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The Race For Ralph

Houston and Indiana, the big losers in the NBA, won the right to flip a coin for towering Ralph Sampson

From Television City in Hollywood, it's The Race for Ralph! And here's your host, Bill Cullen!"

"Thank you very much, Johnny Olsen! Welcome once again to The Race for Ralph, where contestants attempt to get through an entire NBA schedule with the most losses. They walk, they squawk and, for a chance to draft the most sought-after college player in a decade, they participate in a humiliating and debasing experience. And we think you're going to love it!

"The rules are simple to follow, which is more than can be said for any of our contestants. [Laughter.] The Race for Ralph is a scramble to see who can finish with the worst record in the NBA's two conferences and then win a coin toss for the right to draft 7'4" Center Ralph Sampson of Virginia.

"Our first contestant today is Charlie Thomas, who is in his first year as chairman of the board of the Houston Rockets. Charlie is the father of three girls and 20 car dealerships. When he bought the franchise he was quoted as saying, 'I see less of a need for improvement in the Rockets' organization than in almost any car dealership I've ever bought.' The Rockets then lost 82.9% of their games. Would you buy a used car from this man? Charlie Thomas, come on down!

"Our second contestant is Frank Mariani, president of the Indiana Pacers. Frank is a businessman from California who likes real estate and horse racing. Father of two, he has never appeared publicly in the state of Indiana and has helped the Pacers run up debts of about $6.5 million. Frank's latest shrewd management decision was to kick off the Pacers' 1983-84 ticket campaign in Indianapolis by announcing the team would probably be folded or moved to California at the end of the season. Good thinking. Frank Mariani, come on down!

"Our final contestant is Ted Stepien, president of the Cleveland Cavaliers. O.K., call him an honorary contestant. Poor old Ted. He's been right there in the race for last place, and he doesn't even have a shot at the big prize. Father of six girls, Ted is a real outdoorsman. He once dropped softballs from a Cleveland skyscraper to promote his new slow-pitch league and subsequently paid $35,875 in damages to a woman whose wrist was broken by one of the balls. Since Ted bought the Cavs in 1980, they have compiled the worst three-year record since the 1971-74 Philadelphia 76ers and piled up debts estimated at $13 million. And the franchise doesn't even have a first-round pick until 1987. Plus, he's just announced he's selling the team! Ted Stepien, come on down!

"And now the coin, please. It's a toss-off between Charlie Thomas, champion loser in the Western Conference, and Frank Mariani, Number One nowhere man in the Eastern Conference, for seven feet, four inches of basketball dynamite!"

There may have been gaudier carnivals of greed than this season's Race for Ralph, but certainly not by any league that could less afford the harm to its image than the NBA got from this fiasco. The Rockets, possessed of Cleveland's first-round pick (via a trade) as well as their own, set out late last October with a chance to make the ultimate pick a lead-pipe cinch. There they were, the least in the West, and holding the pick of a pygmy of the East. Houston didn't tarry, losing its first 10 games and sinking to the bottom of the Western Conference. It was doubly cheered to see Cleveland lurch to a 3-22 record in the East. "When we started the season," says Rockets President and General Manager Ray Patterson, "we figured we'd be in the coin flip, but we thought it would be with Cleveland's pick. Then we got on a real high, thinking we wouldn't even have to flip." The "high" Patterson is referring to was the Rockets' dreadful start.

The Race for Ralph was actually set in motion more than five years ago—while Sampson was still a junior at Harrisonburg (Va.) High—when Philadelphia traded the late Terry Furlow to Cleveland for two Cavaliers' first-round draft choices. Of course, no one could have foreseen that in the intervening years the Cavaliers would be sold three times and go through six head coaches and 54 players, or that the 1983 pick might one day be worth squandering an entire season for.

Early in this season, there didn't seem to be much of a race. Indiana was 9-12 at one point in December and had a better record at that time than the New York Knicks, a team that has since made it into the playoffs, which begin this week. But the Pacers forged ahead in the Race for Ralph when they dropped 12 games in a row—the longest streak this season—starting Feb. 16, after they traded Center Clemon Johnson for the 76ers' first-round pick this year and rookie Forward Russ Schoene.

In trading Johnson, who was one of Indiana's best players but will soon be a free agent, the Pacers took what is known as "the long view," which allows for a great deal of moral flexibility. Houston adopted the long view last Sept. 15 when it traded free agent Malone to Philadelphia for Caldwell Jones and that first pick obtained so long ago from Cleveland. The Rockets also let go of free agents Mike Dunleavy and Bill Willoughby and obtained journeyman players like James Bailey and Wally Walker to replace Robert Reid, a starting swingman, who retired. The only free agent who might have helped the Rockets and for whom they bid seriously was Cleveland Forward Cliff Robinson, and Patterson concedes that was done "to make sure Cleveland finished last." The Cavaliers matched Houston's offer and kept Robinson. "From the very start we were hoping we would get Ralph Sampson or a player of his caliber to mend the ship," says Houston Coach Del Harris. "There was never a time when we said, 'Let's lose games.' On the other hand, there were times when we could have acquired players who would have helped us this year. But it would have been at the expense of the future."

The Rockets' management made only one significant roster change after the season had begun—the addition of Bailey—and then told Harris to go out and do the best he could. "Every game we played," says Patterson, "I emotionally wanted to win, but logically you can absorb the losses. Everything was done looking toward next year."

That brand of thinking didn't necessarily inspire a charitable view of Patterson around the league. "Ray Patterson hasn't done anything this year except sit around and talk at meetings," says one NBA team official. "He just left the club with all those older players."

The big question, of course, is whether Indiana and Houston were as bad as they appeared to be or whether they purposely went into the tank. "I'm already going down in history as coach of the team with the second-worst single-season record ever [14-68]," says Harris. "I don't want to be known as the NBA equivalent of coach of the Chicago Black Sox or the LIU Blackbirds, too." Cleveland Coach Tom Nissalke, who has more than a passing interest in the Rockets' situation, says the pressure on a coach in his or Harris' circumstances can be "excruciating." During the final week of the season, the Cavs played Indiana twice. Nissalke is rumored to be in line for Harris' job in Houston next year, so it would have been in his best interest to lose to the Pacers and guarantee the Rockets the first draft choice. Instead, Cleveland beat Indiana twice, including a 132-124 victory in overtime last Friday.

Result: The Pacers were assured of the worst record in the East; they ultimately finished 20-62, while the Cavs came in at 23-59. "Where do you draw the line when you're in the last game of the season and if you lose, the prize is Ralph Sampson or Lew Alcindor?" Nissalke asks. "I'd hate to think what my reaction would be if the loser gets Ralph and you know your owner wants you to lose."

Patterson insists that tanking games in the NBA is too difficult to pull off, even if one wanted to do it. "It sounds a lot easier than it really is," he says. "You might be tempted to do something, but as a practical matter, am I going to go to a guy and ask him to throw a game when he might be working for somebody else next year?" If you get the impression that Patterson may not care, you're not alone. "I think in both cases [Houston's and Indiana's], the owners of the teams said, 'What the hell,' and wrote the year off," says San Antonio General Manager Bob Bass. "That carries over to the players and can be reflected in their play. If the owners don't care, why should they?"

Houston lost its opening game by 33 points to Seattle, and in trying to describe the magnitude of his team's comedown that night, Harris said, "It's like going on a blind date and finding the ugliest girl you've ever seen waiting at the door for you." After the 0-10 start, Harris suggested the team might have some personnel problems. "All of our players belong in the NBA," he said. "I'm just not sure they all belong on the same team."

At season's start, Houston had the second-oldest roster in the league, while the Pacers had the youngest. "Our situation has been more trying than Indiana's," Harris says. "My guys who are sitting on the bench are eight-, nine-, 12-, 14-year veterans. It's a painful thing for them. Anybody would lash out at whoever's in authority under those circumstances."

When it became apparent that the Rockets weren't going anywhere this season, Harris met with Patterson and Thomas to inquire about his job security. "It was made plain to us that everyone's job is safe here," Harris said later. Harris also claimed that Thomas had told him then that he "wouldn't trade me for any coach in the league." But Patterson says, "I don't remember that. I very rarely use the word 'never,' and Charlie is a man of few words." Harris had offered to quit then, rather than be fired later. "If Del came in now and wanted to relieve everybody of the contractual responsibility," says Patterson, "it might be a different answer." If that is not exactly a vote of confidence, it's a rave compared to Patterson's feelings about Harris' relationship—or lack of one—with the players.

On Jan. 25, after Harris took Forward Elvin Hayes out of the starting lineup in favor of Bailey, the Big E gave a withering assessment of Harris. "He's a petty person," Hayes said. "He's paranoid, and he's not a good coach." "If that's a manifestation of his personality, his ineptness and his lack of leadership," says Patterson, "then that's a problem." But the final blow for Harris probably came when the Rockets had Cleveland down by five points with 91 seconds to play on March 8 in Houston, only to let the Cavaliers—the one team the Rockets really wanted to beat—outscore them 8-0 down the stretch. When Houston played at home against Golden State two nights later, Nissalke, whose team was off, and Patterson watched the game together on TV in Patterson's office. "I thought that was cheap," Harris says.

Nothing that happened to the Rockets this season, however, was as discouraging to them as Indiana's fade. "Going through this painful year and not being able to come up with a solid young replacement for Moses," Harris says, "would be like digging for weeks for buried treasure, never finding it and then one day you look up and you've dug the hole so deep you can't get out of it." If the Rockets are to climb out, it will surely take someone more than seven feet tall. And there is little question that this year that someone is Ralph Sampson.

Many fans thought Sampson's image was tarnished when his Virginia teams failed to win an NCAA title, or even an ACC championship, during his four years there. When Akeem Abdul Olajuwon of the Houston Cougars strutted his stuffs all the way to the championship game of the NCAA tournament, it seemed possible that he or fellow underclassman, Georgetown's Patrick Ewing, might supplant Sampson as the first choice of the pros. That notion gained credibility when provisions in the new NBA contract with the Players Association made it apparent that the June 28 draft probably would be the last to result in a financial bonanza for rookies. "They've all got to come out," says Spurs President Angelo Drossos, referring to the top college underclassmen, "because next year that money isn't going to be there." But so far neither Olajuwon nor Ewing has indicated any desire to turn pro. They have until May 14 to make up their minds. One factor in their thinking may well be that there isn't a team in the NBA that wouldn't take Sampson first this year, because it is widely believed that Virginia Coach Terry Holland did little to speed Sampson's progress. "Holland developed Ralph to about one-tenth of his potential," one highly regarded college coach said recently.

Sampson professes to have ignored the Race for Ralph. He has said he could adjust to any NBA city, but he's opposed to the capriciousness of the league's coin-toss system. There have even been suggestions that he might challenge the entire concept of the draft in the courts. If that happens, the Race for Ralph could carry on into next season and possibly beyond. And if that happens, what has been a tawdry little game show could turn into a miniseries seething with avarice and lust. After that, who knows? We could be talking Bonanza.

But right now we're talking coin-toss, in late May. Ready? Flip!




The only tankings the losers would admit to were the ones last month in these syndicated strips.


According to "The Houston Post," the bottom was tops.


Hayes and his teammates went to sleep early this season.


In Cavs vs. Pacers (a/k/a Stonehands vs. Butterfingers) last week, Indiana won by losing.


In Indianapolis, some Pacer fans were squarely supporting R.A.L.P.H.—a Realistic Approach for Landing a Pacer Hero.