"I think the most important thing is for one of them to assert himself as the center," said Julius Erving after the Rockets beat the 76ers 117-101 in a preseason game. "There's an aura about centers in the league. If you establish yourself as the man on your team, there is a certain style you are permitted to play, certain concessions that are granted to you by the referees."
In San Francisco, 7'1" Wilt Chamberlain had the aura and 6'11" Nate Thurmond moved to forward as the Warriors won the Western Division championship in 1964. Ditto for Wilt in Philadelphia, where he had the aura and Lucious Jackson, a center before Wilt joined the team, moved to forward on the 76ers' '67 championship team, which was voted the greatest of all time. And aura's really not an issue when it comes to the current Celtic duo of Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, because most of the aura swirls around Larry Bird.
On the Rockets, Olajuwon, because he's a power center, must have the aura, and Sampson will have to adjust. In the third period Saturday, Houston pounded the ball inside to Olajuwon over and over, and Big Time, as the Rockets have taken to calling Olajuwon, scored 14 points, including two field goals on turnaround jumpers. Sampson was on the bench with four fouls through the last 7:18 of the third quarter, but seconds after he returned early in the fourth quarter he banged in a 12-foot jumper.
3) Accustomed as they both are to checking big men, won't they run into a lot of confusion on defense?
They will. For a while Sampson will be embarrassed by the game's best power forwards, and Olajuwon will probably stay in the paint too long and get burned by shooters like Perkins and Parish. "Maybe my biggest problem so far has been forgetting to call out the peeks," Olajuwon says in his Nigerian-accented English. But Sampson finished third in the NBA in blocked shots last season (2.4 a game), and Olajuwon led the NCAA with 5.6 a game.
"I think there's going to be a commandment around the league," says Lucas. "Thou shalt not come into the lane against this team."
4) Is there room enough in Houston to contain the egos of the two?
After all, Ralph's fancy Porsche with the STIX 50 vanity plate (his nickname is Stick, but evidently the extra letter wouldn't fit) is not only matched but also trumped by Olajuwon's Mercedes mini-limo. Olajuwon has been playing basketball for only five years, yet his contract is comparable to Sampson's—the latter has a four-year deal worth about $5.3 million, the rookie a six-year pact worth some $6.3 million.
Though he is surly and a general pain to the press, Sampson is and always has been popular with his mates. Further, he has emerged as a team leader. Sampson said it meant something to him when Fitch sent him out to meet with the referees before the first exhibition game this season, a sort of honorary captainship that has continued. "I wanted to assert myself this year," said Sampson.
Most of the Rockets tend to treat Olajuwon like a kid brother. "We want to take care of him, remind him to bring his coat along when we go East, things like that," says veteran swingman Robert Reid. "The things that Clyde Drexler used to do for him in college." At the same time Olajuwon's gentle nature makes him the focus of a lot of good-natured abuse, as when he messes up his assignments in drills or keeps the Rockets on the practice floor longer because of his missed free throws.