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Bigger But Not Necessarily Better
Anthony Cotton
January 23, 1984
Ralph Sampson sure is good, but he won't revolutionize the pro game
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January 23, 1984

Bigger But Not Necessarily Better

Ralph Sampson sure is good, but he won't revolutionize the pro game

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HOW THE 'FRANCHISES' DID AT FIRST

PLAYER AND
ROOKIE SEASON

TEAM AND RECORD
PRECEDING SEASON

TEAM RECORD
ROOKIE SEASON

ROOKIE
SCORING
AVERAGE

ROOKIE
REBOUNDING
AVERAGE

Russell
1956-57

Celtics
39-33 (.542)

44-28 (.611)

14.7

17.0

Chamberlain
1959-60

Warriors
32-40 (.444)

49-26 (.653)

37.6

27.0

Abdul-Jabbar
1969-70

Bucks
27-55 (.329)

56-26 (.683)

28.8

14.5

Walton
1974-75

Trail Blazers
27-55 (.329)

38-44 (.463)

12.8

12.6

Sampson
1983-84

Rockets
14-68 (.171)

14-25 (.358)

21.1

11.9

It's been said that the more things change the more they stay the same, and it's as true in the NBA today as it was in 1849, when Alphonse Karr, a French novelist, came up with that bright idea. For example, the gravity-defying acrobatics of Philadelphia's Julius Erving or Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins seem unique, unless you happen to have seen Connie Hawkins or Elgin Baylor doing his thing in the 1960s.

No, the truth is that there have been very few NBA revolutionaries. Oh, sure, by playing point guard 6'9" Laker Magic Johnson brought new dimension to a game that a decade ago would have made him a power forward. And, 25 years ago Bill Russell's defense for the Celtics forever changed everyone's notion of what constituted an ideal center.

In fact, Russell's old position, the most important in basketball, is where another revolution would have the greatest effect. And that brings us to Ralph Sampson, the 7'4" rookie center of the Houston Rockets, who has been called the next Russell, the next Wilt, the next Walton, the next...all rolled into one. Now that would be revolutionary.

An NBA head coach was quoted as saying, "He's different. He's probably the most active center in the game. He moves from a low to a high post, from one side of the lane to the other. He brings the ball downcourt when he has to."

And an NBA player had this to say: "He may be the first of the seven-foot backcourt men. He can dribble and make moves that no big man ever made before...he can handle it and give you fakes, and no one his size could ever do that."

That's strong praise, but those comments weren't inspired in 1984 by the play of Sampson. The NBA coach cited was Larry Costello and the player was Fred Crawford, both of the 1969-70 Bucks, and they were extolling 7'2" Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was then Buck rookie Lew Alcindor.

It would be revolutionary to say that Ralph Sampson isn't a wonderful player. His 21.1 points and 11.9 rebounds a game through last weekend have virtually assured him the NBA Rookie of the Year award. But after 39 games in the pros, Sampson isn't anything we haven't seen before, just a bigger version of it.

"I really wouldn't expect him to dominate right away," Abdul-Jabbar, now of the Lakers, says. "That anyone would is mainly the result of hype."

There was certainly a lot of hype in Los Angeles on Jan. 8 and again in Houston two nights later, when Abdul-Jabbar's first face-to-face competition with his latest heir apparent as the league's most multitalented big man occurred. In the L.A. game, Abdul-Jabbar scored a season-high 30 points and got seven rebounds, but Sampson more than held his own with 21 and 10 in a 129-118 Houston victory. In the rematch, Sampson, if you'll excuse the expression, dominated the stats with 20 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks to Abdul-Jabbar's 21, three and two. They both fouled out in overtime as L.A. won 136-132.

Numbers aside, both games provided valuable insight into Sampson's present and future impact upon the game, the most immediate being the fact that his presence seemed to bring out the best in Abdul-Jabbar, an accomplishment of sorts in itself.

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