December 20, 1982
He's not quite in a league with New Coke, Waterworld or, for that matter, Pamela Anderson Lee. But 7'4" Ralph Sampson makes anyone's short list of notable busts. As a senior at Harrisonburg (Va.) High, Sampson was heralded as an amalgam of the game's greatest centers: He supposedly had Chamberlain's presence, Abdul-Jabbar's touch and Russell's defense. "People said I could have gone right from high school to the NBA, which was virtually unheard of at the time," he says. Instead Sampson chose to attend Virginia, where he was a three-time All-America but never won an NCAA title.
The first pick, by the Houston Rockets, in the 1983 draft, Sampson was named rookie of the year in '84 and the All-Star Game MVP in '85 and knocked the Los Angeles Lakers out of the '86 Western Conference finals with a corkscrew push shot at the buzzer. Yet he was never the dominator he was expected to be. His critics contended that he shunned contact and instead chose to play like a two guard with a pituitary problem. "People didn't like me for that," says Sampson, 37, "but I feel that by showing that big guys could do more than just bang down low, I helped redefine the center position."
Even from a man with a colossal wingspan, that's a stretch. But Sampson was undone less by his playing style than by his gimpy knees, which were scoped more often than the aforementioned Lee at a construction site. After missing only three games in his first three years, he averaged just 39 games per season for the rest of his career, which ended with him riding the bench for the Sacramento Kings in 1990-91. "I can't help wondering what could have been if I'd been healthy," he says.
In 1993 Sampson took a job as an assistant coach at James Madison but left after one season because, he says, "it wasn't the right situation for me." He's now CEO of Sampson Enterprises, which includes a licensing company, a marketing division and a nonprofit foundation, I have lofty goals for this company, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to be successful," Sampson says, speaking with a passion that his former coaches no doubt wish he'd displayed on the court.
He spends the rest of his time at home in Richmond with his wife, Aleize, and their kids, Rachel, 10, Ralph III, 8, and Robert, 5. "Ralph's already 5'2" and wears a men's 9 shoe," says the proud papa. "No question he'll be better than me."