Many fans who will watch the Houston Rockets play the Washington Bullets in the second game of tonight's NBA exhibition doubleheader (HTS at 9) are likely to leave Capital Centre with the notion that there's as much likelihood of Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson playing well together as Ronald Reagan agreeing with Walter Mondale on anything.
The players may look awkward at times when they're in a game together. Sampson, who is 7 feet 4, was the No. 1 player in the 1983 NBA draft and is trying to move from center to power forward so that Olajuwon, who is 7-0 and was the top pick in the 1984 draft, can play center. It is a learning process and they sometimes get in each other's way.
But for skeptics who think Houston management made a monumental blunder, heed these words from K.C. Jones, coach of the champion Boston Celtics. They have played the Rockets three times in exhibition games:
"They're all new," Jones said. "It's Akeem's first year, Ralph's second. John Lucas (the point guard) is new. It's the second year for (small forward) Rodney McCray and (shooting guard) Lewis Lloyd. They're all strangers right now. Once they get to know each other, watch out, man."
In fact, of Houston's top 12 players, 10 became Rockets since Bill Fitch was named coach last season.
Ray Patterson, the Rockets' president, says, "We play like a club like that -- some outstanding play and then some inconsistent play. The best thing about the club is that each day the guys get better, and that is what's encouraging."
In their last game, a 13-point loss at home to the Celtics in which three Boston regulars played at least 35 minutes, Sampson scored 25 points and had 12 rebounds in 26 minutes. Olajuwon had 15 points and 10 rebounds in 24 minutes.
The Rockets come into tonight's game with a 2-3 record, but the victories were back to back, against the Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers. Exhibition results can be misleading because coaches are trying to accomplish different things, but Jones has seen enough to say of Olajuwon being flanked by Sampson:
"You've got two franchises there, and Ralph's a great outside shooter. He's very mobile and fills the lane on the fast break, which is unusual for a guy that size. If they get the ball inside, you're not going to block it, and he's also a shot blocker and rebounder.
"Akeem shows me as much speed and quickness as Bernard King (the New York Knicks' superb forward). He works and runs awfully hard down the court. He's awesome on the offensive and defensive boards.
"And don't forget McCray. He's an awful good ballplayer, too. He's quick and fast in the same mold as Akeem with a decent 12- to 13-foot shot."
But there is much for both to learn. According to Rockets spokesman Jim Foley, Olajuwon did not know who Red Auerbach was, nor had any idea of the significance of the 13 (championship) banners hanging from the rafters of Boston Garden until the Rockets played in Boston last week and Fitch, whom Jones replaced, gave Olajuwon a guided tour of the venerable gymnasium.
This is only the fourth season of basketball for Olajuwon, who played soccer in his native Nigeria, so there is much to learn besides coaching legends and famed arenas.
As George Gervin, the former league scoring champion, said after his San Antonio Spurs played the Rockets in the opening exhibition game, "Those two big men are intimidating, but they'll have to learn they can't go for every fake. It's a trial-and-error thing. The Rockets are going to be very tough the next time we see them."
Forward Robert Reed, in his seventh season with Houston, said, "We're a long way from being the best Rockets team. We have to strive for the proper chemistry and become smart, aggressive and confident in what we can do.
"You can see it coming along day by day. Akeem is learning to play as a true center for the first time. He has to know when to come to the ball and when to screen away. Ralph is realizing that, as a big forward, he has to work on moving his feet."
The Spurs were successful in pressing the Rockets full court in the opening exhibition. Then, Patterson acquired Lucas from San Antonio. "You have to have someone to fuel the Rolls-Royces," Patterson said at the time.
Lucas gives the Rockets three overall No. 1 draft picks in the lineup at the same time (he was No. 1 out of Maryland in 1976), but, more important, seems to be the catalyst necessary to make the chemistry work.
Lucas, who was waived by the Bullets in January 1983 because of an admitted cocaine problem, has rehabilitated himself. He had a solid season for the Spurs as a backup last season and has quickly become the Rockets' starting point guard. In 102 minutes in four games, Lucas has 36 points and 30 assists.
The New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks will play in the opening game at 6:30 . . . The Bullets will play the Rockets again Saturday night in Norfolk.