. After all, Dallas is primarily a finesse team, and Perkins, promising though he is, has some learning to do.
There will be games when Akeem will be lost on defense, as he was Saturday when he had to decide whether to stay close to the basket or step out to harass a jump-shooter like Perkins. There will be nights when Olajuwon, in a halfcourt offense, will blast up from the low post without noticing that there might be a 7'4" fellow in a better spot. "Sometimes Akeem runs the Houston offense better than anyone," says Fitch. "Unfortunately, it's the Houston Cougar offense." And there will be nights when Sampson and Olajuwon spend more time on the pine than on the floor. Last year Ralph fouled out of 16 games, while this season Akeem was disqualified on fouls twice in seven Rocket exhibition games.
But the Rockets' billboard message in Houston—THE FUTURE is NOW—may not be a wild exaggeration. The most satisfying feature of Saturday's victory was the way Olajuwon responded in the second half after playing only five unspectacular minutes in the first. Ten seconds into the game, Olajuwon fouled Perkins. He later let Perkins get loose for a backdoor layup. But Olajuwon's first pro basket, four minutes into the game, gave a hint of his raw, still-developing talent—he rimmed his own one-hand dunk but got the rebound and put in a soft four-foot jumper. Akeem picked up his second foul at 6:53, and Fitch sat him down, partly because Olajuwon wasn't playing well and partly because of Fitch's theory that young players can learn a lot by watching.
"I didn't learn anything," said the Dream. "I was mad at myself." He could have learned a lot by watching Sampson, who moved to the low post and, with the help of newly acquired guard John Lucas, shot Houston to a 63-51 halftime lead. "We voted 7-5 in the locker room to let Akeem start the second half," said Fitch, laughing in victory.
When the game was over, some preliminary answers to the persistent questions about the Rockets' Alpine offense could be offered:
1) Won't they get in each other's way on offense?
Not too often. "At first, in the preseason, they'd post up on the same side sometimes," Lucas said, "but gradually that went away." It went away because, at this point at least, the separation of power is clear. Akeem sets up in the low post and Ralph sets up high. Olajuwon knows that he doesn't possess Sampson's ball-handling skills, his faceup jumper from 18 feet or his knowledge of the game. "Ralph can play all five positions," says Fitch, "and he'd love to try."
2) Shouldn't a team have just one big man, one epi-center as it were?
"I think the most important thing is for one of them to assert himself as the center," said Julius Erving after the Rockets beat the 76ers 117-101 in a preseason game. "There's an aura about centers in the league. If you establish yourself as the man on your team, there is a certain style you are permitted to play, certain concessions that are granted to you by the referees."
In San Francisco, 7'1" Wilt Chamberlain had the aura and 6'11" Nate Thurmond moved to forward as the Warriors won the Western Division championship in 1964. Ditto for Wilt in Philadelphia, where he had the aura and Lucious Jackson, a center before Wilt joined the team, moved to forward on the 76ers' '67 championship team, which was voted the greatest of all time. And aura's really not an issue when it comes to the current Celtic duo of Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, because most of the aura swirls around Larry Bird.
On the Rockets, Olajuwon, because he's a power center, must have the aura, and Sampson will have to adjust. In the third period Saturday, Houston pounded the ball inside to Olajuwon over and over, and Big Time, as the Rockets have taken to calling Olajuwon, scored 14 points, including two field goals on turnaround jumpers. Sampson was on the bench with four fouls through the last 7:18 of the third quarter, but seconds after he returned early in the fourth quarter he banged in a 12-foot jumper.
3) Accustomed as they both are to checking big men, won't they run into a lot of confusion on defense?
They will. For a while Sampson will be embarrassed by the game's best power forwards, and Olajuwon will probably stay in the paint too long and get burned by shooters like Perkins and Parish. "Maybe my biggest problem so far has been forgetting to call out the peeks," Olajuwon says in his Nigerian-accented English. But Sampson finished third in the NBA in blocked shots last season (2.4 a game), and Olajuwon led the NCAA with 5.6 a game.
"I think there's going to be a commandment around the league," says Lucas. "Thou shalt not come into the lane against this team."
4) Is there room enough in Houston to contain the egos of the two?
After all, Ralph's fancy Porsche with the STIX 50 vanity plate (his nickname is Stick, but evidently the extra letter wouldn't fit) is not only matched but also trumped by Olajuwon's Mercedes mini-limo. Olajuwon has been playing basketball for only five years, yet his contract is comparable to Sampson's—the latter has a four-year deal worth about $5.3 million, the rookie a six-year pact worth some $6.3 million.
Though he is surly and a general pain to the press, Sampson is and always has been popular with his mates. Further, he has emerged as a team leader. Sampson said it meant something to him when Fitch sent him out to meet with the referees before the first exhibition game this season, a sort of honorary captainship that has continued. "I wanted to assert myself this year," said Sampson.
Most of the Rockets tend to treat Olajuwon like a kid brother. "We want to take care of him, remind him to bring his coat along when we go East, things like that," says veteran swingman Robert Reid. "The things that Clyde Drexler used to do for him in college." At the same time Olajuwon's gentle nature makes him the focus of a lot of good-natured abuse, as when he messes up his assignments in drills or keeps the Rockets on the practice floor longer because of his missed free throws.
Olajuwon has shown that while he's respectful of his peers, he's not easily intimidated. Before one preseason game with the Celtics, Lucas decided to show him around storied Boston Garden. Olajuwon's only response was: "Messed up place." And he had no idea who or what Fitch was talking about when the coach said he wanted him to do a "Red on Roundball" segment with one Arnold (Red) Auerbach for WTBS's halftime feature.
All in all, there seems to be plenty of space for Sampson's and Olajuwon's contrasting personalities. "You see these two high-rise condominiums with no problems," says Lucas, "and all us little folks down here, us shrubs and plants, can't have any, either."
Already the two stand alone, because no towering combination in NBA history—not Chamberlain-Thurmond, not Chamberlain-Jackson, not Parish-McHale—has ever run the floor or played the whole game the way Sampson-Olajuwon can. In the fourth quarter against Dallas, Lucas took off on a fast break and threw a behind-the-back pass to his trailer, who happened to be Sampson. The pass was errant, but here came trailer No. 2, who happened to be Olajuwon. The Dream scooped up the ball and floated in for a field goal.
"I think," said Rocket general manager Ray Patterson, "that they're a new phenomenon."
They are. Only time will tell if they're also phenomenal.