He was a former best-seller plucked off the remainder shelves by the Sacramento Kings on an idle afternoon in September. It was as if a tag detailing all the previous markdowns were hanging from Ralph Sampson's basketball shorts. He was a bargain. Damaged goods. Damaged reputation.
"I read a quote in The Sporting News from David Robinson," Sampson said soon after joining Sacramento. "David Robinson said he had admired me when he was a youngster, but thought that I had given up as a basketball player. The whole quote just turned up the gas unbelievably. I cut it out. Saved it. I never do that, but I did it here."
David Robinson. Who is David Robinson? This year's prize rookie, the newest alltime-great-center-to-be. The former alltime-great-center-to-be shook his head. David Robinson.
"The only other time I ever cut out a quote was in Houston," Sampson said. "A sportswriter wrote a nasty column about me. Alan Truex. I was negotiating my contract at the time. He wrote that I was heartless, that I didn't give a damn, all sorts of things like that. Reasons why the Rockets shouldn't sign me. I cut that out and pasted it inside the cabinet in my kitchen. That way I'd see it every day. I'd remember."
December 4, 1989
The walls were closing in on 7'4" Ralph Sampson, but he was going to put out his long arms and stop them. Who said he was never going to be what he was supposed to be? What was he supposed to be, anyway? He was in a new town with new hope. Forget that he had been traded by the Golden State Warriors for journeyman forward Jim Petersen, a straight exchange that a couple of years ago would have been unimaginable. Forget the quotes from Sacramento owner Gregg Lukenbill, who said, "We got him for nothing." This was going to work.
"When I'm 100 percent again, you'll know it when you see it," Sampson said. "I'm getting there. I can see it in spots. I can see it on certain days. I'll get there. I have to get to a point where I can work out at a maximum level every day."
He was keeping a daily journal. He was writing down what he ate, how long he slept, how he played. He was looking for constants. Find the ones that work best. Repeat. He was wearing a T-shirt with two curved arrows pointing at each other in a circle. His own design. The secret message was: What goes around, comes around. This was his new motto. Wasn't he going to come around?
His new boss was Bill Russell, the general manager of the Kings. What better boss could a big man have than Bill Russell? This was a man who had won more championships with the Boston Celtics than he had fingers for the rings. If there were secrets to be learned, wouldn't Russell be the one to teach them? There already had been talks, Big-man talks. There would be more.
"I first met Bill Russell when he came to the University of Virginia to give a speech," Sampson said. "I interviewed him for a course I was taking in communications. I remember I was very nervous."
Forget that Russell was quoted in the papers as saying, "Ralph Sampson is not being brought here to be a franchise player, just to be a basketball player." Did he ever want to be a franchise player? He just wanted to move back into the low post, do some work, win.
"The last game I played with Golden State last year, in the playoffs at Phoenix, I dove to save a ball, and I heard [Phoenix coach] Cotton Fitzsimmons yell, 'Don't let him do that to you, he's washed up,' " Sampson said. "Well, I don't have to prove anything to anyone else but myself. I'm the one who's got to be satisfied."
He was not satisfied. Sacramento would be it. Sacramento. He was living in the Residence Inn, sleeping on two roll-out beds in the living room of his suite while his pregnant wife, Aleize, and their two-year-old daughter, Rachel, slept in the double bed in the bedroom. He would buy a house in Sacramento. He would settle in. This was October. There still were two more weeks of training camp, and if he hadn't played much basketball so far, he would in the future.
His knees filled with fluid after two days of practices and had to be drained. Upon returning to action, he pulled a hamstring muscle. The hamstring would heal.
"The knees are fine," Sampson said.
Most of the stories are written in the past tense now. Whatever happened to Ralph Sampson? Why didn't he become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Why didn't he become Russell or Wilt? Why didn't he take the grand tree of professional basketball and shake it? There is a finality to all of them. He came. He tried. Or did he try? He failed. Every article reads as if it were an obituary. He is 29 years old.
"I don't think he ever was the same after he hit the floor that time in Boston," Houston Rockets president Ray Patterson says of the March 24, 1986, game between the Rockets—Sampson's team—and the Celtics. "I think he hurt his back, and that led him to a long series of injuries. He was never the same after that. I say he played two very good years and then he got hurt."
Was that it? Was he hurt?
"He never got the wrinkles, the rub for the pro game," Al McGuire, the NBC color man, says. "He came from a good home in a place, Harrisonburg, Virginia, that is one of those towns where all the kids drive their cars around the square on Friday night beeping their horns. He went to Virginia, a gentleman's school. He never had to get tough.... Plus, he never developed physically. He never developed those pop-out muscles. The pro game, if you're svelte, they push you around."
Was that it? At a spindly 230 pounds, he wasn't strong enough? He wasn't bulky enough?
"I think, first of all, he was the victim of overstatement," says Bill Fitch of the New Jersey Nets, who was once Sampson's coach with the Rockets. "He never had that one thing to go to in the pro game. He never had that one shot. Two weeks, three weeks after he came to us, you could see that. We had Elvin Hayes, who was an aging superstar. Elvin had that one shot. That turnaround. Ralph never had anything. People would say he wasn't trying, but that wasn't the case. If anything, he tried too hard. He just didn't have the bullets for the gun. And he needed a tank after what everyone had predicted for him."
Was that it? Simply wasn't good enough? Overrated?
Sampson is discussed as if he were a failed experiment. He was going to be the first big man to be involved in all parts of the game. He would dribble with the dribblers, jump with the jumpers, slam with the slammers, shoot with the shooters. He would be the Renaissance Man of Roundball. When it turned out that the best qualities for a center are still a metronome hook shot and an ample gluteus maximus, the criticism landed in a hard and constant rain.
Why didn't he smile? Why didn't he frown? Why didn't he seem to care? When an outburst of emotion arrived and he swung at pesky 6'1" Jerry Sichting, then of the Celtics, in 1986, the question changed: Why doesn't he pick on someone his own size?
He seemed to add one label after another. He was the perfect yuppie villain for the 1980s. He drove a Porsche and wore cable-knit sweaters and what seemed to be a look of disdain. He was too rich, too spoiled, too distant. More than anything, he was too soft. That was it, more than anything. Too soft.
"He never looked like he wanted to be a center," says Nate Thurmond, one of the NBA's best pivotmen over 14 seasons, most of them with the Warriors. "Well, diversity is fine, but if you're seven four, you have to go inside. He kept taking shots from the foul line. Who is going to foul Ralph Sampson at the foul line? Let him shoot."
The labels were repeated so often they sounded like the truth. It didn't matter that teammates said Sampson was a good guy and that coaches—even Fitch, with whom he feuded often—said that he worked hard. The labels stuck. Why didn't he win any NBA championships? Hey, he didn't win any national championships in college, either. Why didn't he dominate? Why were there some games when he didn't seem to arrive at the arena with his head on straight, important games in which he would hardly score or grab an offensive rebound? Why wasn't he great?
"It's a shame, the whole thing," Patterson says. "I've never seen anyone that big, inside or outside of athletics, as well coordinated as Ralph. It's all a matter of expectations. He would score 20 points and grab 10 rebounds, and everyone would say he had a terrible game. We have Chuck Nevitt on our team. He's seven foot five, and every time he scores just one basket, the whole place goes crazy. It's because no one expects anything from him."
Patterson is asked about the trade. How could this gifted big man be traded to Sacramento for Petersen?
"I don't know if there were any other takers," he says. "Do you?"
Sampson had never been involved in anything like last season, not from the day he first picked up a basketball. Isn't a 7'4" guy the first one chosen in all the games? Even in the biggest league of all? He would have his ankles taped every night. He would go through warmups and work up a good sweat. He would disappear. How could a man this large disappear? Call Siegfried. Call Roy. It must be magic. "I would sit on the end of the bench," Sampson said. "I was the world's largest cheerleader."
He did not play. As the Warriors careened through the playoffs, he sat, game after game after game. There were no cross words. There was no public or private controversy. He never talked with coach Don Nelson about the situation, and Nelson never talked with him about it. There simply was a constant line in the box scores that read, "DNP—Coach's Decision."
"I had my left knee 'scoped during the season," Sampson said. "And I came back too fast. I know that now. I played for a while, and then [Nelson] decided to go with the short lineup. That lineup was winning."
Human nature told Sampson that he should scream about his situation, but he decided to turn it upside down. He had minored in psychology in college. Make a negative a positive. He decided to say nothing and to work harder. In addition to the team practices, he added his own workouts at a gym in Castro Valley. In place of the games, he scheduled his own battles with Tellis Frank, another reserve, now with the Miami Heat. They played one-on-one, daily, sometimes going back to the arena after the real games were finished. There were days when Sampson spent six hours working out.
The idea was to be ready if he was called upon to leave the bench. All his life he had watched kids sitting, and he wondered how they hung around and what they did. Now he knew. He waited. The call finally came in the Warriors' last game of the playoff string. They were trailing 3-1 in the series and playing in Phoenix. Nelson gave Sampson a start. He responded with 10 points and eight rebounds and two blocked shots in 21 minutes before he tired. The Warriors lost and were eliminated, but he was rejuvenated. "What goes around, comes around," he said.
There had been a lot of speculation that he would be traded, but now the rumors seemed to die. Nelson said he was looking forward to Sampson's return. Sampson also was looking forward to returning to the Warriors. He planned to go to Houston for a couple of weeks to sell his house, visit Harrisonburg briefly and return early to the Coast. The plan fell apart when the sale of the house took longer than expected. Then one relative after another died. He went to four funerals before the summer ended.
The Warriors held a rookie camp at the end of the summer in Henniker, N.H., and Sampson went. He drove from Harrisonburg, 10 hours in a car with his wife and daughter. He scrimmaged. He was destroyed by free agent Uwe Blab. Uwe Blab? This was reportedly when the decison was reached to look for a deal. Uwe Blab.
"Ten hours in the car," Sampson said. "I played better the next night and the night after that."
He had thought that Golden State-he had been traded by the Rockets to the Warriors on Dec. 12, 1987—was going to be the answer. Wasn't that the place where he was going to be returned to the pivot, freed from those three-plus years of playing power forward in the Twin Towers operation with Akeem Olajuwon in Houston? But somehow things never worked out with the Warriors. Sampson had two operations in 1½ seasons. There never was a flow. There never seemed to be a commitment. He now perceived Golden State as a mistake.
"I look back, and Houston never should have made the trade, never should have broken us up," he said. "The first year we were together, we made the playoffs. The second year we went all the way to the Finals. All the other teams were talking about rebuilding to be like us. Everyone wanted to have two big men. The third year, Akeem was hurt, and then I was hurt. The fourth year, I was traded.
"All we needed was a point guard. That was the one piece. The irony was that I was traded to get what was needed. Look at what's happened. Joe Barry Carroll and Sleepy Floyd went to Houston. I went to Golden State. Joe Barry has been traded again. I have been traded. Sleepy doesn't start anymore. Fitch has been fired. Houston hasn't been back to where it was. This was one of those trades where no one won."
Sacramento. Maybe Sacramento.
Is he done? Will he ever play again? Are his knees shot? Is his story to end with a hum, with a line of downbeat dots...?
"Right now he's just a shell of himself," Sacramento coach Jerry Reynolds says. "He runs with a noticeable limp. He somehow seems to have a tough time stopping. He can't plant very well. Not that he ever was a muscleman, but he can't stay in there. He has trouble with his jumping, too. The first jump sometimes will be all right, but then he'll have trouble with that second jump. Right now, we're hoping that he can get back physically in a couple of months."
Sampson went on the injured list two days after Thanksgiving—technically, he can come back after five games; realistically, he may be gone much longer. He had been playing less and less during the early season for the troubled Kings, his minutes (an average of 20 a game) and production (6.2 points and 4.6 rebounds a game) slipping with virtually each appearance on the floor. He began the season as a starter, but eventually was benched in favor of a kid named Randy Allen. Allen last started for Cedar Rapids in the Continental Basketball Association.
"I don't know if he ever can be back to what he once was," Reynolds says. "But I think he can come back and be a contributor. I've got to believe that for my own career as a coach."
Sampson runs wrong. That seems to be the opinion. The fall in Boston—when he lost his balance, toppled backward and landed with a terrifying thud—-was the start. He ran with a different gait to compensate for back pain. The compensation brought about the three knee operations and more physical adjustments. He needed to learn how to run all over again.
He has hired a therapist from Phoenix to work with him daily. This will be a time to heal. Healing is the hope.
"I don't know if he can come back or not," Nelson says. "When he was with us, we never really had a chance to see what he could do. Just when he would start to look pretty good, he'd get hurt again. That was the thing. You never knew who was going to show up."
"He was hurting, and he wasn't getting better," Reynolds says. "He's had those three operations. Normally they don't cut you and go inside if there ain't something wrong."
What if this is the end? How will he be remembered?
Will all of those college honors—player of the year three times in a row—somehow be pushed aside? What about the fact that he was NBA Rookie of the Year in 1984? What about the Most Valuable Player award at the 1985 NBA All-Star Game? What about the desperation turnaround shot at the buzzer in the 1986 playoffs that doomed the Lakers and sent the Rockets into the Finals? Does any of this count?
"As far as I'm concerned, people always expected too much of the guy," one former teammate in Houston says. "I saw him have two or three unbelievable seasons. He'd score 24 points a game, 10 rebounds, three blocked shots, but people still would want more. It's just impossible sometimes to meet people's standards." The former teammate is Jim Petersen.
The day last week that Sampson decided to go on the injured list was his first day in his new house in Sacramento. He still was writing in the journal. The entries were still optimistic. He would straighten out this running business. He would be back, better than ever. "To play here, I have to be 110 percent," he said. "I have to get some mobility."
He would work on his own, do the exercises. He would be around, perhaps, for the birth of the baby at the end of December. Forget the debates about what he had or hadn't done. Forget the unkind words. He never worried about them much, anyway. Satisfy himself. What was it Russell said? Kareem already had the alltime scoring title. Wilt already had the alltime rebounding record. They were out of reach. What was left? Go for the championship. That was the long-term goal.
"There's no doubt in my mind," Sampson said. "I'll be back."
Sacramento. This was going to work. Somehow.