He's not quite in a league with New Coke, Waterworld or, for
that matter, Pamela Anderson Lee. But 7'4" Ralph Sampson makes
anyone's short list of notable busts. As a senior at
Harrisonburg (Va.) High, Sampson was heralded as an amalgam of
the game's greatest centers: He supposedly had Chamberlain's
presence, Abdul-Jabbar's touch and Russell's defense. "People
said I could have gone right from high school to the NBA, which
was virtually unheard of at the time," he says. Instead Sampson
chose to attend Virginia, where he was a three-time All-America
but never won an NCAA title.
The first pick, by the Houston Rockets, in the 1983 draft,
Sampson was named rookie of the year in '84 and the All-Star
Game MVP in '85 and knocked the Los Angeles Lakers out of the
'86 Western Conference finals with a corkscrew push shot at the
buzzer. Yet he was never the dominator he was expected to be.
His critics contended that he shunned contact and instead chose
to play like a two guard with a pituitary problem. "People
didn't like me for that," says Sampson, 37, "but I feel that by
showing that big guys could do more than just bang down low, I
helped redefine the center position."
Even from a man with a colossal wingspan, that's a stretch. But
Sampson was undone less by his playing style than by his gimpy
knees, which were scoped more often than the aforementioned Lee
at a construction site. After missing only three games in his
first three years, he averaged just 39 games per season for the
rest of his career, which ended with him riding the bench for
the Sacramento Kings in 1990-91. "I can't help wondering what
could have been if I'd been healthy," he says.
In 1993 Sampson took a job as an assistant coach at James
Madison but left after one season because, he says, "it wasn't
the right situation for me." He's now CEO of Sampson
Enterprises, which includes a licensing company, a marketing
division and a nonprofit foundation. "I have lofty goals for
this company, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to be
successful," Sampson says, speaking with a passion that his
former coaches no doubt wish he'd displayed on the court.
He spends the rest of his time at home in Richmond with his
wife, Aleize, and their kids, Rachel, 10, Ralph III, 8, and
Robert, 5. "Ralph's already 5'2" and wears a men's 9 shoe," says
the proud papa. "No question he'll be better than me."
--L. JON WERTHEIM
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [Cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED featuring Ralph Sampson]