A Hall of Fame career is rarely deemed a disappointment, but Ralph Sampson’s time in the NBA will always be viewed under the “what could’ve been” prism. His skyscraping size, unusual agility and astounding skill created mostly unrealistic expectations that were out of reach even for a man who will become the tallest player ever enshrined in Springfield, Mass.
The 7-foot-4 Sampson will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, but he will receive the honor mostly for a dominant collegiate career at the University of Virginia and his early all-star success with the Houston Rockets.
Surgeries on both knees and back problems prohibited Sampson from fulfilling his immense promise, but three decades after he entered the league as the No. 1 overall pick in 1983, the guard trapped in a gangly giant’s body will also remembered as a pioneer who paved the way for big men to showcase a wide-ranging offensive arsenal.
Sampson could score in the low block despite never developing a signature back-to-the-basket move but preferred to glide around defenders, step back for perimeter jumpers and occasionally put the ball on the floor.
Sampson never won a title in the pros or college, making just one trip to the NCAA Final Four. He didn’t become the next Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Bill Russell but he was NBA rookie of the year in 1984, All-Star Game MVP in 1985 and teamed with the more rugged and prototypical (for the era) big man Hakeem Olajuwon to help Houston reach the NBA Finals in 1986. He made four all-star appearances — none after he was dealt to Golden State in December 1987 — and his NBA career ended, meekly, with a forgettable 10-game stint with the Washington Bullets in 1991-92.
With his career on its last wobbly legs, Sampson knew that he was never going to resemble the player he was during his glorious — albeit brief — prime in Houston, where he averaged 20.6 points, 10.9 rebounds and two blocked shots per game in his first three seasons. But after a nasty split with Sacramento — where he clashed with Kings Coach Dick Motta and had become a shell of his former self, playing just 51 games in two seasons — Sampson was seeking another chance to play and contribute; another chance to rediscover the passion that pushed him to become a star at Harrisonburg High and a legend at Virginia.
At just 31, Sampson thought that opportunity would come in Washington.
After negotiating a buyout with the Kings, Sampson told The Washington Post, “Deep down in my heart, the Washington Bullets are the team I’d love to play for.” He signed with the Bullets for minimum contract of $130,000 a few days later and Wes Unseld, who was coach of the Bullets at the time, told the Boston Globe: “It’s a gamble, but it’s not the type of thing that will pay real dividends real quick. …We were looking for help any place we could get it, and if Ralph can help us, then so much the better.”
But playing only a few hours up the road from his home town of Harrisonburg and not far from where won three national player of the year awards in Charlottesville, Sampson didn’t experience the storybook return and revitalization he envisioned. Instead, he got a humbling lesson in his athletic mortality — and the produce-or-sit reality of the league. He labored, struggled to hold his ground inside and averaged just 2.2 points, 3.0 rebounds and close to one block in a total of 108 minutes.
Sampson had his best performance in his seventh game with the team, scoring six points, grabbing 10 rebounds and blocking two shots in a 109-97 loss to Milwaukee at the Capital Centre. He wasn’t overly excited about how well he played since the game represented his seventh consecutive loss in a Bullets uniform. He told The Post, “Right now I’m just disgusted with losing.” Five days later, Sampson made his return to Houston in his second-to-last game for the Bullets and went scoreless in seven minutes of mop-up duty. Still, he told the Houston Chronicle, “I’m in a situation where I can be happy for the first time since I left Houston.”
Samspon had become a crowd favorite at home games and fans were especially vocal with every move he made, no matter how painful they were to watch at times. Bullets General Manager John Nash denied that Sampson’s presence was a public relations ploy. “Any time a name player of his stature makes an effort to play, people will get excited,” Nash told The Post.
The Bullets went 1-9 in the games Sampson played, winning in his final appearance on Dec. 20, 1991, when he went 0 for 2 with one rebound in just four minutes in Dallas. And after seven weeks, Sampson was gone. Desiring more playing time, he requested waivers from the Bullets and bolted for Spain, where he played just eight games in obscurity.
Unseld left the door open for Sampson to return whenever he was ready but Sampson and his arthritic knees were done with the Bullets and the NBA. Twenty years after he hobbled away — or was pushed out — Sampson will be back in the spotlight that he often shunned during his time on top at Virginia and Houston. And those will be the memories that linger, not that last gasp in Washington.