Nothing that happened to the Rockets this season, however, was as discouraging to them as Indiana's fade. "Going through this painful year and not being able to come up with a solid young replacement for Moses," Harris says, "would be like digging for weeks for buried treasure, never finding it and then one day you look up and you've dug the hole so deep you can't get out of it." If the Rockets are to climb out, it will surely take someone more than seven feet tall. And there is little question that this year that someone is Ralph Sampson.
Many fans thought Sampson's image was tarnished when his Virginia teams failed to win an NCAA title, or even an ACC championship, during his four years there. When Akeem Abdul Olajuwon of the Houston Cougars strutted his stuffs all the way to the championship game of the NCAA tournament, it seemed possible that he or fellow underclassman, Georgetown's Patrick Ewing, might supplant Sampson as the first choice of the pros. That notion gained credibility when provisions in the new NBA contract with the Players Association made it apparent that the June 28 draft probably would be the last to result in a financial bonanza for rookies. "They've all got to come out," says Spurs President Angelo Drossos, referring to the top college underclassmen, "because next year that money isn't going to be there." But so far neither Olajuwon nor Ewing has indicated any desire to turn pro. They have until May 14 to make up their minds. One factor in their thinking may well be that there isn't a team in the NBA that wouldn't take Sampson first this year, because it is widely believed that Virginia Coach Terry Holland did little to speed Sampson's progress. "Holland developed Ralph to about one-tenth of his potential," one highly regarded college coach said recently.
Sampson professes to have ignored the Race for Ralph. He has said he could adjust to any NBA city, but he's opposed to the capriciousness of the league's coin-toss system. There have even been suggestions that he might challenge the entire concept of the draft in the courts. If that happens, the Race for Ralph could carry on into next season and possibly beyond. And if that happens, what has been a tawdry little game show could turn into a miniseries seething with avarice and lust. After that, who knows? We could be talking Bonanza.
But right now we're talking coin-toss, in late May. Ready? Flip!