NBA waits to see if Ralph Sampson's `Golden' move is really that

This is an update on Ralph Sampson, who so far has not been the super impact player everyone thought he would be in the National Basketball Association. Of course the 7 ft. 4 in. center, who was traded by Houston to Golden State six weeks ago, has had his moments. He was NBA Rookie of the Year in 1983-84; he has multiple skills; he plays an intelligent game; and he has made the Western Conference All-Star team all four years he has been in the league.

But while that would be enough for most players, it still leaves basketball aficionados looking for more from the man who so dominated his peers as a three-time College Player of the Year at the University of Virginia.

Sampson, who was a center in college, continued at that position in his first pro season. The next year, however, the Rockets drafted 7-foot Akeem Olajuwon, and Ralph was asked to move to forward whenever both were in the game.

Why Sampson and not Olajuwon? The feeling in Houston was that the more rugged and more aggressive Olajuwon was suited only to the center position, while the slender, 230-pound Sampson had the flexibility to play either place.

So Ralph made the move, but not without some problems. He and Houston coach Bill Fitch did not always get along, a situation that deteriorated even more last season when Ralph missed 39 games with an assortment of injuries.

Even when Houston was winning with its Twin Towers of Olajuwon and Sampson, rumors always popped up that Ralph might be traded.

But all that seemed to end last October when Sampson, whose contract had expired and who was now a free agent, surprised a lot of people by signing a six-year, $14.4 million agreement with the Rockets.

So what was behind the trade that sent Sampson and guard Steve Harris to Golden State in exchange for guard Sleepy Floyd and center Joe Barry Carroll?

``Technically, it took only three days back in December to make this deal,'' Warriors coach George Karl told me. ``We had talked with Houston before, actually last summer when we decided we wanted to rebuild around someone like Ralph. The problem was that the Rockets at that time weren't interested.''

Asked if he considered Sampson a finished NBA product in terms of the way Golden State wanted to use him, Karl replied:

``In that context, no. But Ralph is a great talent. Any time you can get a good big man for a good little man [a reference to Floyd as the key man the Warriors gave up] you have to do it.

``We are hoping that with the kind of rebounding ability Sampson has, he can consistently get us the ball. We are also hoping he can add some weight, which will probably make him stronger. We definitely want him to bring his offensive game inside and score more from the low post. We can be a big winner with Ralph if we put the right people around him.''

It quickly becomes obvious that interviews are not Sampson's favorite pastime, but what you have to remember is that Ralph has been hurt by all the talk and innuendos concerning his personality and his desire. He probably feels that no matter what he does, he can never satisfy his critics, and he might be right.

He did talk briefly, though, about going back to center; his desire to put on more weight; and the temporary problem of having to adjust to new teammates.

``Center is my position, and that is the position I want to play,'' Sampson said. ``After being a forward for three years, I've had to rethink the middle and make adjustments. Putting on weight has always been a problem for me, but if it comes naturally I don't think it will hurt my speed or my quickness. With a new team and a new system, there is always a period of adjustment. But it's not just me who has to adjust to his teammates, my teammates also have to adjust to me.''

Although Sampson is not 100 percent physically right now, because of an injury, he has made no mention of it.

In the wake of the trade, the Rockets have begun to win after a slow start, while the Warriors are still struggling.

``That is going to continue until Golden State gets Sampson the right supporting cast,'' said former New York Knicks center and current Sacramento Kings assistant coach Willis Reed.

As for the deal itself, Reed is surprised that Houston let Sampson go.

`` ... I would have kept Sampson at center and made Olajuwon the forward,'' he said. ``The idea that Olajuwon isn't flexible enough to play forward doesn't make any sense to me. I wish the Kings had him. Besides, you don't ever trade a big man with Sampson's ability.''

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