To the rest of the National Basketball Association, the presence of two skyscraping players in the same Houston Rockets lineup this season seemed an interesting but somewhat radical experiment. As far as Coach Bill Fitch was concerned, however, there was never the slightest hesitation about placing seven-foot rookie Akeem Olajuwon alongside 7 ft. 4 in. Ralph Sampson. ``It wasn't a question of whether they could play together -- only would they contribute enough as a unit to make it worthwhile,'' Fitch explained. ``I think they've answered that question by now and that the answer is an obvious `yes'.''
Sampson, who was NBA Rookie of the Year last season, has made the move from center to forward with relative ease. Ralph's outside shooting touch is unquestionably one of the best among the league's big men, which helped make the transition a smooth one. By now he is a fixture at his new position, and was one of the top vote-getters in the balloting for this year's Western Conference All-Star team.
Olajuwon, whose parents own a cement business in Nigeria, is among the league's leading rebounders and shot blockers and is also an all-star. Akeem's 20-point plus scoring average is impressive, especially since he is expected to share the basketball with Sampson, whose offensive figures are roughly the same.
Largely because of these two, the Rockets, who had a 29-53 record last season, have almost as many victories this year with 34 games still left on their schedule. That's good enough for second place in the Midwest Division, with a shot to overtake Denver for the lead, and with virtual assurance of a playoff spot in any case.
``Sure we've done well with Sampson and Olajuwon,'' Fitch said. ``But what everybody needs to understand is that young teams with young players are going to make a lot of mental errors before they learn to cope with the NBA. Because Sampson and Olajuwon are so tall and have done so much already to turn this franchise around, most people seem to think they have all the answers. In time, they will. But for now we're still a team that is putting its future together.''
The thing that is probably the most impressive about Olajuwon, who has been playing organized basketball for only five years, is the way he uses his body to get position, to get rebounds, and to get respect. Like Philadelphia's Moses Malone, Akeem is a physical player. However, he is not clever enough yet to get away with the things Moses does to his opponent under both backboards without drawing many fouls.
Interviewing Olajuwon at this point in the season is difficult because by now he has heard the same questions so many times that he tends to respond by simply looking at you. ``If I had any goals,'' he said, ``I wouldn't tell you what they are.'' But Akeem is obviously pleased with his offense, which a lot of people who saw him play in college felt was too limited for the NBA.
The explanation is that the pro game, with its emphasis on running, getting the ball inside, and reacting positively to the 24-second clock, has provided Akeem with the kind of shots he likes to take. Not to be overlooked, either, is the fact that Akeem is a quick learner.
Of course, for the Sampson-Olajuwon Alliance to work at all, Ralph had to be willing to move from center to forward without any mental reservations. Whether the Houston management made that switch easier by offering Sampson more money has never been discussed publicly, but it seems logical that some financial adjustment was probably made.
Asked if he had ever opposed the Rockets' suggestion that he become a forward, Sampson replied: ``I didn't object to the move because I already knew in my own mind that I could play the position. I also knew I could be happy there.'' However, attempts to gain further information from Ralph about the change got nowhere.
Fitch, who has already won one NBA championship (with Boston in 1980-81), is beginning to get questions now concerning how soon the world can expect this Houston club to reach such heights. The veteran mentor is clearly ready for this subject when it comes up, too, the mischief in his Irish eyes dancing the diplomat's jig.
``Any time you set out to build a winner, you try to get people you know will play well together and then you let the rest of the problems take care of themselves,'' Bill explained. ``The toughest thing is the patience you have to exercise until that title arrives, because there is always the tendency to think you can speed things up by making changes. Anyway, we still have some young players to improve and some holes to fill before we begin to think about any championships.''
Asked to comment on rumors that the Rockets would be hard-pressed keeping two such multi-million dollar salaries on their payroll indefinitely, and that within the next two years either Sampson or Olajuwon would probably be wearing a New York Knicks' or a Los Angeles Lakers' uniform, Fitch replied:
``That's the dumbest question I've heard in 20 years. Financially we're as solid as any team in the league, and we have been drawing extremely well at home. We've also got a rich owner [Charles Thomas] who can pay these guys forever if he wants to.''