Sometime near the end of this century, when his proper place in the history of the National Basketball Association has been secured, Ralph Sampson will sit back and laugh a little bit about his first few weeks as a pro. Exhibition season, indeed. Sampson, the Houston Rockets' prize center, was Exhibit A. Eight games, seven losses. Ralph will chuckle at his anemic .404 field-goal percentage, based on nights like four of 16 against the Trail Blazers in Portland. He'll smile at the memory of his gala homecoming at the University of Virginia's University Hall being ruined by four fouls in nine minutes, all picked up while fending off the hands—and elbows and backsides—of the Washington Bullets' Beef Brothers, McFilthy and McNasty themselves: Jeff Ruland and Rick Mahorn. He'll tell his kids about the time he threw an in-bounds pass against Milwaukee that struck a guy wire holding the scoreboard in place.
Time to develop is not readily conceded when you're 7'4" tall and a three-time NCAA Player of the Year. Especially when you're joining a team that won—no, weathered—only 14 games a season ago. Under those circumstances you're not just a tall and talented player. You become, as Sampson has discovered, "people's expectation of God Almighty."
It seems that some big man arrives almost every year in the NBA to expectations cut several sizes too large for him. About once a decade comes a true giant who can measure up to or even exceed them: Russell in '56; Alcindor/Abdul-Jabbar in '69; Walton in '74.
Will Sampson be the big man for the '80s? Or will he be another Chamberlain, with gaudy numbers but little to show for them? This could be a good time to place your bets, because, as Denver Nuggets Coach Doug Moe, who's won a few bucks at the gin rummy table, says of Sampson, "He's struggling a bit now, so we should all enjoy it while we can. But in a little while that guy's gonna be an absolute bitch to play against."
"He's like a baseball pitcher who's trying to throw seven or eight different pitches," says Pete Newell, the Golden State Warriors' talent consultant and acknowledged basketball guru. "Right now he just has to concentrate and master three or four things instead of doing everything. It'll take a little time."
That's the consensus throughout the league—it's just a matter of time. And no one knows that better than Sampson himself. "I feel that I'm improving," he says. "Every day I feel more and more comfortable with what I'm doing. But there's still time. Time is always there, enough time to do everything that must be done."
Fortunately for Sampson, his employers' vision also seems to extend beyond the here and now. From owner Charlie Thomas to General Manager Ray Patterson to new Coach Bill Fitch, the Rockets were content to treat the exhibition season as Sampson's incubation period, a time that will surely continue beyond Saturday's regular-season opener against San Antonio, beyond the team's first visit to Philadelphia in February, beyond even the beginning of the playoffs next April. "The big extravaganza that people seem to want won't be here," says Patterson. "I can see a sense of organizational progress, but there's no magic number of wins needed to satisfy me. I know we'll be better in November than we are now, and January will top that, and March will top that. If that means 29 wins, 35 wins, 43 wins, fine. If not, that's fine, too."
After all, the Rockets spent 13 months in purgatory just waiting to get to this point. It hurt them to trade Moses Malone to Philadelphia a year ago rather than pay him $2.2 million a year. But Moses' departure resulted in last season's abominable 14-68 record. It then took luck for the Rockets to beat the Indiana Pacers in the coin flip (heads was the winning call) for the right to pick Sampson first in the June draft. Had the Rockets kept Malone, they probably would have continued winning 45 or so games a season, then losing to a more talented club in the playoffs.
Today, however, everything feels brand-new in Houston. In Forward Caldwell Jones the Rockets have a proven winner, although he labored in obscurity after coming over from Philadelphia in the Malone deal, and the Rockets used a first-round draft pick obtained from Cleveland to get Louisville Forward Rodney McCray. As Patterson points out, "You may as well add Robert Reid and Fitch, too, because Ralph's being here is the reason why they both are here." Reid came back from a year's premature retirement (he had wanted to devote himself to the Pentecostal religion), while Fitch, who quit the Celtics last spring after four seasons, certainly needed more than 37-year-old Elvin Hayes to lure him to Houston.
The changes have already brightened the Rockets' financial picture. For the same money they would have had to pay Malone, they have Sampson plus three more potential starters and a new coach. At the box office, season-ticket sales are up 20% from last season, to more than 5,000. But Ralphonomics goes beyond season-ticket sales. Last year the Rockets played five preseason games; four of them were on the road, and they received minimal proceeds. This year they played seven exhibitions on the road and were able to demand a $30,000 minimum for each. The long-term plans, of course, include lots of SRO playoff crowds at the 15,816-seat Summit.