The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced its 2012 class today. Inducted alongside Reggie Miller, Don Nelson, and a host of other players from the college, women's, and international games will be Houston's 1983 draft pick -- Ralph Sampson.
A lesson in history for those of you (like me) who weren't around for Sampson's career: Ralph Sampson was the star of a Virginia Cavaliers squad that twice made it deep into the NCAA tournament, and once won the NIT. He won the Naismith Award three times: one of only two men to ever win the award multiple times.
He entered the 1983 draft as one of the most athletic big men to play the game, many regarding him as possessing the agility and control of a guard. A 7'4" center with those types of skills is certainly a worthy pick at number one overall. And in his first season in the NBA, his 21 points and 11 rebounds per game were more than enough to earn him the 1984 Rookie of the Year award, but the Rockets continued to flounder (or shamelessly tank for the second year in a row, depending on whose story you believe), and Sampson was soon joined by the second half of the "Twin Towers," the legendary Hakeem Olajuwon.
The Rockets took those two number-one-overall draft selections all the way to the NBA Finals, when they challenged the 1986 Boston Celtics (one of the greatest teams in history) for the NBA crown. Ralph Sampson is mostly remembered by the public at large for that series, but not for his play (which included a 24 point, 22 rebound performance in Game 3, giving Houston its first win of the series). Instead, most remember the punch he threw at Jerry Sichting and his subsequent ejection in Game 5.
Rockets fans, however, probably remember him for his last-second tip-in that same year. In Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets shocked both the NBA-watching public (the niche audience that it was) and the Showtime Lakers with this "miracle shot" off of Sampson's hands:
The Rockets lost the '86 Finals, of course, but it looked at the time like they were a new powerhouse in the West: Young (Olajuwon was 23, Sampson just 25), powerful, and possessing one of the most fearsome frontcourts in the NBA.
Unfortunately, Sampson was injured partway through the '87 season, and the Rockets limped to the finish line with just a 42-40 record (the departure of John Lucas and injuries to Lewis Lloyd didn't help, either). Sampson continued to have injury problems in the 1988 season, and the Rockets parted ways with him soon after -- he was sent to Golden State for center Joe Barry Carroll and Sleepy Floyd.
Neither the Rockets nor Sampson prospered much after that: The Rockets floundered some more (this time with no shameless tanking involved), while Sampson struggled with his knees. He only played more than 26 games once in the four seasons after his trade, and he never played like he once did.
Sampson's professional career didn't live up to the hope that the Rockets or basketball fans once had for it. But, nonetheless, he was a great college player and, for a time, one of the most exciting young players in the NBA. Sampson's career was, perhaps, most similar to one of the men he faced on that '86 Celtics squad: Bill Walton. Walton, like Sampson, won the Naismith Award three times in college. Like Sampson, he had a tragically-brief-but-memorable career. And, like Sampson, he was more than deserving of being immortalized as such in the Hall of Fame.
Sampson will be formally inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in September.