Cousin Raymond is different. Raymond Williams is Sarah Sampson's sister's son, eight years Ralph's senior. He had lived with the Sampsons for several years as a child, even sharing a bed with Ralph. At 6'4", he was the ballplayer who taught Ralph the rudiments of the game, and Ralph honored him by wearing his number at Harrisonburg High. But Raymond moved north, to Boston, where he fooled around with drugs and got into trouble and was put in jail. Sampson believes that with a few breaks, Raymond could have played in the NBA. "When I was 11 or 12, I remember going up and visiting him in prison—and the effect it had on me," Sampson says. "He was released right before we won the state [high school] championship one year. Running downcourt right after tip-off, I could hear Raymond yell from the stands, 'I made it! I'm here!' "
Because of Luke and Raymond and his own desire to be normal and not (in more than one sense) high, the fight against drug abuse seems to be Sampson's natural calling. In July, up at a basketball camp near D.C., Sampson delivered his Get High on Sports rap and asked, as he always does, for a show of hands: Who has used alcohol? Pot? Cocaine? And one kid who had confessed to doing coke insisted that he would use it again. So Sampson put him in the lane, in a defensive stance, and had him slide from side to side; and he asked the kid, as he slid, whether he was sure he would use coke again. The kid said yes, he was sure. So Sampson kept at it, and after about 20 minutes of sliding, the youngster, exhausted, finally cried uncle.
Sampson has an abuse problem, too, and almost every day this past summer his mom and his sisters, Valerie, 23, and Joyce, 21, sent him shuffling defensively across the lane of his own little purgatory. "No technicals this year," Sarah Sampson says. "We're working on it. Think of the money he'll save!"
On March 24, in the city that he shunned as a college freshman, that had corrupted his cousin Raymond, that would be the site of the ignominious end to his '85-86 season, Ralph Sampson took a bad fall. It came in the second quarter of a game at the Boston Garden as he was gathering in an offensive rebound. He landed hard on his heels, then toppled backward until his upper body and head struck the floor violently. He remained supine for nearly seven minutes, with a bruised back, partial paralysis and "pain in places I didn't know I had."
Sampson repaired to Charlottesville for three days to recuperate. When he rejoined the Rockets, what some people had always called his surly edge had been dulled and burnished.
"In college people asked, 'What if you get hurt?' " he says. "It never bothered me at that time. But then it did happen. That fall woke me up to the importance of living right every day so there'd be nothing you'd regret. To treat people like they treat me or even better. To give back to Harrisonburg what it's given me, or even more. Things that go around, come around. Hopefully, I'm just beginning to get to the point where I find out why I'm out there."
Sampson phrases that last sentence with a wonderful felicity. Its meaning is ambiguous, as though the sentiment could apply just as much to his professional as his personal life. "Some people in Houston expect that he'll take the first big contract that comes along [after the coming season, his last in a four-year pact]," says Fitch. "But he's patient. He's the guy who started at Virginia and ended at Virginia. I'll bet my life that he won't be happy until he brings a championship to Houston."
Rotella wishes that, whatever they are, Sampson's current goals be kept secret. Otherwise Sampson might be publicly held accountable for them, when he should only have the burden of a private accounting. Alas, Sampson is so confident that he'll succeed in his basketball experiment that he speaks openly of it. But as the teacher who introduced him to the notion that potential is something that hasn't yet happened, Rotella is entitled to share a final, heretical thought on the subject. It is this: "Probably the most enjoyable way to go through life is to never reach your potential."
Imagine it: the possibility of Ralph Sampson playing out the rest of his career, getting his 20 points and 15 rebounds each night, making the playoffs and the All-Star Game each year, but also selling thousands and thousands of cartons of Milk-Bone dog biscuits. And being perfectly content. Arf, arf.