Was that it? Simply wasn't good enough? Overrated?
Sampson is discussed as if he were a failed experiment. He was going to be the first big man to be involved in all parts of the game. He would dribble with the dribblers, jump with the jumpers, slam with the slammers, shoot with the shooters. He would be the Renaissance Man of Roundball. When it turned out that the best qualities for a center are still a metronome hook shot and an ample gluteus maximus, the criticism landed in a hard and constant rain.
Why didn't he smile? Why didn't he frown? Why didn't he seem to care? When an outburst of emotion arrived and he swung at pesky 6'1" Jerry Sichting, then of the Celtics, in 1986, the question changed: Why doesn't he pick on someone his own size?
He seemed to add one label after another. He was the perfect yuppie villain for the 1980s. He drove a Porsche and wore cable-knit sweaters and what seemed to be a look of disdain. He was too rich, too spoiled, too distant. More than anything, he was too soft. That was it, more than anything. Too soft.
"He never looked like he wanted to be a center," says Nate Thurmond, one of the NBA's best pivotmen over 14 seasons, most of them with the Warriors. "Well, diversity is fine, but if you're seven four, you have to go inside. He kept taking shots from the foul line. Who is going to foul Ralph Sampson at the foul line? Let him shoot."
The labels were repeated so often they sounded like the truth. It didn't matter that teammates said Sampson was a good guy and that coaches—even Fitch, with whom he feuded often—said that he worked hard. The labels stuck. Why didn't he win any NBA championships? Hey, he didn't win any national championships in college, either. Why didn't he dominate? Why were there some games when he didn't seem to arrive at the arena with his head on straight, important games in which he would hardly score or grab an offensive rebound? Why wasn't he great?
"It's a shame, the whole thing," Patterson says. "I've never seen anyone that big, inside or outside of athletics, as well coordinated as Ralph. It's all a matter of expectations. He would score 20 points and grab 10 rebounds, and everyone would say he had a terrible game. We have Chuck Nevitt on our team. He's seven foot five, and every time he scores just one basket, the whole place goes crazy. It's because no one expects anything from him."
Patterson is asked about the trade. How could this gifted big man be traded to Sacramento for Petersen?
"I don't know if there were any other takers," he says. "Do you?"
Sampson had never been involved in anything like last season, not from the day he first picked up a basketball. Isn't a 7'4" guy the first one chosen in all the games? Even in the biggest league of all? He would have his ankles taped every night. He would go through warmups and work up a good sweat. He would disappear. How could a man this large disappear? Call Siegfried. Call Roy. It must be magic. "I would sit on the end of the bench," Sampson said. "I was the world's largest cheerleader."