A look back at a revealing Q+A with soon-to-be Hall of Famer Ralph Sampson.
When discussing the greatest centers of all-time, Ralph Sampson’s name usually gets lost in the shuffle. After dominating the collegiate level at the University of Virginia, Sampson took his unique skills to the NBA where he was one of the first 7- footers to flash his perimeter skills on a night-t0-night basis, dominating both inside and outside—skills that are commonplace in today’s NBA. Unfortunately, Sampson’s game was ahead of it’s time, and he never got his due praises. A string of injuries cut his career short and despite posting tremendous numbers, he is perceived by some as a player who never reached his full potential.
This weekend, Sampson will be inducted into the Hall-of-Fame, a deserving spot that he earned with his contributions to the game, and Sampson’s speech is sure to be one of the more interesting moments of the evening based on the way his career and legacy panned out. To honor the big man and his achievements, we bring you a tremendous Q+A from SLAM 41.—Ed.
by Dalton Ross
Which Ralph Sampson do you remember? Some people recall the 7-4 center as one of the most dominant college big men ever. Others remember him as an NBA failure, even though he took his team to the NBA Finals, averaged over 20 points and 10 boards a game in his prime and played in four All-Star games—even winning MVP honors in ’85. But that’s what happens when expectations run high, and people always expected more out of Ralph Sampson.
The expectations began at Harrisonburg High in Virginia, where Sampson led the Blue Streaks to two state titles while setting school records with 1,669 points, 1,299 rebounds and 475 blocked shots. The phenom then attended the University of Virginia and turned the school’s basketball program into a monster. As a big man who could not only dunk but also handle the rock and run the floor, the spindly and athletic Sampson averaged 16.9 points, 11.4 boards and 3.5 swats per game, and became the only person ever to win three consecutive national Player of the Year awards. During his senior season, Sampson came up huge in one of the most publicized regular season college matchups ever, tallying 23 points, 16 rebounds and seven blocks against Georgetown center Patrick Ewing in a 68-63 UVA victory.
Sampson was selected No. 1 overall by the Houston Rockets in the ’83 draft. He went on to average 21.0 points and 11.1 boards and become the first player ever named Rookie of the Month every single month. (David Robinson and Tim Duncan have done so since.) With the addition of Akeem (now Hakeem) Olajuwon a year later, the Rockets had two of the most talented big men in the game. In just their second season together, they were on the verge of going to the ’86 NBA Finals—up three games to one against the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Then, with Houston down by four points with just over five minutes to play, Olajuwon was ejected for fighting. Sampson went on a tear, scoring 10 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter, including his famous twisting miracle catch-and-shoot buzzer beater that sent the Rockets to the Finals, where they fell to the powerful Boston Celtics.
That was the pinnacle of Sampson’s professional career, however. Even with his big numbers and playoff performance, many—including his coach, Bill Fitch—questioned his style of play. They didn’t understand why a 7-4 player would want to get out on the perimeter and play like a guard. “Shouldn’t big men stay in the paint?” critics said. But coaching problems were just one of Sampson’s worries. In ’86, he suffered the first of many back, ankle and knee injuries that would severely cripple his immense talent. Nineteen games into the ’87-88 season, he was traded to Golden State, and two seasons after that found himself riding the pine as Sacramento’s 12th man. Sampson’s last stand in the NBA was a 10-game stint with the Washington Bullets in ’91-92, during which he averaged 2.2 points and 3.0 rebounds a game.
After comeback attempts in both Spain and the CBA, as well as an assistant coaching gig at James Madison University, it appeared the now 39-year-old Sampson had given up basketball for good. But he has returned as executive vice president, general manager and head coach of the Richmond Rhythm in the new International Basketball League (IBL), which tipped off a 64-game schedule in November. But there’s more. Turns out the big fella may have one last comeback in him after all.
SLAM: Let’s start with your college days. Obviously you could have jumped to the pros after your sophomore or junior year. So why did you decide to stay in school?
Ralph Sampson: Well, I had to consider the pros even coming out of high school. Those were some hard decisions that I had to make, to really understand where I was at personally with my college education, where I was at physically with my body, and where I was at mentally. I felt that if all three of them weren’t ready to go, then I wouldn’t be a very good NBA player at that point in time. And also, I was happy. Virginia was a good place for me and I was happy doing what I was doing.
SLAM: How about that famous game against Georgetown during your senior year? Both teams undefeated. Sampson vs. Ewing. Describe the hype surrounding that matchup.
RS: All the media surrounding that game was enormous. I can remember posing for Sports Illustrated weeks beforehand, and we still had some other games to play. We tried to focus on one game at a time leading up to it, but it was a very difficult task. And unfortunately, two days before the game I got a thigh bruise, and some fluid got down in my knee and I had to have it drained. Then I had a slight case of the flu and after the game was diagnosed with pneumonia. So there were a lot of things going on surrounding that game, and it was very media intense. But it was a fun game to play in, and going to the NBA early I wouldn’t have had the chance to play in that type of game.
SLAM: Even with all your success at UVA, how much did not winning an NCAA title burden you?
RS: When the last buzzer rang at my last college game—and once I realized my college career was over—I reflected back on the things that we had accomplished in my four years. The biggest thing for me was taking Virginia, which was a mediocre basketball school with some good players, to being recognized as a national power. Having the opportunity to do that leaves a lasting impression for me, and hopefully a lasting impression for people that follow basketball period.
SLAM: So you go to Houston with huge expectations and play great, but the team wins only 29 games your rookie year. With all your success before, how difficult was it to suddenly have to deal with all that losing?
RS: It was rough. It definitely got rough during the latter part of the year, and that’s when I really realized that this thing is a business. The latter part of my rookie year I wasn’t playing a whole lot, because we were trying to lose games to get the number one pick. And losing that many games is difficult. If you’re a competitor and you have any self-pride and motivation, then losing is not gonna sit well with you. And it didn’t with me. I didn’t like it, and I tried to get in the gym as soon as the season was over to see what we could do better. And I got down on myself because of losing, but I knew we had another year to try it again.
SLAM: And you did get Olajuwon with that first pick. What’s your take on the Twin Towers approach employed with you and The Dream?
RS: The Twin Towers approach, even as it’s being seen today with David Robinson and Tim Duncan—everybody always acts like it’s a new deal. But back then you had Robert Parish and Kevin McHale in Boston, or Bill Laimbeer and Ricky Mahorn in Detroit, so you had a lot of teams playing two big guys. You had to have two big guys to play on the front line. Me and Hakeem complemented each other very well. I was able to move outside and do some things that my capabilities let me do. The only thing that was a negative from my standpoint was that we didn’t have a consistent amount of guards to stay with us every year. I lost a number of points and opportunities by not having a good guard.
SLAM: Do you think that was the one element missing from those Rockets teams?
RS: Yeah, I think so. We would’ve been playing until maybe two years ago. I would’ve been just retiring from the NBA, probably, if we had had good supporting guards around us. Because we had a great bench.
SLAM: Game Five of the ’86 Playoffs vs. the Lakers. Is the fourth quarter of that game your defining NBA moment?
RS: That was a fun game. I loved playing the Lakers. I loved that arena. I loved the atmosphere. We were in a situation where Hakeem had gotten thrown out of the game, and it came to where you were gonna put up or shut up. Fortunately I had the opportunity to do it.
SLAM: How would you describe that series-winning shot you put up?
RS: Well, [inbounder] Rodney McCray would describe it as not my shot but his pass. It was very awkward that they didn’t put anybody in front of me. They thought I would probably spin out and go for a lob, as I normally did back then. With the shot, all I could do was direct it towards the basket, and with the good Lord’s help, it went in.
SLAM: As high a moment as that was, you had your hands full against Boston in the Finals. How did you handle that disappointing finish?
RS: I actually enjoyed it. We came out of the Lakers game winning four straight, so we were on a high, and of course that powerful Boston team was on a high. Those three weeks of playing were so intense every day of the week. You would try to rest and relax, but you couldn’t do it, because you just wanted to get out there and get on to the next game. That’s a championship moment. You can’t beat that.
SLAM: Once the injuries began to take their toll, how hard was it to deal with your body not allowing you to do things you could do before?
RS: The thing that happened was I had a fall in Boston the following year, and my lower back and left side were numb for a few hours. I think it started there. And then after having an operation on my left knee, what I feel I did wrong in hindsight is I came back in eight weeks. I got in the gym, I worked out twice a day, I got my legs back to where I wanted…but I never gave my body time to heal properly.
When you’re in that zone where you have a couple of years with an opportunity to win, you’ll do anything you can to win. And I think that was my mistake. I probably should have stayed out the whole year and come back the following season stronger and better than ever.
SLAM: Your last NBA years in Sacramento and Washington were spent mostly on the bench. How did you cope with that, especially while your contemporaries like Ewing and Olajuwon were still having great success?
RS: It was real rough. I look at some of them today, and I wish that I had an opportunity to play against some of these people with some of that ability and talent that I had. I really wish I could see what would’ve happened. But when I first got the injuries, I tried to take everything as a positive. I worked extremely hard. And once I was sitting on the bench, I continued to work out and continued to be a positive influence on the team, but also took it as a learning experience to understand what was going on in the game. Would I ever want to be a coach? What was my next step? So I took it as a positive and tried to be as helpful as I could, but also tried to understand what my next step was.
SLAM: You tried to make a comeback in the CBA, and a lot of people, including Lefty Driesell who was coaching with you at James Madison, were critical of that—saying it was beneath you and your stature. What was your motivation for doing that, and how did you deal with the way people perceived it?
RS: I didn’t really care how people perceived me. It definitely was beneath what I should’ve been doing, but also it was preparing me for something else down the line.
Right now I’m executive vice president of the Richmond Rhythm of the IBL [Sampson took over the head coaching job as well when Allen Bristow resigned], and hopefully one day I will be a general manager of an NBA team. You have to go through experiences to be able to handle something at another level. You can’t be good at something if you haven’t experienced it—good or bad.
SLAM: It’s funny, because most of the knocks on your game were that you had a center’s size but played too much like a guard, and that you needed to be in the paint more. Now, however, you have seven-footers like Kevin Garnett having success while playing small forward and being hailed as revolutionary for playing like you did. Does that make you feel vindicated at all? Do you think you were simply ahead of your time?
RS: Yeah, I think a lot of it was I was ahead of my time. People look at the game now and call it old school and talk about the older players, but back then you talked about having old-school coaches. And having an old-school coach meant having someone that did not understand the game at the level I was at during that time. You take Kevin Garnett’s coach right now [Flip Saunders]. He’s a new-school coach, and he understands that the game has evolved and is evolving to the point where a seven-footer can do a number of different things. Back then, though, if you were a seven-footer, you had to be in the paint, and you had to have your back to the basket. When I was out there, people didn’t understand that I could also dribble, shoot, run and jump, so people were like, “What do we do with this guy. Where do we put him?”
SLAM: What do you feel you would’ve been able to do in the NBA had you been able to stay healthy and been in the right environment?
RS: It’s hard to tell. If I had had the opportunity to play with a Magic Johnson-style point guard in L.A., where I really thrived…
SLAM: I remember him being asked about playing with you back then, and he said, “Order up those rings for the next 10 years.”
RS: Exactly. There would’ve been a lot of rings involved, because that was the style that I could play. You would’ve been looking at Kareem and myself as Twin Towers. And with James Worthy at small forward, that would’ve been pretty good.
SLAM: Tell me what it’s like to be on the other side of the ball, so to speak, as a team executive in the IBL.
RS: This is fun. I’m excited about what I’m doing. I’m trying to put together a system in Richmond that is conducive to what I feel about the game. And my experiences alone can help young guys with aspirations to make it to the next level. I can help them understand what it’s gonna take and if you have the heart, desire and will, then we’ll see what you can do. And younger guys will see that, because I’ll work out with them and be there. I’m able to give them what they need if they’ll go after it.
SLAM: With the NBA, CBA, and even a new ABA in the works, what is it about the IBL that you think will help it be successful?
RS: With anything it’s gonna be hard work and determination that’s gonna make it work. I think the IBL has positioned itself for success. There’s gonna be some hard knocks in any startup business. But if the IBL can weather its three-year business plan, I think it will be a substantial league, and I think you’ll see some synergy with the CBA and the NBA as far as development of players for the NBA. If that’s the focus, then the IBL will be around for a long time.
SLAM: I hear you’ve left the door open as far as returning to the court. Is that a possibility, and how does the body feel?
RS: The body feels fine. I’ve told people that having the opportunity to do this, I don’t leave any doors shut. But I’ve told the owners of this team—and I’ll tell the owners of any NBA team—that it would happen only if I felt that I had the right amount of time to get my body together, and if I had the right surroundings to get the job done. I work out all day long, so the possibility of me playing is not too far away.
SLAM: Finally, when people talk about Ralph Sampson the player 20 years from now, what do you want them to say?
RS: A little bit before his time. Great college player. Great NBA career for the time that he was in there playing. People just need to understand that whatever the injuries may have been and whatever the situation may have been, that I left a mark, a footprint on the game, and I loved to do what I did. I hopefully didn’t detract from the game, but rather added something to it and gave everybody a little enjoyment.