"With the mobility he has, you just know that he'd be great even if he were only 6'6"," says Denver Center Dan Issel, a fine outside shooter himself. "Houston should try to take advantage of it." Artis Gilmore of the San Antonio Spurs, a center who has made his reputation underneath the basket, agrees. "Each of the great centers in the league—Wilt, Russell, Kareem, Walton—all had something that made them unique, that set them apart from the rest. With Ralph, it's his mobility and outside capabilities. He could be the best big man ever at it."
Gilmore, for one, believes that Sampson's biggest problem at present is "all of the guys in the media and all the attention." Gilmore was once an Exhibit A himself. Well, the Rockets are doing all they can to keep the Sampson show from becoming a circus. When Sampson visits a city for the first time, a special press conference is arranged. Although he can be irritable and his answers are curt at times, Sampson for the most part has handled himself well, displaying a surprising touch of humor.
Asked at a press conference in Denver whether he was glad to be finished with the four-corner offenses and stalls that confronted him in college, Sampson brightened and nearly bellowed. "Yeah! Wouldn't you be?" Later he was asked to name his favorite player. Without missing a beat he replied, "Me."
So concerned was Fitch that Sampson not suffer from the sort of media mania that engulfed John Elway, the Denver Broncos' rookie quarterback, the coach collected many of the articles that appeared on Elway throughout the summer and made them into a scrapbook. The idea was to show Ralph that he wasn't alone under the public microscope.
So far, Sampson, who turned down NBA millions to stay in school and get his degree, has handled nearly everything thrown at him. Except time zones. "That may be the hardest thing to get used to," he says. "Being in different places is not the problem. You learn how to eat right and get enough sleep before a game. Where I get into trouble is making phone calls back home to the East and waking people up at night when I'm in the West somewhere." Between traveling and two-a-days, Sampson has yet to spend a full day in his new Houston condominium. Things have been so hectic that his mother is flying in from Virginia to complete the unpacking.
Sampson already has put the Rockets' 1-7 exhibition season behind him. "At first I would get upset, losing all the time," he says. "But the coaches convinced me that the preseason was just that—preseason—a time to get ready for the real thing."
But Sampson and the Rockets will have to endure losing for a while longer, at least until all the newcomers get acquainted and Fitch's lessons begin to take hold. By that time the season could be a month old, and even with the expanded playoffs, which will now include 16 teams instead of 12, the Rockets could be too far behind to catch up.
"Know what I think?" says San Antonio Coach Mo McHone. "The thing Sampson's really going to learn is that there are an awful lot of guys in this league who can score and that most of them are in the middle. What's going to determine how he stands in comparison with people like Moses and Kareem? Every night they go into the arena, they know that they have to damn near be the best player out on the floor. The defenses are set against them, the other team is keyed up to play them. But they do it anyway, nearly all the time. That's where Ralph has to get to."
It's all just a matter of time.