Ralph Sampson measures up to Hall of Fame worthiness, even after career was cut short by balky knees.
By RANDY HILLFS Arizona
We didn't have YouTube evidence or a nationally televised high school game of the week to help validate or dismiss the rumors.
This was the late '70s, and the chatter was covering some impressive territory. It included testimony that the subject in question was built and moved around with a grace and fluidity not unlike that of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But this kid was taller.
The witnesses even suggested the high school prospect from Virginia might be more agile and explosive than Kareem; sources for these claims probably hadn't seen Kareem when he was Lew Alcindor, but simply inspiring a comparison was enough to engender considerable hype.
And even though the greatest moments of Ralph Sampson's basketball career would only fill a small corner of Kareem's monument, they are being honored this week in Springfield, Mass.
So, through the vagaries of circumstance, we are obliged to either judge the 7-foot-4 Sampson as a colossal tease or as a rising superstar compromised by the treachery of three knee surgeries.
For context, we turn to Eddie Johnson, a pull-no-punches broadcaster for the Phoenix Suns and an NBA lifer whose 17 seasons as a player spanned the length of Sampson's rise and premature fall.
"He did a lot," Johnson said when asked to assess Sampson's impact on the game. "Obviously, he did enough to get into the Hall of Fame."
The resume offers three James Naismith Player of the Year honors while roaming the floor at the University of Virginia. But despite Sampson's presence, the Cavaliers managed one Final Four appearance during Ralph's reign and were resigned to one postseason in the NIT (which they won).
This modest imprint on college basketball didn't come close to discouraging the
Houston Rockets from grabbing Sampson with the first pick in the 1983 NBA Draft.
Enjoying the NBA's wide-open spaces, Ralph averaged 21 points and 11 rebounds, earning Rookie of the Year distinction and a spot in the All-Star Game. The Rockets only managed 29 victories with Sampson on the floor, however, and again were rewarded with the first overall selection in the next draft.
They converted that choice into Hakeem Olajuwon, another 7-footer who – according to doomsday prophets of on-court alignment and flow – wouldn't fit well with Sampson.
But Sampson – who averaged 20.7 points and 10.9 rebounds over his first three NBA seasons -- was able to thrive alongside Olajuwon.
Their partnership led to an NBA Finals run in 1986 and included a last-second, tip-flip shot (more like a volleyball set) by Sampson that repelled the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference playoffs the same season.
Sampson and Olajuwon (Hall of Fame Class of '08) weren't enough to propel Houston past the Boston Celtics, but their potential tilt on the NBA landscape seemed inescapable.
But midway through the next season, Sampson was injured and – abetted by lingering disharmony with Coach Bill Fitch – eventually traded to the Golden State Warriors during the 1987-88 campaign.
A heartbreaking shadow of what he'd been, Sampson's scoring average dipped to 6.4 during the 1988-89 season.
No longer capable of overwhelming opponents with his explosiveness and agility, Sampson bounced from Sacramento to Washington and Europe as his playing career limped to its conclusion.
"How many 7-footers come into the league and have issues where their bodies can't handle the grind?" Johnson asked before calling a roll that offered the likes of Sam Bowie, Bill Walton and Greg Oden. "To suggest he didn't really accomplish a lot … that wasn't the case at all. This was a career that was set back by injury.
"Ralph was extremely talented. He was a guy that knew his limitations. He wasn't your typical, back-to-the-basket, post-up guy on the block. His strengths were his agility and his skill with the ball. At 7-4, he would turn and face you up and take what you gave him."
For what he accomplished in the time before his knees surrendered, Sampson is being given residency in Springfield.