Sampson Recalls Helping Launch Rockets

In 1986, the duo of Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon helped launch the Rockets into the NBA Finals.
When the Phoenix Suns take the court on Wednesday night vs. the Houston Rockets, the game will pit Goran Dragic, Marcus Morris and Luis Scola against a team they once suited up for. But the trio won’t be the only ones facing off a team with which they have a history.

During the 1983-84 season with Houston, Ralph Sampson averaged 21 points per game en route to a Rookie of the Year campaign which saw him play in all 82 games. Paired up with another rookie phenom the next year – a youngster then known as Akeem Olajuwon – Sampson managed to up his scoring average while again participating in all 82 contests.

“With (Akeem) we obviously knew we could do something special,” Sampson told Suns.com. “After drafting him they looked to me to move over to power forward where I’d be a little bit freer to shoot outside. With him able to play his game inside, things worked out pretty well.”

But as Sampson is quick to point out, it wasn’t just Houston’s “Twin Towers” doing all the work.

“We had a lot of talent on that team,” Sampson recalled. “You had players being added like Rodney McCray, Robert Reid, Lewis Lloyd and Mitchell Wiggins which allowed us to get pretty good pretty quick.”

It did not take long for the pair of big men to launch the Rockets to new heights. In 1986, the ballclub won a division-best 51 victories, but found themselves matched up against a 62-win Lakers team in the Conference Finals. With the Lakers looking to earn its fifth-consecutive berth in the NBA Finals, and second-straight championship overall, it was a series that many picked Los Angeles to win.

“I’m sure a lot of people weren’t picking us to win that series,” Sampson said with a smile. “It didn’t help matters either that we were coming off of a grueling seven-game series against the Denver Nuggets.”

After losing the first game of the series in Los Angeles, the Rockets bounced back with four-straight wins, including a Game 5 victory that came courtesy of a game-winning jumper by Sampson.

“I wouldn’t say it was necessarily my favorite memory as a player, but it’s obviously up there,” Sampson said. “Every kid grows up imagining himself hitting the game-winning shot in that sort of situation so I consider myself very fortunate to have been in that position.”

Things did not get any easier for the Rockets, however, following that memorable Conference Finals performance. Having dethroned a 62-win Lakers team, Houston now found themselves up against a 67-win Celtics ballclub considered by some to be the greatest of all time.

“They were incredibly talented and just playing really well together at that particular time,” Sampson said. “They played together and with that nucleus of (Larry) Bird, (Robert) Parrish, (Kevin) McHale, (Danny) Ainge and Dennis Johnson along with Bill Walton coming off the bench, it was tough to prevent them from becoming champions.”

The argument could be made that had it been any other team the Rockets had met in the NBA Finals that year, Sampson would have earned himself a ring with the Rockets. Instead it would be eight seasons later that the Rockets would earn its first championship, long after Sampson had moved on. But regardless of who it is donning the Rockets jersey and which particular coach might by patrolling the sideline, Sampson said it’s always special getting to go back to where his NBA career began.

“Houston’s always my NBA home,” Sampson said. “Being drafted there and enjoying the majority of my career there, even when the roster and front office has changes, I’m always able to find some familiar faces in the arena which I enjoy.”

Now Sampson is a member of the Phoenix Suns front office staff, and since Training Camp has worked with a number of the organization's big men. With his focus now on helping younger centers develop their talents, Sampson says he hopes to someday be a part of a championship team in the Valley.

“We have a ways to go and a lot of work to do, but I can see the making of something very good taking place here,” Sampson said. “Being back at this level here in the NBA has been a blast for me and hopefully continues to be so.”