After much grinning and pressing of flesh, Ralph Sampson, the Golden State Warriors' newly goateed center, settled into the center circle at the Oakland Coliseum Arena last Thursday night and eyed 7-foot Akeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets. For most of the past four seasons the 7'4" Sampson had captained the Rockets; now he was playing against his old team for the first time, with a new, almost menacing mien. "Who are you supposed to be?" Rockets forward Jim Petersen had asked Sampson when he spied the beard. "Wilt Chamberlain?"
He won the tip from Olajuwon, and prevailed over the Rockets in the early going as well. Twice in the second quarter Sampson powered in a hook shot, got fouled and converted the free throw for a three-point play, and at halftime his 14 points and 10 rebounds had helped the Warriors to a 59-57 lead. But in the second half, Sampson attempted only four field goals—and made none. He tried just two shots in the final quarter, when the Rockets ran off to a 120-113 win. If at the opening tip Sampson's mug had conjured up images of Wilt, in the end Olajuwon's muscle produced more Chamberlainesque numbers: 30 points, 20 rebounds and six blocks.
Two seasons ago, when Houston reached the NBA Finals only to lose to the Boston Celtics in six games, Sampson and Olajuwon were the overpowering Twin Towers on which the Rockets' success was built. But since then, Houston's—and Sampson's—fortunes had tumbled, and on Dec. 12, the Towers' time together ended with a stunning trade, the sort of megaswap that happens every decade or so. Sampson and reserve guard Steve Harris were packed off to the Warriors for two All-Stars, center Joe Barry Carroll and playmaker Sleepy Floyd. The teams were drawn to the deal as much by the desire to exorcise as to acquire. Both Sampson and Carroll had sorely tried the patience of their employers. Also, the Rockets were able to bolster their lackluster backcourt with Floyd, and the woeful, last-place Warriors got a chance to start over.
The difference in Sampson's two halves on Thursday—the dominating one and the disappearing one—was an example of what has caused public opinion about him to be as fervently divergent as it has been for perhaps any player since Chamberlain. A Houston Post poll showed Rockets fans to be split on the subject of the Sampson trade. "When you're a seven-footer, there's no in-between on how people feel about you," says Sampson knowingly.
Yes, he has been an All-Star in each of his first four NBA seasons. And yes, he did average 19.9 points and 10.5 rebounds during that time in Houston, even though he had to move from center to power forward when the brawnier Olajuwon joined the Rockets in 1984. But this season Sampson was averaging 15.9 points and 9.1 rebounds and shooting .439 before the trade. As those numbers indicate, he wasn't exactly dominating the NBA, as many observers predicted he would be when he came out of the University of Virginia in 1983, and he wasn't exactly "the player of the century," as Houston general manager Ray Patterson had heralded him a year later.
Those were extraordinary words for Patterson to utter, seeing as he was the G.M. for the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969 when they selected a pretty fair center named Lew Alcindor. During the past few seasons, Patterson vowed he would never trade Sampson. Last week he said Sampson was the 12th- to 14th- best power forward in the league.
Now, as the center—and centerpiece—of a team once again, Sampson is in a position to unify sentiment about him, one way or the other, and leave the power forward game to smaller fellows who are probably better suited to it. But there's a burden in this for Sampson, because now another franchise and a whole new set of fans harbor great expectations for him. Are the expectations justified? The fans will soon find out. And as they look for clues in the months ahead, they should keep these factors in mind:
•The Frame. While Chamberlain, a Warrior of yore, was known as the Big Dipper, Sampson is commonly called Stick. Traditionally, low-post scorers and rebounders are thick in the thigh and broad in the butt, with low centers of gravity that enable them to stake out a piece of floor and stay put. The 27-year-old Sampson entered this season weighing 242 pounds and at one point was down to 224. Olajuwon and Carroll, each around 250, shoved him all over the floor last Thursday.
Sampson is mindful of his gluteus minimus. He takes a slew of food supplements, works out religiously with weights and has begun to work with Mackie Shilstone, the New Orleans-based training guru, who put 25 muscular pounds on heavyweight champ Michael Spinks. Sampson hopes that with the aid of Shilstone, he can play next season at 250 or even 260 pounds. Until he gets stronger, Sampson's reach will exceed his grasp in the paint.
•The Game. The breadth of Sampson's ability has not always been seen as a blessing. Some experts feel he has tried to do too many things—bring up the ball, pass behind his back and hoist three-pointers, all of which he tried on Thursday—rather than focus on a few money moves such as the skyhook and the turnaround jumper.
Even as the offense in Houston began to revolve around Olajuwon, Sampson accepted the shift without complaint. He has never seen himself as the prototypical pivot anyway. "When everybody says 'the center,' they're thinking, down on the block, in the paint, big, strong, rebound, score a lot of points," Sampson says. "I think of a center this way: You rebound and you run. My philosophy as a center and everyone else's can be totally different." He has, however, been polishing up his power moves.
"Ralph's dominance is not going to be like Moses Malone's and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's," says Warriors general manager Don Nelson. "He has to dominate as an all-around player. He would fail if we wanted him to score 30 and get 16 rebounds every night. But he can do a good job with those things and with his passing, his ball handling and his shot-blocking. He is, in fact, the modern-day center because he's so versatile."
Sampson's stats at Golden State are up slightly in rebounding, assists and scoring. Since the trade he has averaged 17.1 points and 11.7 rebounds a game. Warriors coach George Karl, who is redesigning his team around Sampson's fleet, size-17 feet, would not object to Sampson walking all over folks at crunch time. "Sometimes we need him to be more selfish," Karl says.
"I don't believe in dominant players," says Sampson. "Only dominant teams."
If Karl is waiting for the day when Sampson dominates, he should know that it may never come.
•The Blame. Two factors may well have held Sampson back in Houston: The Rockets' chronically weak back-court and their coach, Bill Fitch. Says Patterson, "The unfortunate irony is that to get the player who would make Ralph better, Sleepy Floyd, we had to trade Ralph for him."
Sampson feels that Fitch was too inflexible in his offensive strategy, not balancing the attack in a way that would have made both Towers more productive. Fitch and Sampson didn't see eye-to-eye on many other matters, either; they were forever clashing in public over issues such as the length of Fitch's workouts and how Sampson spent his summer vacation. Sampson says Fitch took particular exception to his trip to Europe in 1985, scolding him during the exhibition season for not being in shape.
After the trade Sampson ripped Fitch for being classless and complaining. "It was a relief to get away from him," Sampson said. Fitch downplays the tension, saying: "Ralph always played hard for me. Our relationship was never so stormy, not nearly as rocky as what it was built up to be." Indeed, when the season began, Sampson's future with the Rockets seemed secure. In October, as a free agent, he signed a six-year, $14.4 million contract with Houston.
Just a week before the trade Carroll had kiddingly told his friend Olajuwon that he would soon be joining the Rockets. Both laughed the thought off as being absurd. All Carroll knew was that he was headed elsewhere, particularly after the Warriors, a 42-40 playoff team last season, got off to a 3-15 start this season. Carroll, a six-year veteran out of Purdue with career averages of 20.5 points and 8.3 rebounds, was criticized by many people in the Bay Area—including some in his own locker room—as Joe Barely Cares. Carroll certainly cared very little for Karl. "Our relationship has always been fragmented," Carroll said before Thursday's game. "On the personal side, George has moronic tendencies that will always interfere with any success the team might have."
While Sampson and Carroll continued to play their way out of their fans' and coaches' affections, Patterson was scouting around for a playmaker. The price he didn't want to pay was Sampson—until a Dec. 10 game against Utah. Sampson missed his six field goal tries, went scoreless and had only three rebounds, although the Rockets won 98-93. Though both Fitch and Patterson deny it, there were published reports that Fitch issued a Sampson-goes-or-I-go ultimatum to Patterson. In any case, Patterson called Nelson within hours of the game's end and proposed the swap. Nelson would need a center if he jettisoned Carroll, and while losing Floyd would hurt, Sampson's skills had wowed Nelson since he first saw Sampson as a schoolboy. "Something was missing from Ralph in Houston," Nelson says, "but I knew he wasn't a dog."
For now, the trade seems to have done more for Houston than it has for Golden State. As of last weekend, the Rockets had won seven of their last nine and were 7-5 since trading Sampson. In Floyd, 27, they have a playmaker capable of picking up the pace of the offense. In Carroll, 29, the Rockets have a backup frontcourtman who is as effective a low-post scorer as there is in the league. And so far, he and Fitch are managing to get along. "But it's early," Carroll says.
Sampson was stunned at first by the trade, but he's excited now, despite his team's 5-23 record. He and Karl are hitting it off. Every game they wager $20 on whether or not Sampson will block at least three shots. At week's end, Sampson owed $80. (When Karl got wind of Carroll's comments about his intelligence, he offered to put up $1,000, for charity, on an IQ test-off.) But it's probably unreasonable to expect to see much improvement from the Warriors any time soon. They're playing hard, but they're hardly a settled team. Since acquiring Sampson, Nelson has engineered seven roster moves. And on the day Sampson came to Golden State, third-year guard Chris Mullin checked into an alcohol-rehab program. He and the Warriors hope his 17.6-point scoring average will be back in the lineup within two weeks. Mullin is also a good lob passer, and that could make Samspon more productive.
"This whole situation has brought a new beginning," Sampson says. "My wife and I are having our first baby, we're starting over fresh. The organization here cares about me. It's going to be a lot of fun." He stands by his vision of the complete playing style, the one that taps all of his skills and makes his team dominant. But neither he nor the Warriors will be that until Sampson has a much stronger supporting cast. "I expect myself to be better than what other people expect," he says. With that attitude, he will always face the tallest order in the NBA.