The greatest immediate problem with Sampson's commitment to the experiment is that it's postponing the grimy task of mastering the paint. At Virginia, Holland tried in vain to persuade Sampson to develop a single bread-and-butter move, like Kareem's skyhook, or Kevin McHale's turnaround. Even the Rockets' Akeem Olajuwon, Sampson's frontcourt helpmate with the Rockets, has developed an unstoppable trunk-spin boogaloo thing he does in the lane. But Sampson says, "I don't want just one move. I want to be master of all of them. I want to have two or three moves, where they know it's coming but don't know how or from what direction."
Fitch calls such a move a "basic," and he, too, has tried to get Sampson to perfect one. "All great players have a basic, something that's 9 out of 10, like a free throw," Fitch says. "But it's more important that people talk about what a great player he is five years from now than what a great player he is right now. Ralph is just getting to the point where a couple of things are almost automatic, and I think this is the year you'll see one or two moves actually reach that point."
So much of what Sampson will ultimately do, though, depends on what he'll be asked to do. For the moment, the emergence of the 6'11" Olajuwon allows Fitch to indulge Ralph's experiment. Just as Houston is the only major American city with no zoning laws, the Rockets chose to erect skyscrapers almost indiscriminately along their front line, and Sampson was bumped out to power forward after his rookie season to accommodate Olajuwon's arrival. At Virginia, home to all that architectural correctness, the Cavaliers faced nothing but strict zone defenses, which, Holland says, "really didn't give Ralph any room to develop that one move." In college Sampson was a victim of zones; in the pros he is, in effect, a victim of zoning. "It may mean he won't be the most dominant big man ever to play the game," Holland says, "even if it may serve Houston extremely well."
Holland also says, "Basketball will never destroy him, because it doesn't consume him." Yet there is no one to whom that fact might be more troublesome than Fitch, one of the NBA's most demanding coaches. Fitch admits to no complaints about a lack of desire in Sampson. The coach says that the night after their spat last fall, "Ralph nearly hurt himself, he played so hard." But Fitch was angry that Sampson had spent much of the preceding summer in Europe when he could have set a captain's example by whipping himself into shape. Sampson doesn't deny Fitch's point; he just stands on the principle that the summer is his time. Says Lazenby, "Is Ralph the kind of person who'll say, 'I'll put up with this s.o.b. because he's good for me'?"
He probably is. Sampson knows very well that one important goal, a goal he needed no professor's prodding to set, has gone unfulfilled—a championship. Sampson is the rare center of promise to enter the NBA without an NCAA title in tow. Russell won one. So did Kareem, and Bill Walton and Patrick Ewing. Even Wilt came within a triple overtime loss of one. "To some degree he finds simply going into the low post and throwing in a hook shot disinteresting," Rotella says of Sampson. "But I expect him to see that there's a time and a place for developing that one move. That comes out of wanting to win championships. And that's why he'll develop it."
On a lazy day in August, Ralph Sampson has picked up a friend named Wallace Banks, who's no taller than Jerry Sichting, and tooled into downtown Harrisonburg for lunch. They walk into Jess' Quick Lunch, a place on the courthouse square. Nobody asks for an autograph.
Jess used to run a slim, belly-up lunch counter, but now there's an annex with big TV consoles at either end; each is tuned to a different network's soap opera. "You really only have to watch the soaps on Mondays and Fridays," Sampson says. "That's the only time anything happens. Mondays they have to hook you for the week, and Fridays they need to carry you over the weekend. Wednesdays you might want to tune in. Something may happen Wednesdays."
Today is a Wednesday, so Sampson has one eye on a TV set as he answers a question about the shot he made against L.A. in the playoffs, the at-the-buzzer Buddhist prayer wheel that eliminated the Lakers and put the Rockets in the finals, where Sampson had brashly predicted during the preseason they would end up. Where does that shot rank?
"It ranks," he says. Something—either the distraction of the soap or regret that he never really had a chance to savor that shot—has turned his responses laconic. "Very high. Maybe second."