An ode to Ralph Sampson – the forgotten big man ahead of his time

I have a confession: I like different.

For me, there’s something to be said for going against the grain and being confident enough to create your own path. Following the crowd is easy, but I’ve always gravitated to things and people that go against perceived wisdom. This goes for basketball as well. When I started watching basketball in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, my favourite players were the quirky ones. Adrian Dantley’s inside game at his size, Chris Mullin’s left-handed shooting ability from anywhere, Kevin McHale’s weird Frankentsein-esque body… the list goes on.

Back then, the accepted strategy was that big guys stayed in the paint and guards were on the perimeter. Jump shooters who were tall were considered soft, and guards had no business posting up (unless you were Gary Payton or one or two others). The concept was reiterated by sayings like “no rebounds, no rings”, or “you need a big man to win a title”. Since him, we’ve had 6’4 point guards leading their teams in rebounding and even 6’11 giants that handle like people a foot shorter.

Kevin Garnett remains one of my favorite ever players, in part because he could do things at his size that weren’t considered possible. But even before KG, there was a player that served as a template for him – a giant whose high school and college career makes one of the most accomplished amateur players of all time, and someone that, if not for injury and closed-minded coaching, would probably have ended up a first ballot Hall of Famer (yep, I said it!): Ralph Sampson.

For a lot of people, Sampson was a bust – a player that never met his potential and a malcontent that could never find his place. In fact, his most famous play is probably one of the most ridiculous shots in NBA history.  But looking back at his career, I see somebody that was guilty of being born too early and someone that would have dominated in the current era. Not convinced? Let’s take a trip back around 40 years, where this story begins…

Before Sampson even reached the NBA, his resume read like something cooked up in a science lab. His accomplishments included two consecutive high school state titles: he averaged nearly 30 points, 19 rebounds, and 7 blocked shots as a senior after averaging 14 points and 11 rebounds as a sophomore, and 19 points and 17 rebounds as a junior. He won an NIT title in 1980, had an NCAA Final Four appearance in 1981, an Elite Eight appearance in 1983, three Naismith Awards as the National Player of the Year and a pair of Wooden Awards

Take a look at the first minute of this video of him at Virginia.

Legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach desperately tried to get him to declare for the NBA Draft after his freshman season in college. The sport had never seen anyone with Sampson’s potent blend of height and athleticism – a franchise center who combined the best of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.

The top pick in the 1983 NBA Draft, his first year for the Houston Rockets saw him average 21.0 points and 11.1 rebounds, play in the All-Star Game, and win the NBA Rookie of the Year Award. He had his best statistical season the following season despite moving from his regular position to accommodate new rookie center and future Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon to form the Twin Towers combo that made it to the NBA Finals two years later.

It’s worth taking a look again at that 1984-85 season to fully appreciate what Sampson did. In a new position for him, playing away from the basket, he thrived. The man known as ‘Stick’ averaged 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds, won a place on the All-NBA Second Team and won MVP of the 1985 NBA All-Star Game.

Here are his All-Star highlights – remember, this is him playing with and alongside the very best of the NBA and at a time when the game was taken a lot more seriosuly than it is now

Combined, the Twin Towers averaged 42.7 points, 22.3 rebounds, and 4.7 blocks in their first season. The Houston backcourt would liberally gamble on steals, happy in the knowledge that if they missed, they had Sampson and Olajuwon ready to play volleyball with any shot going into the lane. Rockets swingman, Robert Reid, remembered it like this in a 2012 article from the Grantland website:

“The late, great Dennis Johnson, one time he brought the ball up to half court and I opened up the gate. He said, ‘Reid, what are you doing? You ain’t going to play no defense?’ I said, ‘Look down there. Do you feel lucky?’ He cussed me out.

In that same season, Sampson became the first player in NBA history to record at least 30 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 steals since the league started recording steals. He was so good, that according to Olajuwon, the Blazers offered the Rockets the second pick and Clyde Drexler for Sampson in 1984. Yup, Jordan, Drexler and Hakeem could all have been on the same team.

I mean, this is insane…

So what happened? Injuries played a key part in his demise, but the main problem was that he was a guard trapped in a center’s body. He was, in so many ways, more than what you would expect from a big man. The turnaround jumper, the hook shot, the long-range capability and the ball-handling – a sort of proto-Giannis – that’s how terrifying he was.

Sampson was more comfortable on the perimeter, with the post serving as an alternative, rather than a default or priority. These skills, which would make him a regular social media highlight reel today, were instead used as a stick to beat him with. It was considered evidence that he didn’t have the “heart” to win. A 7’4 athlete that could grab a rebound, go up the floor, stutter step and finger roll the ball in? Not in the 1980s.

Had he come 20 years later, with the pace and spacing we have, alongside improved analytics and coaching, he could have been lethal. As the criticism and injuries piled up, Sampson, who was never the most gregarious of players, retreated further and further inwards, became a journeyman, and was out of the league by 1992. But his first few years were enough to (eventually) get him into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.

He was a big man with versatility. He didn’t conform to the thinking of the time and that played a big part in his forgotten legacy. But for me, that’s what made him special. So thanks for the memories, Ralph. You paved the way more than you get credit for