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.
For all their many similarities on the court, the two men are perhaps just as alike off it. Neither, for example, has a penchant for excessive oratory. And although, like Sampson, Abdul-Jabbar denied beforehand that these confrontations were anything special for him, others, including some of his Laker teammates, weren't so sure. "I think he's psyched up, but he'd never say it," said forward Mitch Kupchak. "How would you feel to have done what he has over 14 years and then have someone come in and immediately be considered the next you or even better than that?"
Sampson's denial of big game it is was simply meant not to offend. "I can't get excited about this one game," he said. "I still have to play Milwaukee, have to play Washington. There's someone to go against every night."
That was also the party line promoted by Houston coach Bill Fitch. "The toughest thing for any rookie to learn is that there are 82 games to play and you can't approach all of them like the Rose Bowl," he said. "Ralph's up for this one, but when he plays his fifth game in five nights against an 0-29 team and has his best game ever—then he'll be a real pro."
Still, the significance of what was about to occur wasn't completely lost on Sampson. "At one point, every tall person probably wanted to be Kareem," he said before the game in Los Angeles. "They could talk and dream about it all they wanted, but it was never going to happen. Kareem has done things that no one will ever get close to."
As the box on this page and the Rockets' 14-25 record and last-place standing in the Midwest Division as of Sunday attest, Sampson's rookie season won't approach Abdul-Jabbar's on either an individual or a team basis. Then again, chances are if Abdul-Jabbar were coming into the NBA today, he couldn't duplicate his rookie stats. Neither, in all likelihood, could Russell, Wilt Chamberlain or even the more contemporary Bill Walton. The game has changed too much for that. "To compare Ralph to, say, Kareem, is like comparing the Beatles to Bing Crosby," says Houston president Ray Patterson, who held the same title in Milwaukee when Abdul-Jabbar joined the Bucks.
Indeed, given the way pro basketball is played today—with tougher defenses, more varied offenses and generally bigger, better-conditioned bodies—there's probably no chance any player, let alone a rookie, can dominate. "If Ralph had come in last year or next, things might be totally different for him," Abdul-Jabbar says. "The league changes so much from year to year that it's hard to judge what anyone's immediate impact will be. The level of play has improved overall since I came into the league, but maybe the qualifications for a superstar aren't the same as they once were."
Laker coach Pat Riley says that the kind of statistical domination enjoyed by Chamberlain—who in 1961-62 averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds a game—would perhaps even be detrimental to teams today. "In the old days teams could have a 30-points-a-game scorer and win," Riley says, "but today's defenses are such that if that man got shut off, his team would probably lose. I think Ralph could be scoring 30 a game if that's what Fitch wanted."
Fitch's strategy of spreading the wealth instead of relying solely upon Sampson to score is a fortuitous one, particularly because Sampson has shown little to indicate that he'll soon assume the leadership role on a team with veterans like Elvin Hayes and Caldwell Jones. While Sampson has maintained a low profile (although he owns a Porsche, he keeps it in Virginia, preferring to drive a Chevy station wagon with a dented rear door in Houston), he knows the time to assert himself eventually will arrive.
"That's something that I want to do, but it takes time," Sampson says. "It was probably expected of me, but there was no way I could do it. A rookie shouldn't come in, not knowing his teammates and the situation, and just take over."
It's safe to assume, given Houston's recently improved play and Sampson's continued development, that by season's end the Rockets will at least double their total of 14 wins. And that would represent a 100% increase in the number of wins Houston had all last season. So, in a sense, Sampson has made the Rockets twice as good as they were in 1982-83, a first-year performance by a center that only Abdul-Jabbar's effort in 1969-70 can match.
The full extent of Houston's improvement won't be reflected in the overall standings, as was Milwaukee's in Abdul Jabbar's first season when the Bucks went from seventh and last place in the Eastern Conference to second. No so-called "franchise" center ever joined a team as bad as the Rockets were a season ago. Even today, with a roster strengthened by the addition of Sampson, forwards Robert Reid and Rodney McCray and guard Phil Ford, Houston still can't compete on an equal basis with the rest of the NBA. The quality of the supporting cast has as much to do with a player's ability to "dominate" as any other factor.
For example, much has been made of Sampson's predilection for shooting the outside jumper. But unless he takes to dribbling upcourt himself, he has little control over where, when and how he gets the ball. Sometimes he has to move away from the hoop if he hopes to touch the ball at all.
Two days before his first game against L.A., Sampson had a career-high 35 points in a 118-102 loss to Seattle. He scored 20 of the Rockets' 28 first-quarter points in that game and had 26 at the half, many coming off plays that fed him the ball down low. In the third quarter, however, Sampson was, in his own words, "null and void." He disappeared.
"I feel comfortable down low," Sampson says. "There are times when if the ball gets there I shoot layups all night. But other teams will double-team me when I have the ball, and then all my teammates stand around and I'm stuck there with the ball. If my teammates would cut just a bit, I'd kick the ball back to them and they'd have open 10-footers."
It's a two-way street. The outstanding player is one who makes those around him better, but the others have to be in a position to receive those gifts, and vice versa. Abdul-Jabbar continues to be highly productive, and the Lakers continue to win in part because he's surrounded by the likes of a Johnson and a Jamaal Wilkes, players who automatically do those "little things" on a nightly basis. The Rockets, whose last win before the victory in L.A. had come against Boston on Dec. 29, apparently save their best for the elite teams but aren't nearly as consistent on a nightly basis.
Until that happens, any analysis of Sampson must be highly speculative. But it would seem hard to argue with Lakers assistant coach Dave Wohl, who says, "In the next five years Ralph will be like a Moses Malone or Kareem—every night you'll know exactly what you're going to get from him. He'll do things you've never seen before."
For now Sampson seems to be saying, "Start the revolution without me."
Sampson grabbed a measure of respect in his first confrontation with Abdul-Jabbar...
...though the old master was still able to ram home a couple of offensive pointers.
On D, the 7'4" Sampson can play the 7'2" Abdul-Jabbar like no one else, head to head.
Abdul-Jabbar found out what it's like to be the sky hookee, instead of the sky hooker.