He was a former best-seller plucked off the remainder shelves by the Sacramento Kings on an idle afternoon in September. It was as if a tag detailing all the previous markdowns were hanging from Ralph Sampson's basketball shorts. He was a bargain. Damaged goods. Damaged reputation.
"I read a quote in The Sporting News from David Robinson," Sampson said soon after joining Sacramento. "David Robinson said he had admired me when he was a youngster, but thought that I had given up as a basketball player. The whole quote just turned up the gas unbelievably. I cut it out. Saved it. I never do that, but I did it here."
David Robinson. Who is David Robinson? This year's prize rookie, the newest alltime-great-center-to-be. The former alltime-great-center-to-be shook his head. David Robinson.
"The only other time I ever cut out a quote was in Houston," Sampson said. "A sportswriter wrote a nasty column about me. Alan Truex. I was negotiating my contract at the time. He wrote that I was heartless, that I didn't give a damn, all sorts of things like that. Reasons why the Rockets shouldn't sign me. I cut that out and pasted it inside the cabinet in my kitchen. That way I'd see it every day. I'd remember."
The walls were closing in on 7'4" Ralph Sampson, but he was going to put out his long arms and stop them. Who said he was never going to be what he was supposed to be? What was he supposed to be, anyway? He was in a new town with new hope. Forget that he had been traded by the Golden State Warriors for journeyman forward Jim Petersen, a straight exchange that a couple of years ago would have been unimaginable. Forget the quotes from Sacramento owner Gregg Lukenbill, who said, "We got him for nothing." This was going to work.
"When I'm 100 percent again, you'll know it when you see it," Sampson said. "I'm getting there. I can see it in spots. I can see it on certain days. I'll get there. I have to get to a point where I can work out at a maximum level every day."
He was keeping a daily journal. He was writing down what he ate, how long he slept, how he played. He was looking for constants. Find the ones that work best. Repeat. He was wearing a T-shirt with two curved arrows pointing at each other in a circle. His own design. The secret message was: What goes around, comes around. This was his new motto. Wasn't he going to come around?
His new boss was Bill Russell, the general manager of the Kings. What better boss could a big man have than Bill Russell? This was a man who had won more championships with the Boston Celtics than he had fingers for the rings. If there were secrets to be learned, wouldn't Russell be the one to teach them? There already had been talks, Big-man talks. There would be more.
"I first met Bill Russell when he came to the University of Virginia to give a speech," Sampson said. "I interviewed him for a course I was taking in communications. I remember I was very nervous."
Forget that Russell was quoted in the papers as saying, "Ralph Sampson is not being brought here to be a franchise player, just to be a basketball player." Did he ever want to be a franchise player? He just wanted to move back into the low post, do some work, win.