For the last four seasons, no NBA team has been able to mount much more than a laughable threat to the terrible troika of Los Angeles-Boston- Philadelphia. Now come the Houston Rockets and their Twin Towers, gently nudging the collective backside of the Big Three. At week's end the Rockets had the third-best record in the league (32-15) behind Boston and L.A., with a tops-in-the-NBA home mark of 24-1 in the Summit. Houston has the height, in 7'4" Ralph Sampson and 6'11" Akeem Olajuwon, to match Boston's frontcourt, the speed (well, almost) to match the Lakers on the break and the power and panache to match the Moses Malone/ Julius Erving/ Charles Barkley trifecta at Philadelphia.
But whether that means the Rockets are a contender or just another pretender remains to be seen. "There's no way in the world we can beat a good team without Ralph or Akeem having a good game," says Rockets coach Bill Fitch. "That's the big difference between us and a Boston or L.A." Indeed, the Rockets can't be counted on to beat even bad teams when one of the towers is shrouded in fog. That was the case last Saturday in Chicago, where the lowly Bulls, playing without Michael Jordan and Orlando Wool ridge, found Olajuwon unstoppable (33 points, 11 rebounds) but turned Sampson into Delilah in the second half (only one point, 15 for the game) in a 132-122 victory.
In Houston's first meeting with the Lakers in L.A. on Dec. 6, the Rockets zoomed to a 17-point first-quarter lead only to fall by 120-112. The bench remains a question mark. So does outside shooting. So does defense: 13 teams have allowed fewer points per game than Houston. But this is a team with many strengths. John Lucas, he of the ebullient personality and drug-plagued past, leads a running attack that's second only to the Lakers'. The lane-fillers are Olajuwon—"I do not think much about lanes. I just go," he says—Rodney McCray, only a notch behind L.A.'s James Worthy among running small forwards, and off-guard Lewis Lloyd, one of the best finishers in the game because of his high-rise dunking ability.
And then there's Sampson, who will join Abdul-Jabbar and Worthy this week in Dallas on the first all-goggle All-Star frontcourt for the Western Division team. ( Sampson donned goggles after suffering a cut over his left eye in a Jan. 2 game against Golden State.) Olajuwon placed second behind Abdul-Jabbar among centers in the balloting but was added to the All-Star roster by the Western coaches, a sagacious choice if there ever was one. Because, as far as the Houston offense goes, Olajuwon is the main Rocket launching pad, erected down low, where he is spinning, jump-hooking and power-dunking his way to greatness in only his second season.
"He's the second-best center in the league, after Kareem," says Chicago coach Stan Albeck. Fitch, hardly one to gush about his players, says, "There's a long way to go, but if the MVP votes were taken now, yes, Akeem would have to get a lot of consideration." Says Doug Moe, coach of the Denver Nuggets, "How the hell can he improve when he already does everything a big man is supposed to do?" That includes scoring (23.4 points per game), shooting with accuracy (.513 from the floor), rebounding with impunity (11.3 per game, same as Sampson), defending with tenacity (164 blocked shots, third in the league) and running the floor with abandon. O.K., Akeem is not yet a good passer, but he's working on it. Says the Dream, "I want someday to see the whole floor like Ralph does."
It should be noted, however, that the way Ralph Sampson sees the floor is not always the way Bill Fitch sees it. Though superstar and coach do not exchange harsh words often—"Ralph has never raised his voice to me," says Fitch, "because if he did, he knows I'd knock him on his butt"—neither do they share a mutual love. Early in the season there were some heated moments, but there exists an uneasy truce between them these days, one that should hold so long as the Rockets stay hot. "Winning clears up a lot of things," says Sampson.
Fitch respects Sampson's intelligence and a versatility that no other 7-footer has ever shown. "Ralph knows all five spots completely," says Fitch. The coach is well aware that it is Sampson who has adjusted his game to fit Olajuwon's, not vice versa. But Fitch says, "Ralph is the kind of guy you have to motivate once in a while." Translation: He's got to go inside and rough it up a little more, knock a few people over and stop toying with the outside game he loves so well.
"Sometimes when Ralph's on the bench, I can hear him coaching, telling both teams to do this, do that, move here, move there," says Fitch. "But when it comes to making decisions about his own game, he's sometimes, well, incomplete. I'd just as soon have him come with reckless abandon."
Sampson has been hearing these things since college. He knows that Fitch feels he doesn't work hard enough in the off-season and he doesn't particularly care. "My time in the off-season is my own," he says. And he is not about to retool his style. " Fitch says he wants me to have one shot I can depend on nine times out of 10," Sampson says. "Well, I want to do them all. I don't want just one shot. I want to shoot outside. I want to dribble the ball up and down the floor. Some of my teammates don't think I can do it. I know Fitch hollers to them to run and get it from me. But I can do it."
Perhaps there's only so much boyish enthusiasm available to one team, and the Rockets get their quota from Olajuwon. He's charming, affable and unpredictable. When the Dream wants the ball in the pivot he'll plead, with arms outstretched, "Talk to me, mon, talk to me!" When he gets it, he's a joy to watch. Maybe he'll take one dribble to set himself, then do the drop step he learned from Moses Malone and power-dunk. Or, back to the basket, he'll dip a shoulder, whirl one way then quickly back the other, and shoot a short jumper.