"The last game I played with Golden State last year, in the playoffs at Phoenix, I dove to save a ball, and I heard [Phoenix coach] Cotton Fitzsimmons yell, 'Don't let him do that to you, he's washed up,' " Sampson said. "Well, I don't have to prove anything to anyone else but myself. I'm the one who's got to be satisfied."
He was not satisfied. Sacramento would be it. Sacramento. He was living in the Residence Inn, sleeping on two roll-out beds in the living room of his suite while his pregnant wife, Aleize, and their two-year-old daughter, Rachel, slept in the double bed in the bedroom. He would buy a house in Sacramento. He would settle in. This was October. There still were two more weeks of training camp, and if he hadn't played much basketball so far, he would in the future.
His knees filled with fluid after two days of practices and had to be drained. Upon returning to action, he pulled a hamstring muscle. The hamstring would heal.
"The knees are fine," Sampson said.
Most of the stories are written in the past tense now. Whatever happened to Ralph Sampson? Why didn't he become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Why didn't he become Russell or Wilt? Why didn't he take the grand tree of professional basketball and shake it? There is a finality to all of them. He came. He tried. Or did he try? He failed. Every article reads as if it were an obituary. He is 29 years old.
"I don't think he ever was the same after he hit the floor that time in Boston," Houston Rockets president Ray Patterson says of the March 24, 1986, game between the Rockets—Sampson's team—and the Celtics. "I think he hurt his back, and that led him to a long series of injuries. He was never the same after that. I say he played two very good years and then he got hurt."
Was that it? Was he hurt?
"He never got the wrinkles, the rub for the pro game," Al McGuire, the NBC color man, says. "He came from a good home in a place, Harrisonburg, Virginia, that is one of those towns where all the kids drive their cars around the square on Friday night beeping their horns. He went to Virginia, a gentleman's school. He never had to get tough.... Plus, he never developed physically. He never developed those pop-out muscles. The pro game, if you're svelte, they push you around."
Was that it? At a spindly 230 pounds, he wasn't strong enough? He wasn't bulky enough?
"I think, first of all, he was the victim of overstatement," says Bill Fitch of the New Jersey Nets, who was once Sampson's coach with the Rockets. "He never had that one thing to go to in the pro game. He never had that one shot. Two weeks, three weeks after he came to us, you could see that. We had Elvin Hayes, who was an aging superstar. Elvin had that one shot. That turnaround. Ralph never had anything. People would say he wasn't trying, but that wasn't the case. If anything, he tried too hard. He just didn't have the bullets for the gun. And he needed a tank after what everyone had predicted for him."