BY: KYLE ADAMS
Former Houston Rocket Ralph Sampson was part of a distinguished class of Naismith Hall of Fame basketball inductees that was introduced Monday, a class that also includes former Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller and offensive coaching guru Don Nelson.
When you think of Sampson, the first thing that usually comes to mind is his miraculous buzzer-beating shot he made to dethrone the defending champion Lakers in the Western Conference Finals and lead his team into the 1986 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics. Although I wasn’t born yet, my dad remembers that moment like it was yesterday. Just watching it would give any basketball fan the chills. Named one of the 60 greatest playoff moments in NBA history, it stands as Sampson’s defining moment of his NBA career.
The 7-foot-4, 228-pound Sampson was one half of the Rockets’ famous Twin Towers that also included Hakeem Olajuwon. Drafted No. 1 overall in the 1983 NBA Draft by the Rockets out of the University of Virginia, Sampson was arguably the most heavily covered basketball prospect of his generation, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated an unprecedented six times in a span of less than four years, before he even played a professional game.
At Virginia, he led the Cavaliers to an NIT title in 1980, a Final Four appearance in 1981 and an Elite 8 appearance in 1983. He earned three Naismith Awards as the National Player of the Year, only the second athlete to do so, and a pair of Wooden Awards. Scouts predicted him to be a combination of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, with Chamberlain’s athleticism and brute strength and Russell’s acute timing and wit. Sampson did nothing to disparage that perception in his first year in the NBA. As a rookie, he averaged 21 points and 11.1 rebounds, played in the All-Star Game, and won the Rookie of the Year award. The Rockets had a tough year, however, going 29-53, and won the rights to another first round pick in the 1984 NBA Draft, as they selected Olajuwon over arguably the greatest player to ever pick up a basketball in Michael Jordan. The selection moved Sampson to the power forward position, and the Twin Towers were born.
In 1984-85, the Rockets improved by 19 games to 48-34 and made the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. Sampson had his best individual campaign, averaging 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds and earning a berth on the All-NBA Second Team. He and Olajuwon both played in the 1985 All-Star Game, and Sampson, after scoring 24 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, earned the game’s MVP award.
In the 1986 NBA Finals, following Sampson’s historic shot on a screaming quick turnaround flip with one second left in the game to beat Showtime, the Rockets faced the Boston Celtics. During the six-game championship series loss against the Celtics, Sampson averaged 14.8 points on 43.8 percent shooting, 9.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists. However, he will be remembered for his swing at 6-foot-1 Celtics guard Jerry Sichting in Game 5, which led to his ejection. The Rockets fed off Sampson’s retaliation to Sichting’s taunts, but in Game 6, in Boston, the crowd verbally assaulted Sampson in ways never before seen. He was all but a non-factor in the series-clinching win for the Celtics.
Injured halfway into the 1986-87 season, Sampson fell out of favor with Rockets coach Bill Fitch and was traded along with guard Steve Harris to the Golden State Warriors for Eric “Sleepy” Floyd and Joe Barry Carroll. But Sampson’s knee and back troubles worsened, and he never played a full slate in the next four seasons. He averaged 6.4 points and 5.0 rebounds with Golden State in 1988-89 and was traded to the Sacramento Kings for Jim Petersen. It only got worse from there. He totaled just 51 games in two seasons for the Kings, averaging only 4.2 points in 1989 and just 3 points in 1990. After the 1990-1991 season, he was released by the Kings. Sampson went on to have a short 10-game stint with the Washington Bullets in the 1991-92 season before being waived. The player once predicted to be one of the greatest ever in NBA history played in only 441 of 820 total career games in 10 seasons.
For his career, Sampson scored a total of 7,039 points, grabbed 4,011 rebounds, and had 1,038 assists and 752 blocks. Those turn out to averages of 15 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.6 blocks in 30 minutes per game. Even though his career was cut short due to injury, he still racked up many awards. He was a four-time NBA All-Star, the 1985 All-Star game MVP, 1984 Rookie of the Year and made the All-Rookie first team, made the All-NBA second team in 1985, was a three-time Naismith College Player of the Year from 1981-1983, a two-time John R. Wooden Award winner, three-time USBWA Player of the year, three-time Adolph Rupp Trophy winner, two-time NABC Player of the year, three-time Associated Press Player of the Year, three-time UPI Player of the Year, 1983 Sporting News Player of the Year, three-time ACC Player of the Year, and a three-time consensus NCAA All-American first teamer. He also won a gold medal at the Pan American Games for Team USA. It’s sad to think of what his career could have been if he had never gotten severely hurt.
Even with all his injuries, Sampson was still able to make this year’s Hall of Fame, largely due to his spectacular collegiate career and an above-average pro career. Not many people have ever been able to say that. Congratulations, Mr. Sampson, on a unique Hall of Fame career. I can only hope that when you are inducted, Hakeem will be the one who presents you on basketball’s greatest court.