All because of Sampson. It took only a week in August for Ralph and his agent, Tom Collins (who also represents Abdul-Jabbar), to iron out the details of Sampson's four-year, $5 million contract with Thomas. And from the moment Sampson stepped onto the court the first day of rookie camp, it was obvious that he possessed immense potential. He was one of the better outside shooters, while in drills designed to emphasize the quick transition from offense to defense and vice versa, Sampson, gobbling up the court with his long, loping strides, was rarely caught out of position.
Of course, Houston was concerned with more than Sampson's ability to maneuver in drills. Throughout the exhibition season Fitch was concerned because Sampson had spent too much of his summer lifting weights and not enough time on the court. "There are times when Steve Stipanovich [the 6'11" center from Missouri taken second in the draft by Indiana] is going to look like a real find compared with Ralph because, I think, he's had more on-the-court experience," said Fitch.
"I don't think Ralph's played enough five-on-five. He's learned in three-on-three and in drills, but he's got to put it all together out on the court. The only way he's going to do that is in games."
But when Sampson made his first appearance in a Rocket uniform on Oct. 6 against the Mavericks in Dallas, it appeared that the transition from college player of the year to NBA superstar wouldn't be a problem at all. In 30 minutes he scored 24 points, with four assists, six rebounds and a pair of blocked shots. He even threw in a three-point shot for good measure. Despite the auspicious debut, three factors—each of no small importance—had to be considered. First, the Rockets lost the game 122-111. Second, Sampson scored most of his baskets over Dallas Center Pat Cummings, who stands only 6'9½". Third, because Houston had yet to install any kind of a set offense, most of Sampson's points were scored on jumpers from the outside.
That pattern continued through the preseason schedule, Sampson taking the ball outside and shooting over smaller men, with the Rockets falling short at the end. Sampson ended up as the Rockets' second-leading scorer (13.4) and leading rebounder (8.8), but he hardly played like the $5 million man. His nadir came in the game against the Bullets back at his beloved Charlottesville. Before a sellout crowd of adoring fans at University Hall, Sampson shot 0 for 5 in the first quarter, picked up four fouls after wrestling with Ruland and Mahorn, and was benched by Fitch. He finished with eight points and seven rebounds, fouling out after 22 minutes.
Score one for humility. "What I learned from that game is that I can't muscle up with the really big guys," says Sampson. "I can't blame them for what they did—if I were them I'd do the same thing to me. But what I can do in return is go around the contact and beat it that way. It doesn't make any sense for me to sit in there and get beaten up every night. If I go inside trying to push and shove, then I'm not playing my game."
Just how much inside and how much outside Sampson will be playing on offense has yet to be determined by Fitch, who has been more concerned with his other players' progress than with Sampson's. Much of Sampson's preseason was spent roaming between the high and low posts, just as he had done in college. For a time Sampson looked and felt awkward down low, both he and his new teammates unsure of how to get the ball to him inside through the tangle of defenders. "That's one of the big changes, playing against people close to my size all the time," says Sampson. "In college, someone would just throw the ball up in the air, and I'd jump up and grab it and do whatever I wanted to with it. Now I have to learn what the best angles are and the best spots to get the ball."
Fitch has been after Sampson to find a comfortable high-percentage shot. Initially, that turned out to be a variation of the 15-foot turnaround fadeaway—the shot that teammate Hayes has elevated to an art form over his 15 years—but it's not the sort of power move that a 7'4" NBA center ought to depend on.
"Ralph's problem is just a case of breaking old habits," says Newell. "Ralph saw so much zone in college that he had to drift to the outside to get off a shot. Now he has to get them off consistently from the middle."
Sampson has a wide assortment of inside moves to choose from. He's capable of hooking with either hand, and, of course, anytime he gets the ball within five feet of the basket he's likely to follow with a thundering stuff. But by having him go inside too often, the Rockets would diminish Sampson's effectiveness. Indeed, his best shot right now appears to be a short, turnaround spinning jumper from either baseline, just outside the lane. Extend that shot out a bit to 12 or 15 feet and you have a true scoring threat that would have to be honored by opposing centers, and that in turn would clear the lane for teammates cutting to the basket.