Despite his 7 ft. 4 in. frame, his unusual mobility for a man his size, and his obvious scoring and rebounding skills, rookie center Ralph Sampson has not made instant winners of the Houston Rockets, a team that lost 68 games last season.
Those who thought super Ralph would overnight turn the National Basketball Association into his personal oyster were either misinformed or naive. One thing they did not underestimate was his drawing power, which has been enormous.
''Sampson has done about what I would expect under the circumstances,'' one veteran NBA scout told me. ''His statistics are good, because how are you going to stop someone who is 7-4 from scoring and rebounding? But basically he's having to adjust to a whole new world of basketball and traveling, and it isn't easy. To have turned any losing franchise around, he would have had to come to a team with a much better supporting cast.
''My guess is that you won't see the ultimate Ralph Sampson for three years, or until nature has added the extra pounds and the extra strength that he needs to move his opponents around,'' he continued. ''But at the same time he's going to be so much better next year that until you get used to it you aren't going to believe that anyone can improve that much. Offensively he's going to begin to take this league apart. He won't get fooled nearly as much defensively either.''
Reporters have converged on Sampson in such numbers everywhere Houston has played this season that he has come to treat the mass interview in a low monotone, which hasn't done much for his personality. But I think away from the court he could be an outstanding interview.
The last time the Rockets were in Los Angeles to play the Lakers, Ralph told the media that while personal statistics were all right, what he really hoped he was doing was contributing to the overall benefit of the team. He also said things like: ''I need to improve everything I do,'' and, ''I learned a lot from having to play against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.''
What Sampson seems to lack most at this point is a better sense of where his teammates are on the court; a knowledge of when to foul and when not to foul; and how to protect his body against those who would physically abuse him.
During Ralph's four years at the University of Virginia, he seldom had to deal with anyone his own size. Instead of looking for his teammates, he could just play his game with the knowledge that it was part of their responsibility to look for him.
Much of Sampson's defense in college was the intimidation that comes with being 7-4. But although Virginia went 112-23 with Ralph in its lineup (including an incredible 50-2 at home), the Cavaliers never did win an NCAA championship. Of course the same can be said of Wilt Chamberlain when he was at Kansas.
''Ralph Sampson is an uncomplicated person who only cares about winning,'' explained Houston coach Bill Fitch. ''He has no hangups about statistics or anything else. The first time I met him I liked him. The first time he got hurt and went out and played in pain, I knew he was someone special.
''Most big men won't do that for you,'' Fitch continued. ''They'll sit and take the easy way out. But Ralph didn't say anything, he just played. Offensively he's done very well for us. Defensively he's had nights when he's played poorly. But you've got to give him time to learn. You can't expect that he's going to do everything perfect right away.''
Asked if he'd actually said that the Boston Celtics would win 70 games this season with Sampson in their lineup, Fitch replied: ''Sure I said it. With the kind of supporting cast the Celtics put on the floor and the way they can pass the ball, Ralph would be in his element. He could do it.''
But if you know Fitch, who is the world's tallest leprechaun, and are used to reading the lines that crinkle at the corners of his droll mouth when he's putting someone on, he probably meant 60.
''Anyone who faults Sampson for not coming in and turning the Houston franchise around instantly is making a mistake,'' said Denver Nuggets coach Doug Moe. ''He's a rookie and he has to get rid of his rookie mistakes, and people have to realize that. But Ralph isn't that far away from becoming a dominating force in this league. In fact, at some point in his career, I'm sure he'll give Houston a world championship.''