The Ralph Sampson Trade

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So on my drive this morning I found myself listening to another excellent episode of Bill Simmons’ podcast. The latest segment featured Bill and the always-terrific Ryen Russillo discussing the recent Anthony Davis-to-the-Lakers swap, and debating whether Los Angeles or New Orleans won the deal.

At one point, Bill made the case that, with rare exception, the team that gains the superstar always wins. He listened multiple past swaps, including two featuring Wilt Chamberlain, the Oscar Robertson deal, the Tracy McGrady deal, the Carmelo deal. On and on.

One he left out, however, is perhaps my favorite blockbuster of all. One that, I truly (and wrongly) believed would change the power structure of the NBA.

On Dec. 12, 1987, the Houston Rockets sent Ralph Sampson, at the time a three-time All-Star and one of the game’s elite big men, to Golden State (along with Steve Harris) for cash considerations and two players, guard Sleepy Floyd and center Joe Barry Carroll, who were top-shelf talents and former All-Stars. Because Sampson’s career was something of a dud (or at least a quick flame-out), it’s easy to forget how fucking huge this was. But, trust me, it was HUGE. Coming out of Virginia in 1983, Sampson wasn’t merely the consensus No. 1 pick in the draft—he was arguably the most hyped college big man since Lew Alcindor departed UCLA 14 years earlier. Sampson stood 7-foot-4, weighed 228 pounds, was a gifted shot blocker with a small forward’s offensive repertoire. Upon joining the Rockets, Sampson’s presence was announced in the grandest of manners …

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Amazingly, the hype was warranted. Sampson averaged 21 points and 11.1 rebounds as a newbie, and was a unanimous Rookie of the Year. He was the league’s future superstar. Big. Strong. Fast. Even praised in the Kurtis Blow rap, “Basketball.”

Then, in 1984, the Rockets drafted Hakeem Olajuwon.

This would be amazing! Not one big man, but two! Holy shit! Sampson was moved to power forward, Hakeem manned the middle, and by 1986 Houston was winning the Western Conference and playing Boston for the NBA title.

But … well … it wasn’t quite working. Sampson wasn’t a power forward. He was fragile. Compared to Olajuwon, he was jarringly … limited. Not bad. Certainly far above average. But just … yeah.

Hence, when Golden State came calling, and included a point guard (Floyd) who was considered a legitimate floor general and scorer (he was averaging 21.9 points and 10.9 assists at the time), the Rockets jumped.

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The Warriors treated the deal as if it were a presidential visit. George Karl, the team’s coach, said Sampson’s addition changed the course of a sad franchise. With Sampson in the middle, everything was once again possible. Were there potential problems? Sure. Dave Feitl, a Golden State big man who had played with Sampson in Houston, told John Hillyer of the San Francisco Examiner that Ralph was wonderful—”You just have to find a way to motivate him once in a while.”

Um, what?

In two seasons, Sampson limped through 90 games with Golden State. He averaged 9.3 points and 6.6 rebounds before being mercifully unloaded on Sacramento for this guy …

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It didn’t work out.

2 thoughts on “The Ralph Sampson Trade”

  1. you mention fragile and i think (wasn’t there, was a teenage fan at the time) it really was injuries, not “motivation” that held Ralph back. i’m sure he was pissed when Houston picked Hakeem, and maybe that’s why he came back too early from a knee injury and it eventually ruined him… if he’d come along a little later, maybe he could have been a finesse player like his skills/body frame said he should be… but he was tall, so put him in the middle to bang…oh well… i also wonder “what if” Red Auerbach had convinced him to leave early and he was surrounded by bird, mchale, chief, etc…

  2. I guess that Sleepy Floyd and Joe Barry Carroll might be considered “top-shelf talents.” That they were both former All-Stars says more about how ridiculous the selection process is, than anything else. Not for nothing was Joe Barry Carroll nicknamed “Joe Barely Cares.”

    The trade proved, if anything, just how quickly Sampson had established himself as a NON-franchise player in the NBA of the early 80’s. (His game might have been more suited to today’s game.)

    I was sitting in the “Fabulous” Forum in Game 5 of the 1986 playoff game between Houston and the Lakers, when Sampson made one of the luckiest, but at the same time most amazing, playoff shots ever, in the last second, to knock out the Lakers. One of the few real highlights of his career.

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