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Leigh Montville
December 04, 1989
Ralph Sampson is now with Sacramento, trying to save a career made shaky by bad knees and a tarnished past
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December 04, 1989

No Legs To Stand On

Ralph Sampson is now with Sacramento, trying to save a career made shaky by bad knees and a tarnished past

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He did not play. As the Warriors careened through the playoffs, he sat, game after game after game. There were no cross words. There was no public or private controversy. He never talked with coach Don Nelson about the situation, and Nelson never talked with him about it. There simply was a constant line in the box scores that read, "DNP—Coach's Decision."

"I had my left knee 'scoped during the season," Sampson said. "And I came back too fast. I know that now. I played for a while, and then [Nelson] decided to go with the short lineup. That lineup was winning."

Human nature told Sampson that he should scream about his situation, but he decided to turn it upside down. He had minored in psychology in college. Make a negative a positive. He decided to say nothing and to work harder. In addition to the team practices, he added his own workouts at a gym in Castro Valley. In place of the games, he scheduled his own battles with Tellis Frank, another reserve, now with the Miami Heat. They played one-on-one, daily, sometimes going back to the arena after the real games were finished. There were days when Sampson spent six hours working out.

The idea was to be ready if he was called upon to leave the bench. All his life he had watched kids sitting, and he wondered how they hung around and what they did. Now he knew. He waited. The call finally came in the Warriors' last game of the playoff string. They were trailing 3-1 in the series and playing in Phoenix. Nelson gave Sampson a start. He responded with 10 points and eight rebounds and two blocked shots in 21 minutes before he tired. The Warriors lost and were eliminated, but he was rejuvenated. "What goes around, comes around," he said.

There had been a lot of speculation that he would be traded, but now the rumors seemed to die. Nelson said he was looking forward to Sampson's return. Sampson also was looking forward to returning to the Warriors. He planned to go to Houston for a couple of weeks to sell his house, visit Harrisonburg briefly and return early to the Coast. The plan fell apart when the sale of the house took longer than expected. Then one relative after another died. He went to four funerals before the summer ended.

The Warriors held a rookie camp at the end of the summer in Henniker, N.H., and Sampson went. He drove from Harrisonburg, 10 hours in a car with his wife and daughter. He scrimmaged. He was destroyed by free agent Uwe Blab. Uwe Blab? This was reportedly when the decison was reached to look for a deal. Uwe Blab.

"Ten hours in the car," Sampson said. "I played better the next night and the night after that."

He had thought that Golden State-he had been traded by the Rockets to the Warriors on Dec. 12, 1987—was going to be the answer. Wasn't that the place where he was going to be returned to the pivot, freed from those three-plus years of playing power forward in the Twin Towers operation with Akeem Olajuwon in Houston? But somehow things never worked out with the Warriors. Sampson had two operations in 1½ seasons. There never was a flow. There never seemed to be a commitment. He now perceived Golden State as a mistake.

"I look back, and Houston never should have made the trade, never should have broken us up," he said. "The first year we were together, we made the playoffs. The second year we went all the way to the Finals. All the other teams were talking about rebuilding to be like us. Everyone wanted to have two big men. The third year, Akeem was hurt, and then I was hurt. The fourth year, I was traded.

"All we needed was a point guard. That was the one piece. The irony was that I was traded to get what was needed. Look at what's happened. Joe Barry Carroll and Sleepy Floyd went to Houston. I went to Golden State. Joe Barry has been traded again. I have been traded. Sleepy doesn't start anymore. Fitch has been fired. Houston hasn't been back to where it was. This was one of those trades where no one won."

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