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Fran Blinebury

Ralph Sampson looks to take Kareem Abdul-Jabbar off the dribble in this 1985 game.

Reaching the heights never came easy for big man Sampson


Posted Sep 10, 2012 7:48 AM

It has often been said that a man's reach should exceed his grasp. Which meant the bar was always going to be set much higher for Ralph Sampson.

At 7-foot-4, he'll become the tallest player enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and yet the enduring image to many is of a would-be star who came up short. Only because he could never live up to the loftiest expectations of others.

"Oh my," people would always say upon first glance in a gym or out on the street, "I've never seen anyone quite like you."

That was always Sampson's problem.

When he was still a gangly colt on wobbly legs in Harrisonburg, Va., the hot whispers about the big kid who could pull alley-oop passes from out of the clouds, dribble the length of the floor to beat a press and then stab in a 20-foot jump shot grew out of control. Throughout his career at the University of Virginia -- three times voted national College Player of the Year -- the tales of his talent and his exploits took a quantum leap.

By the time the Rockets made him the No. 1 pick in the 1983 NBA draft, the hype had built Sampson into a hybrid combination of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Paul Bunyan. All that was missing was a blue ox to ride into Houston.

We live now in a time when near-7-footers such as Kevin Garnett and Kevin Durant can fly in from the wings to do spectacular feats and launch shots from the perimeter with the casual aplomb of a guard. But spin the calendar back more than three decades and Sampson was the first truly big man who pushed the limits. He could take the ball off the glass, fire an outlet pass with the best of them and run like a gazelle to catch a lob to finish with a dunk at the other end. He could dribble the ball behind his back and between his legs and swish jumpers with ease. He could do it all while curing the common cold and achieving world peace ... or so went the legend.

The late Ray Patterson, then the Rockets' president and general manager, went so far as to say: "Sampson is not going to be the player of the decade. He's going to be the player of the century -- the century. Ralph will dominate the league and change basketball. Forget about every other big man you've ever heard about. This is the guy who will be better than them all."

It was a brass ring that nobody could ever realistically expect to reach out and grab.

"I don't think there's ever been another player in history who came into the NBA with a higher level of expectation," said Charles Barkley, who for a change was not engaging in hyperbole. "Nobody ever revolutionizes or changes the game. But that was all the talk surrounding Ralph. He was set up for the fall."

Sampson was a unanimous pick for Rookie of the Year in 1984, a four-time All-Star and MVP of the 1985 All-Star Game in Indianapolis. Until the Rockets made their back-to-back championship runs in 1994 and 1995, he had the biggest bucket in franchise history with his last-second, twisting, 10-foot, rim-dancing turnaround that defeated the Lakers in the 1986 Western Conference finals. And he lived up to much of the hype. In his first three NBA seasons, he averaged 20.6 points, 10.9 rebounds and 2.03 blocked shots.

"I would have to think in my mind that he would be even much better if he played with me," Magic Johnson said on the day that he spent tossing passes to Sampson at the Indianapolis All-Star Game. "Put the young fella in the same lineup with me and you could start sending the [championship] trophies to us at the start of every season."

Sampson at his best was swift, graceful and breathtaking for his size. There were times when he would come down the court and make a play that seemed unimaginable for a man of his stature. All you could do was shake your head.

But after three knee surgeries, three more teams and six painful, ineffective seasons, Sampson limped out of the league as a symbol of potential unfulfilled, averaging just 2.2 points in his final NBA stint with Washington in 1992.

The criticism was always that he was soft and couldn't be effective in the low post like a traditional big man. He had no championships at Virginia or in the NBA. Even in Houston, where he dazzled and had that spectacular start when healthy, Sampson's legacy faded in the white hot glow of his one-time teammate Hakeem Olajuwon, who would take the Rockets to the mountaintop.

"Not to take anything away from Dream," said former Rocket Kenny Smith, Olajuwon's teammate for the title years. "But one was hurt and one wasn't. I hear people say that Ralph only did it for three or four years. But for three or four years nobody could touch him. He'd have been [voted] a Top 50 [all-time] player if not for his knees. When it comes to Sampson, everybody seems to want to go for the easy negative instead of looking for the truth."

Though he can't change the prism through which others view him, Sampson long ago came to terms with the great and outlandish expectations.

"I've always been comfortable in my own skin," he said. "I was tall as a young boy and I never really had much choice about if I would stand out in the crowd. There are so many what-ifs. What if I had left school a year earlier and gone to the Lakers and played with Magic? What if John Lucas, Mitchell Wiggins and Lewis Lloyd didn't go down to drugs and broke up that Rockets team that went to The Finals in 1986? What if my knees didn't go?

"But injuries are part of the game. I wish I could have played at a high level for many more years. I wish I could have spent more time playing with Hakeem. Obviously, if I'd have had a 15-year career at that early level, there's another perspective on everything.

"When I played, people said big men are not supposed to be playing away from the basket. Now I see Kevin Garnett all over the floor.

"Hey, I had my time. I played my game."

There once was a time when nobody had ever seen anything quite like that game, nothing quite like Ralph Sampson. That was always both his allure and his burden.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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