The trade that sent Houston Rockets forward Ralph Sampson and guard Steve Harris to the Golden State Warriors for former Georgetown star Eric Floyd and Joe Barry Carroll late Saturday night may have been precipitated by an altercation between Sampson and Rockets Coach Bill Fitch.

In a 98-93 victory against the Utah Jazz last Thursday, Sampson played 20 minutes but went zero for six from the field with three rebounds and four turnovers. After the game, he and his coach are said to have exchanged words before being separated by other Rockets.

"Something happened in Houston, and they decided it was time for him to leave," Don Nelson, the Warriors' executive vice president, said at a news conference yesterday. "What I heard through the grapevine was that there was an argument with Bill Fitch. I don't know if it's true or not, but that's what was going through the grapevine."

"They've hated each other for years," one Western Conference coach said yesterday. "This one might have been it."

Neither Sampson nor Fitch could be reached for comment. Whatever the reasons, the deal came together quickly, particularly considering the magnitude of the players involved.

"It really came about three days ago," said Nelson. "I'd talked with Fitch about a month ago; I told him I'd heard they were having a problem with Ralph and that I just wanted to put our name in the hat if they were thinking about trading him. We said we'd give them a lot, but he said they weren't going to do anything. But something must have happened because all of a sudden they wanted him out of there right now."

Nelson joined the Warriors this season after coaching the Milwaukee Bucks 11 seasons. He helped turn the Bucks into a league power and is said to be greatly distressed about the Warriors. With the team 3-15 after losing to the Utah Jazz, 127-93, Saturday, he was reportedly upset about a lack of professionalism and leadership on the team.

Sampson's critics claim he, too, lacks those attributes. During four years at the University of Virginia, he took his team to the NCAA Final Four once but never won a championship. His four-plus seasons with the Rockets have been up and down and characterized by a running feud with Fitch.

Last season, Sampson missed 39 games with a variety of injuries and averaged 15.6 points and 8.4 rebounds -- both career lows. A free agent after the 1986-87 season, he complained about the Rockets playing him out of position and often spoke of changing teams. Nevertheless, he signed a six-year, $14.4 million contract in October.

In an interview with CBS yesterday, he said he had not expected a trade. In fact, he said the Rockets had told him he wouldn't be traded.

"Back when my contract was re-signed this year, they said, 'We want you down in Houston,' " he said. "They told me at dinner . . . 'We want you real bad,' and I told them I wanted to be in Houston real bad and we shook hands and came away from the table saying, 'Okay, we want you in Houston. We're not going to trade you. We don't want to trade you. We will never trade you,' and that's the way it was."

Said Nelson: "I don't know all of the reasons he hasn't been more successful. We'll probably find out during the rest of the season. But now we have a game plan; before, we only had a bad team. We have a 7-4 terrific basketball player to build around and that's exciting. You look at the draft and there's really no good year for centers until about 1991.

"It's very difficult to get a guy like this. There aren't many times a player like Kareem {Abdul-Jabbar} is traded in the history of the game. We felt like if it happened again we wanted to be a part of it . . ."

Coincidentally, Floyd also recalled the 1975 trade of Abdul-Jabbar from Milwaukee to Los Angeles.

"If Kareem can get traded, it can happen to anyone," said Floyd. "I knew something was going on; I've been in the league for a while and I knew that me and J.B. were the one players on the team that were valuable. They {the Warriors} were talking about a new direction; it was kind of like the writing was on the wall."

Last season, Floyd made the NBA all-star team for the first time and broke a 21-year-old team record with 848 assists. He averaged 18.8 points in the regular season and increased that to 21.4 in the playoffs. He scored 51 points in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinal series against the Lakers, setting NBA playoff records for points in one half (39) and in a quarter (29).

He shares a league record for minutes played in a game, a 64-minute stint in a four-overtime game against the Nets last season. He also has started 264 straight games. This season he is averaging 21.9 points and 10.2 assists, but the Warriors still had the second worst record in the league.

However, in talking about joining the Rockets, now a solid contender, Floyd said he wasn't "exactly jumping for joy and cutting flips. I'd settled in pretty well here; I was playing good and felt close to my teammates. We're having a bad year, I really wish I could get through that with them.

"But I'm not sad; we were 3-15, and now I'm going to a good team. I think I could be the guy they've been looking for for a while. I'd heard that the deal might not have gone down if I wasn't included. That's the bottom line I guess, knowing you're wanted around the league."

Carroll, an enigmatic six-year veteran from Purdue, also made the all-star team for the first time in his career last season. He averaged 21.2 points and seven rebounds per game. Harris is in his third season and averaged almost seven points per game during his career with the Rockets.

Just before the trade, the Warriors' other starting guard, Chris Mullin, entered an alcohol rehabilitation program, according to team officials.

Coach George Karl had suspended him from Friday's game with the Atlanta Hawks in Oakland and fined him for missing practice Thursday.

According to a news release from the Warriors, Mullin admitted "to excessive consumption of beer over a period of time."

Karl told the Associated Press that the hospital would help Mullin. "I like Chris as a person," Karl said. "He has a lot of positives, off the court and on. Hopefully, he'll get the problem in hand."

Karl said Mullin appeared "upbeat about the decision. He knows what he has to do."

Placed on the injured reserve list, Mullin will continue to collect his $600,000 salary while at Centinela Hospital in Inglewood, Calif. He will return to the team when Dr. Jerry Rozanski says.