After much grinning and pressing of flesh, Ralph Sampson, the Golden State Warriors' newly goateed center, settled into the center circle at the Oakland Coliseum Arena last Thursday night and eyed 7-foot Akeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets. For most of the past four seasons the 7'4" Sampson had captained the Rockets; now he was playing against his old team for the first time, with a new, almost menacing mien. "Who are you supposed to be?" Rockets forward Jim Petersen had asked Sampson when he spied the beard. "Wilt Chamberlain?"
He won the tip from Olajuwon, and prevailed over the Rockets in the early going as well. Twice in the second quarter Sampson powered in a hook shot, got fouled and converted the free throw for a three-point play, and at halftime his 14 points and 10 rebounds had helped the Warriors to a 59-57 lead. But in the second half, Sampson attempted only four field goals—and made none. He tried just two shots in the final quarter, when the Rockets ran off to a 120-113 win. If at the opening tip Sampson's mug had conjured up images of Wilt, in the end Olajuwon's muscle produced more Chamberlainesque numbers: 30 points, 20 rebounds and six blocks.
Two seasons ago, when Houston reached the NBA Finals only to lose to the Boston Celtics in six games, Sampson and Olajuwon were the overpowering Twin Towers on which the Rockets' success was built. But since then, Houston's—and Sampson's—fortunes had tumbled, and on Dec. 12, the Towers' time together ended with a stunning trade, the sort of megaswap that happens every decade or so. Sampson and reserve guard Steve Harris were packed off to the Warriors for two All-Stars, center Joe Barry Carroll and playmaker Sleepy Floyd. The teams were drawn to the deal as much by the desire to exorcise as to acquire. Both Sampson and Carroll had sorely tried the patience of their employers. Also, the Rockets were able to bolster their lackluster backcourt with Floyd, and the woeful, last-place Warriors got a chance to start over.
The difference in Sampson's two halves on Thursday—the dominating one and the disappearing one—was an example of what has caused public opinion about him to be as fervently divergent as it has been for perhaps any player since Chamberlain. A Houston Post poll showed Rockets fans to be split on the subject of the Sampson trade. "When you're a seven-footer, there's no in-between on how people feel about you," says Sampson knowingly.
Yes, he has been an All-Star in each of his first four NBA seasons. And yes, he did average 19.9 points and 10.5 rebounds during that time in Houston, even though he had to move from center to power forward when the brawnier Olajuwon joined the Rockets in 1984. But this season Sampson was averaging 15.9 points and 9.1 rebounds and shooting .439 before the trade. As those numbers indicate, he wasn't exactly dominating the NBA, as many observers predicted he would be when he came out of the University of Virginia in 1983, and he wasn't exactly "the player of the century," as Houston general manager Ray Patterson had heralded him a year later.
Those were extraordinary words for Patterson to utter, seeing as he was the G.M. for the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969 when they selected a pretty fair center named Lew Alcindor. During the past few seasons, Patterson vowed he would never trade Sampson. Last week he said Sampson was the 12th- to 14th- best power forward in the league.
Now, as the center—and centerpiece—of a team once again, Sampson is in a position to unify sentiment about him, one way or the other, and leave the power forward game to smaller fellows who are probably better suited to it. But there's a burden in this for Sampson, because now another franchise and a whole new set of fans harbor great expectations for him. Are the expectations justified? The fans will soon find out. And as they look for clues in the months ahead, they should keep these factors in mind:
•The Frame. While Chamberlain, a Warrior of yore, was known as the Big Dipper, Sampson is commonly called Stick. Traditionally, low-post scorers and rebounders are thick in the thigh and broad in the butt, with low centers of gravity that enable them to stake out a piece of floor and stay put. The 27-year-old Sampson entered this season weighing 242 pounds and at one point was down to 224. Olajuwon and Carroll, each around 250, shoved him all over the floor last Thursday.
Sampson is mindful of his gluteus minimus. He takes a slew of food supplements, works out religiously with weights and has begun to work with Mackie Shilstone, the New Orleans-based training guru, who put 25 muscular pounds on heavyweight champ Michael Spinks. Sampson hopes that with the aid of Shilstone, he can play next season at 250 or even 260 pounds. Until he gets stronger, Sampson's reach will exceed his grasp in the paint.