Hey, everybody, come quick: Ralph Sampson's talking.
And smiling and glad-handing and being quite congenial, which some would consider to be an upset equal to the Houston Rockets' 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Western Conference finals. In fact, it's beginning to seem that the 11-day period in which the upstarts from Texas dethroned the defending league champions may have been a coming-out party for the 25-year-old Sampson, both physically and emotionally.
On the court, he averaged 20 points and nine rebounds per game, numbers that belie his dominance at times, such as when he scored seven consecutive points and 10 of the last 13 for Houston during the stretch run of its 114-112 victory in the series finale. Sampson's final shot was the game-winner, a no-look, twisting heave from the lane that barely beat the buzzer.
Sampson also was impressive defensively. He sometimes muscled up in the pivot with Los Angeles center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and other times flitted about the perimeter to steal the ball from guards such as Magic Johnson.
Off the court, Sampson went from sullen to consistently effusive, patient and even witty.
For example, ever see a 7-foot-4 man play coy? Mention basketball player Nancy Lieberman to Sampson and ask about the pair's friendship. (A resident of Dallas, Lieberman has been a regular at the Summit during the Rockets' home playoff games.)
"Oh, you know how those gossip things are," Sampson said, smiling the entire time.
The gossip about Sampson hasn't always been so pleasant. The league championship series that begins Monday at 3 p.m. against the Boston Celtics is the final chapter of an emotionally wrenching season for Sampson in which he was booed at the Summit and reportedly on the trade block. There were reports of heated arguments in the preseason with Coach Bill Fitch and a near-tragic fall in Boston Garden that luckily resulted only in a bruised back.
"I wasn't worried about basketball then. I was worried about walking," Sampson said. "I had a bad fall and I couldn't move. I didn't know what was happening, but once I got the feeling back in my leg, I knew I would be okay."
Sampson's current thoughts are of amazing shots and the chance to win a championship, something that eluded him through high school and college at Virginia. To say that Ralph Sampson is a happy man these days is an understatement.
"I've been having a great time, and it's gonna get even better. Coach Fitch has one a championship ring on. I've been around all those people on the Lakers with them on. Now I want one, too," he said. "I told people I wasn't crazy, that we could win. And I knew that I wouldn't stay down for too long."
Although his front-court partner, Akeem Olajuwon, undoubtedly represents the Rockets' power, the team revolves around Sampson, their captain and center/forward. That's partially because he's such an amazing physical anomaly: capable of dribbling on the fast break, taking 18-foot jumpers, or slam dunking offensive rebounds through the basket. More important, though, Sampson, along with guard Robert Reid, is the team's most vocal spokesman.
Last season, when guard John Lucas had a recurrence of a problem with drugs, it was Sampson who urged him to get help and sought assistance from management. Team sources also said no one was affected more than Sampson when a relapse forced the Rockets to drop Lucas from the team. According to people close to the team, Lucas is in Houston but has yet to call Sampson because he knows how hurt Sampson was over the incident.
That was one low point in the Rockets' season. Another came when Sampson was suffering from a pulled hamstring. Fitch suggested that the player wasn't working hard enough; Sampson suggested that the coach take a hike. Most fans at the Summit sided with Fitch and often expressed dissatisfaction with Sampson's play.
"It was a little disheartening," he said. "It was early in the season, and I was just trying to get going. If people wanted to boo me, let 'em boo me now, not early in the year. Yeah, give me those same boos now."
Of course, there's no way that would happen today. It is also unlikely that Sampson's relationship with Fitch would regress, and the often-acerbic coach now says he didn't believe things were so bad to begin with.
"He's a player and I'm a coach, and there are going to be times when the coach has to make decisions that the player doesn't like," Fitch said. "And sometimes those decisions aren't 90 percent one way and 10 percent the other. Sometimes they're closer to 50-50, but I'm the one who has to make them. I'll tell you this about Ralph, though. There hasn't been a time when I've made a decision and told him that I wanted him to do something that he's said no, or that I had to tell him twice."
Apparently Fitch has yet to mention to Sampson the idea of turning the ball over to guards after rebounds. Perhaps he doesn't have to, as long as Sampson, who frequently prefers to stay outside, doesn't forget where the low post is.
He surely remembered last Wednesday in the fifth and final game against Los Angeles. He took over down low when Olajuwon was ejected for fighting with just over five minutes to play.
"Sometimes it appears that I'm all over, but I like playing center," he said. "That's my natural position, the one I've played all my life and know the best. I know how to work inside there, how to get rebounds and shoot hooks and other easy shots.
"I'm not the kind of person to say I can do this or I can do that, but I think that I could play other positions if I had the time to learn them and perfect them. But now isn't the time for it. There isn't time to do this and that, just whatever is called for . . . even if it's playing guard."
Ralph Sampson smiles, not an uncommon sight these days.