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The Greatest Team That Never Was

Dunks, drugs, and disappointment: an oral history of the 1980s Houston Rockets

Ralph Sampson spoke briefly at a press conference one day before being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He mentioned hearing people say that he’d disappeared of late. “How could a 7-foot-4 person disappear?” he asked. How indeed?

During Sampson’s first season for the University of Virginia 33 years ago, Sports Illustrated trumpeted his arrival with a cover story and screaming headline: LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, INTRODUCING THE ONE AND ONLY RALPH SAMPSON! HE DUNKS! HE BLOCKS SHOTS! HE DRIBBLES BEHIND HIS BACK! HE’S 7-FOOT-4 — AND STILL GROWING! That’s five exclamation marks, one less than the number of times Sampson appeared on the magazine’s cover over the next four years. The sport had never seen anyone with Sampson’s potent blend of height and athleticism. A franchise center who moved like Russell, passed like Wilt, and projected the same aloof immensity as Kareem? Yes. And he was — and still is — 7-foot-4.

After Sampson averaged 14.9 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 4.6 blocks his freshman season, Boston Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach tried to convince him to enter the 1980 NBA draft. The Celtics, a 61-win team in the previous season, featured a transcendent rookie forward named Larry Bird and owned the first overall pick. Sampson remembers it well. “Auerbach came to my house and said, ‘You can come and play for the mighty Boston Celtics.’ I gave it a thought. Ralph Sampson coming to Boston — there might not have been a Kevin McHale there or Robert Parish.” When Sampson stunned basketball by staying in school,1 Auerbach traded that pick and the 13th selection to Golden State for Parish and the third overall pick (which would become McHale), creating the “Big Three” that would eventually win three NBA titles over the next six seasons. Sampson stayed all four years at Virginia, leaving valuable earning years on the table (and never playing in an NCAA championship game), but winning three Naismith Awards and finishing as one of college basketball’s greatest centers ever.2

The Rockets happily selected Sampson first in the 1983 draft, then teamed him up with Hakeem (then spelled “Akeem”) Olajuwon after winning another no. 1 overall pick the following spring. Their panicked rivals rushed to emulate Houston’s “Twin Towers” and Boston’s enviable tandem of Parish and McHale, and an arms race for bigs officially began. New York decided Patrick Ewing and Bill Cartwright could coexist. Teams drafted an astonishing eight centers with the first 17 picks in 1985; the following summer, four of the first seven lottery picks were centers. When the precocious Rockets lost to Boston in the 1986 Finals, the sight of McHale, Parish, Bird, and Bill Walton battling Sampson and Olajuwon appeared to be the dawning of a new basketball era. Little did we know those teams had already peaked. The Celtics were never the same after rookie Len Bias overdosed on cocaine two days after the 1986 draft.3 And Houston’s promising nucleus crashed because of injuries, drug abuse, suspicion, suspensions, and ultimately, Sampson’s stunning trade to Golden State.

By the time Olajuwon won consecutive titles in Houston, Sampson was long gone — he played his last meaningful game long before he turned 30. His premature demise opened the door for the Lakers to win two more titles, sabotaged the first decade of Hakeem’s brilliant career, and established Sampson as one of basketball’s ultimate “What if?” talents. Imagine today’s Oklahoma City Thunder never fulfilling their potential, getting sidetracked by injuries and drugs, wiping their roster clean, then winning championships with an aged Kevin Durant nearly a decade later. That’s how it played out for the “Twin Towers.”

All those quoted are introduced with the job titles they held or positions they played during the 1985-86 NBA season.

THE MAKING OF THE TWIN TOWERS

Before the 1982-83 season, Philadelphia signed reigning MVP Moses Malone to a $13.2 million offer sheet, with Houston receiving Caldwell Jones and Cleveland’s 1983 no. 1 pick. Philly won the 1983 title and the Rockets stumbled to 14 wins (and the first and third overall picks). The Indiana Pacers finished with a 20-62 record, worst in the East, setting up a coin flip for the no. 1 pick.

Charlie Thomas (owner, Rockets): My daughter at that time was in her late teens. I came home one night and she said, “What are you going to do about the [1983] coin flip?” I said, “I don’t know. It’s 50-50.” She said, “I think it’s going to be heads. I had a dream that it’s going to be heads.” I said, “I don’t mind calling heads.” And she went with me and they flipped the coin.

Jerry Sichting (guard, Boston Celtics): I was with the Pacers when they lost the flip. The coin landed on its side and rolled all the way to the wall. Everybody was scrambling to see which way it was going to turn over.

Herb Simon (co-owner, Pacers): I remember the coin rolled on the carpet, on the floor, and [Thomas] had his daughter with him. I had nobody. And of course I lost.

Sichting: Houston got the first pick. Sampson would have been my teammate had it turned the other way. I might have been his teammate instead of getting in a fight with him [three years later].

Rodney McCray (forward, Rockets): The Sunday before the draft, they brought Ralph, myself, and [Steve] Stipanovich to New York for radio interviews. Ralph said the Rockets were going to select me along with him [at no. 3]. That was the first time I heard it.

Hakeem Olajuwon (center, Rockets): Clyde [Drexler] was available and the city and everybody wanted him to stay in the city. Bill Fitch, he had a different vision with Rodney.4

Bill Fitch (coach, Rockets): I’ll never be sorry for it. McCray did exactly what we wanted him to do and he was very good. The only time I’m sorry for it is that every time we would play Drexler after, say, five years in the league, he’d just stick it in my ear. If there was a record to be set, he would do it.

Robert Reid (guard-forward, Rockets): After the Rockets got Ralph and Rodney, I got a phone call from Bill Fitch and [Rockets general manager] Ray Patterson. I talked to my wife and said, “Let’s go back.”5

Fran Blinebury (Rockets beat writer, Houston Chronicle): The first year, they got rid of everybody. It was, “Ralph was there and we’re just going to dismantle this thing.”

Thomas: We were so bad. We went into a complete rebuilding program.

Blinebury: Fitch wanted [Sampson] to be a center. All he kept saying was “Ralph needs to get a move. He needs a baseline move.” Ralph was just never going to be that guy. Bill was always trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole. If anything, Ralph was a triangle or a shape that we hadn’t had before.

Reid: Ralph, in the back of his mind at practice, he was saying, “I’m going to be the first 7-foot point guard.” Bill Fitch was going to go tackle him if he tried to bring it down again.

Fitch: I used to get on him that he was a center and not an outside player.

Blinebury: Ralph was going to be this game-changing player, a 7-foot-4 guy who could put the ball between his legs, run the court on the break, and shoot 25-foot jumpers. Ray Patterson says, “Not only is Ralph going to be the player of the year, he’s going to be the player of the century.”

Even with Sampson winning Rookie of the Year, the 1983-84 Rockets lost 53 games and were accused of tanking games down the stretch. Improbably, the team won the coin flip for the right to draft Olajuwon, even though they had only the league’s fourth-worst record. Already perturbed by Robert Reid’s surprise retirement and subsequent return,6 Houston’s rivals now stewed over the fact that they’d been rewarded with successive top picks.

Blinebury: There was a meeting that took place over the All-Star break [in 1984] between Thomas, Patterson, and Fitch. They’ll deny it up and down, but they said, “We’re not the team of the year right now.” Meanwhile, Hakeem was tearing it up at the University of Houston.

Carroll Dawson (assistant coach, Rockets): Every time we weren’t playing, I’d go watch [Olajuwon] play because Phi Slama Jama was tremendous. Dream didn’t shoot the ball that much. We knew he could dunk. We knew he could block shots. We knew he could rebound and we knew he could run like a deer.

Blinebury: If you look at some of the box scores and lineups and conclude they’re doing anything but tanking, then you’re far different than me.7 There was one game in Houston where Elvin Hayes, who was about a thousand years old, ended up playing in an overtime game about 50 minutes.

Thomas: We got the first pick again. I don’t know if anyone had ever won it two years in a row.

Blinebury: Norm Sonju [then the GM of the Mavericks] was outraged that Houston could win back-to-back coin flips. In 1984 at the Board of Governors meeting, Sonju throws out that he wants to get rid of the coin flip and go to the draft lottery.

Norm Sonju (general manager, Dallas Mavericks): The whole thing was basically people feeling that [the Rockets intentionally] lost games. No one can prove that, but they went down to 14 wins [in '83].8

David Stern (commissioner, NBA): The lottery was created to eliminate the perceived incentive to lose games. Obviously the Rockets became the team on which most people focused. Even if teams were not losing on purpose to better their position, the perception did exist.

Blinebury: It gets changed and 10 minutes after, Ray sees me and says, “Norm Sonju thinks he’s so damn smart. He’s tired of me winning coin flips. I’ve got Sampson and Olajuwon. How the hell am I going to have the worst record in the West? But he could have the worst record. He could have just cost himself a one-in-two chance of getting the no. 1 pick.” And then he paused and said, “We could be the first team out of the playoffs. I could get into the lottery, win it, and get Patrick Ewing. How would you like me to stick that up his ass?”

Mark Heisler (sportswriter, Los Angeles Times): Hakeem was so good. The heat all went to Portland for Sam Bowie [taken one spot ahead of Michael Jordan]. I love Jordan. He was the consensus third pick. We knew he’d be an All-Star player, but we didn’t know he would be that.

Fitch: It was Hakeem all the way. If we didn’t take him, they would have burned our houses down.9

Heisler: [The Rockets] never took any heat over it. It seemed logical. They drafted Hakeem in ’84 … in ’86, they’re in the Finals.

Olajuwon

Olajuwon: I was watching Ralph when I first came to college. I was a big fan. The way he caught lobs and was finishing them, it was unbelievable. And now I’m playing beside him and he didn’t even realize how much impact he had on me.

Jack McCallum (NBA writer, Sports Illustrated): The Twin Towers concept was really a big deal. The NBA was resistant to change. You went out there and you had a center and somebody else had to be a forward. That’s the first time I remember someone doing something different.

Sampson: Most people say it hindered me from scoring more points or getting more rebounds. But every team had to adjust to two 7-footers playing every night.

Dawson: They fit together well. Actually, Ralph might have been better when he moved out a little bit.

Sampson: My skills were a little bit farther from the basket. Hakeem had the body and ability to be in the low post. I could go into the post. He could go into the post and pass out. It became a great fit very quickly.

Fitch: Ralph could pass the basketball. He was never given enough credit for being the passer that he was.

Sampson: My mind-set and skill set at that point of time was to be the best basketball player I could be. Not just the best center. I wanted to play guard. I wanted to play forward. They gave me the opportunity to do that.

CAPTAIN VIDEO

The ’84-85 Rockets surprised everyone by winning 48 games. Sampson claimed the 1985 All-Star Game MVP and Olajuwon’s offensive game blossomed. Combined, the Twin Towers averaged 42.7 points, 22.3 rebounds, and 4.7 blocks in their first season, and Sampson’s wish was granted: He played away from the basket and thrived. Having won a title in Boston just four years earlier, Fitch started wondering if it could happen again, sooner rather than later.

Fitch: My dad was a drill instructor in the Marine Corps. I thought I was part of the Marine Corps until I was 14, shining all those boots and everything. There was a lot of discipline in my coaching that maybe rubbed a lot of guys wrong. But in the long run, it made them all better.

Dawson: He was a drill sergeant type of guy. He was demanding, but fair. He was a coach 24 hours a day. We’d go play a game. We’d go to his room. We’d get the film out. Sometimes, we’d both fall asleep at four in the morning, watching film.

McCallum: The writers were in Houston playing pickup. Fitch was out there watching us, a bunch of asshole reporters. That was sort of his life. He would just sit there and watch a pickup reporter basketball game.

Hank McDowell (forward, Rockets): There was a seat on the plane that no one wanted to sit in — next to Bill. You didn’t want to be the last one onto the plane because you knew what seat was there.

Jim Petersen (forward, Rockets): You didn’t want to be last. That meant you were going to have to sit through a litany of basketball philosophy.

Blinebury: Guys would run suicides and throw up over the sidelines. Bill would be chuckling. But they don’t get to the Finals, they don’t beat the Lakers, they don’t play the Celtics without Fitch.

Craig Ehlo (Rockets guard): He was called “Captain Video” for a reason. We practiced for two hours and then watched film for two hours.

Petersen: He was really ahead of his time. No one wanted to sit through those long video sessions. We’re talking about the mid-’80s when remote controls and VCRs were still new and you can’t really pinpoint play sets. He would need to rewind one play and would have his finger on the rewind button for one play, and it would rewind 10 plays. We’d have to sit through the same 10 plays again and he would sit through them like he hadn’t seen them before. We’d go, “Oh no. He has his finger on the rewind button again. Why couldn’t he have it on the fast-forward button?” He would literally talk about the same damn plays like they were brand-new sets.

McDowell: This is how hard-core [Fitch] really was. We were scrimmaging and Craig Ehlo sprained his ankle. Ehlo’s hurting bad. He’s wiggling around in the lane. And Dick [Vandervoort], our trainer, he’s down there trying to work with him and then 30 seconds go by, a minute goes, two minutes. Finally, I hear Fitch say, “Dick, get his ass off the floor. I’m trying to run a practice.” We all looked at each other like “Damn. The guy can’t even walk.” Dick, who is this little small, thin guy, he’s literally down there trying to drag Ehlo off the floor.

Ehlo: He was combative with his players. It was his way or the highway. When Ralph and him were in a fight in practice one day over a play call, you knew Fitch wasn’t going to back down and Ralph wasn’t going to back down. Luckily, [assistant coach] Rudy Tomjanovich and Carroll Dawson were there to take control and pull them apart.10

McCallum: Ralph was not enough of the run-through-the-wall type of guy to suit Fitch.

Reid: Ralph would complain and he didn’t realize, “This ain’t college here no more, homeboy. Ain’t nobody here to love you. This is business now.”

Blinebury: They are completely burned out from all these grueling practices. [As a rookie] Ralph went to Fitch and tells him that.

Sampson: My only goal was Elvin Hayes needed some minutes to get 50,000 and get a bonus in his contract. You weren’t playing to win at that point in time. You’re trying to get a draft pick, which we did. So I just voiced my opinion.

Blinebury: Fitch tells him, “You don’t know what the hell you are talking about. Get out of here.” Ralph comes to us in the media and expresses this to the beat guys. Fitch makes him read the newspaper article in the locker room.

Sampson: I had to read it in front of my teammates, which was fine.

Reid: Ralph is reading it and he’s reading it kind of slow. “And … we … need … to … understand … that … I … just … feel … we … have … too … long … of … practices.” Rodney hits me and he says, “Yo, this is an English major reading like this?” If I had a soda and was drinking it, it would have come out my nostrils.

Blinebury: It pretty much just embarrassed him.

McCallum: I went out to do a story on them [in 1986]. The first part was on how good Olajuwon was. The second half was how much Fitch was pissed at Ralph. I wrote the story and saw Olajuwon a couple weeks later — he stops me and has the second half of the story with circles around all the stuff Fitch said. And he goes, “I talked to you a long time. You didn’t even write anything about me. All you did was write about how much Coach Fitch hates Ralph.” He only had like half the story. I said, “Hakeem, the story doesn’t begin in the middle of a sentence.” Ralph must have given it to him. Ralph was all pissed off at Fitch.11

THE RISE OF THE TWIN TOWERS

Despite losing to Utah in the first round of the ’85 playoffs, everyone considered the Rockets a legitimate sleeper the following season. Their biggest concern was whether John Lucas — a talented but troubled point guard who had become the team’s elder statesman — could remain sober an entire season. The former no. 1 overall pick did two stints in rehab between ’84 and ’86, although his erratic behavior dated back to his days with Golden State, captured in a memorable Sports Illustrated feature from 1981 called “John Lucas: Picking Up the Pieces.” Even if Sampson and Olajuwon were revolutionizing the league, it seemed far-fetched that they could thrive without Lucas leading the way.

Dawson: You could not score in the paint against us. With those two guys, we controlled the paint as well as anyone I had seen in a long time.

Petersen: I tried getting a shot off on Dream one time [in practice] and he smacked it against the backboard. Rodney McCray looked at me and said, “Hey, Pete — you’re going to have to take it to another level.”

Reid: The late, great Dennis Johnson, one time he brought the ball up to half court and I opened up the gate. He said, “Reid, what are you doing? You ain’t going to play no defense?” I said, “Look down there. Do you feel lucky?” He cussed me out.

Lewis Lloyd (guard, Rockets): Playing on defense, I used to let a lot of guys go down there. “Go ahead.” I used to tell Hakeem and Ralph that, “If I let them go, block that to me and if y’all keep coming, I’ll throw it back to you. If not, I’m slamming it myself.”

Rudy Tomjanovich (Rockets assistant coach): Lloyd was a tremendous, special player.12 He had these big, strong thighs and an unorthodox way he played. There was no seam between two guys he couldn’t get through with his body.13 [Mitchell] Wiggins was a tough guy. He loved to play defense. He loved to attack those offensive boards.

Allen Leavell (guard, Rockets): They were both amazing. Good rebounders, played good defense. Lew was a flat-out scorer. Mitchell could shoot the ball. He never got credit for it.

Reid: Even from the first day when we started camp [for the '85-86 season], it just felt different. The guys were getting along. After practice, nobody just went their own way. We stayed and practiced longer.

Petersen: John [Lucas] was kicked off the team my rookie year for cocaine abuse [in '84-'85]. We were in Oakland and we had to fly to Seattle. John was supposed to meet us in the bus to go to the airport and never made it. John had a relapse.

McDowell: I can remember sitting on the bus in Oakland looking at the hotel door, saying, “Come on, John. Come on out. Come on out.” The bus pulled away and that was the end of John Lucas at that point.

Bob Ryan, (columnist, Boston Globe): John Lucas is a forgotten point guard who in the short term was extremely good. I remember writing about him in terms of the substance abuse and how scary it was and how powerful it must be for a guy that bright with two degrees to succumb to the power of drugs. If it weren’t for the drug thing, there’s no doubt in my mind that he could have put together a Hall of Fame résumé. We’ll never know what he could have accomplished. That’s the sad part.

Petersen: Bill brings [Lucas] back in ’86. Bill has a big heart and he loved Lucas.

Ehlo: John was playing unbelievable. He was a guy that could go for 20 and 10 each and every night. He was the perfect leader for Olajuwon and Sampson because he distributed the ball pretty evenly between them.

Blinebury: With Lucas, there was no question [of him relapsing]. Lucas was completely out of control.

Reid: Coach Fitch called a meeting. He said, “We can do two things. We can keep John and make sure he stays clean and finishes the season. Or we can let John go and let him go into the clinic, get helped.” Me and [Allen] Leavell, by this time, we’re the two senior players. We put our hands up and say he’s got to get help. These young kids are saying, “Man, you are only saying that because you want his spot.” I said, “No, I don’t want to see him dead.”

Ehlo: We were all selfish at that point. We were going to play for a championship. We were all thinking that John had been the leader of the team and had proven himself every night.

Leavell: We talked and said he might be looking at something more than just a suspension from basketball. It was important to get his self together.

Fitch: John, God bless him, we caught him early enough. I caught enough heat for knocking him out, but I still think John would have been worse off if I hadn’t cut him when I did cut him from playing.

John Lucas (guard, Rockets): Bill Fitch saved my life. He was the one coach that told me that enough was enough.

Fitch: I wish he would stop saying that. His enemies keep coming after me.

With 17 games remaining in the regular season, the 40-25 Rockets were trying to stave off Denver and Dallas for the Midwest Division title (and earn a 2-seed in the ’86 playoffs). The Twin Towers were coming off their second straight All-Star trip. Lloyd and Wiggins had emerged as an effective platoon at the 2-guard, and McCray had become a legitimate defensive stopper. Just one problem: The Rockets didn’t have their point guard anymore. As always, Bill Fitch had a plan.

Dawson: We had lost just about all of our guards. Leavell moves up and he’s playing great. It’s unbelievable how he steps up. [Then] he breaks his wrist and we’re out of point guards.

Leavell: I had a broken bone in my wrist. It wasn’t healed. Earlier in San Antonio, someone stole the ball and I was on all fours watching them go down to score and someone landed on me when I was on the ground.

Reid: Bill Fitch called me over and said, “I’m going to start you at point.” I said, “You are? OK.” He said, “But here it is: If I start you at point, it’s going to take you off the list for Sixth Man of the Year.” I knew Sixth Man of the Year, if I win, that’s going to be a million dollars the next year. I looked at him and I asked him very honestly, “Coach, be honest with me. If you put me at point, do you think we can go to the championship? That’s what I need to know.” He said, “Yeah, you can take us to the championship.” I said, “Let’s do it.”

Fitch: My best friend Lucas made that decision for me. I always thought I’d like to get a Magic-sized guy playing the point where he could see everything.

James Worthy (forward, Lakers): We saw them emerging toward the midseason of that ’86 season. They had a really good team. They were deep, well coached. I think they beat us the last time we played in the regular season. They started to run with us and that was something we had never seen. Lloyd and Wiggins and Reid, they could run. We still thought we had the edge of experience.

Reid: When we got to the second round14 of the playoffs, I saw the [locker room's] board and Ralph wrote “We’re going to be number one.” I said, “Let me tell you what this means. Right now, it’s $75,000. The next round is $100,000. When we win, it’s $150,000 and your agent can’t touch it. The fans are the ones saying they’re number one. This is about getting paid, homeboy.”

McDowell: I was surprised to get out of [the second round]. Denver, still to this day, was the loudest arena I’ve ever been in. It was so loud that all I heard was crackling in my ear. There was no distinction of voice or sound.15

Ralph Sampson and Bill Fitch

Olajuwon: They had this offense. We called it “Locomotive” because everyone was moving, and in Denver, everyone is struggling to breathe up there.

Blinebury: I’m pretty sure Fitch even brought in oxygen tanks to have on the sidelines.

Olajuwon: Tough series. We flew from Denver to L.A. without going home. The Lakers were waiting for us.

A.C. Green (forward, Lakers): We wanted to let them know this wasn’t going to be their year.

Dawson: We go in there for our first game and get our tails kicked. I remember staying up with Coach Fitch back at the hotel, thinking about what we could do. Coach came up with a few things.

Fitch: We made one change with Rodney McCray. We brought him out to a different spot and made a passer out of him. They never adjusted.16

Worthy: They matched up pretty well in every position. I just remember them being really good, really tough to defend. We’d run. They’d run back at us. It was the first time I ever experienced it being tough for the Lakers to get out of the West.

THE MIRACLE SHOT

The Showtime Lakers owned the Western Conference in the 1980s. With Magic, Kareem, Worthy, and coach Pat Riley, they won three NBA titles and four straight conference titles. As Worthy enjoyed his best all-around season, some wondered if the ’86 Lakers were their best team ever. NBA fans salivated at the prospect of a third straight Finals between the Lakers and Celtics. After the young Rockets lost Game 1 in Los Angeles, everyone wrote them off.

Ehlo: We stole one from them, then we went home and won our two. We went back there with a 3-1 lead.

Reid: We were just dominating them.

Heisler: Hakeem was so incredible athletically, and he was after the ball all the time. They couldn’t keep him off the boards. He was a little too athletic and young for Kareem at that point.17

Kurt Rambis (forward, Lakers): Hakeem had a tremendous amount of offensive plays. We didn’t feel like we could stop everything. We just wanted to get him to do turnaround shots. That would eliminate a lot of what he wanted to do and prevent him from getting his own offensive rebounds.

Lloyd: All of them talked trash. It was like a war basically. Magic and them were intense. They were ripping and running. They had a great team. They stayed together for eight or nine years. That’s why they were so good.

Lloyd: Kareem used to kill Ralph. He used to get 40 on him every time. Me and Hakeem would sit next to each other on the plane. I said, “Y’all can’t do nothing with the veteran, big fella. He’s just killing y’all. Y’all haven’t even arrived yet.” So during the series, I guess I got under their skin. They started blocking Kareem’s hook. They were smacking his stuff all around. I guess it paid off. They did the job on Kareem in that series.

Jerry West (general manager, Lakers): I thought we lost our mentality about our best way to play — be really aggressive, run the ball up and down the court. Obviously their size had something to do with that. Olajuwon created so many different problems in terms of his skill and his enormous desire to compete and excel. And they had a team that fit nicely around him.

McCray: They were playing well. We were hanging around. Stay close on the road and in the fourth quarter anything can happen.

Lloyd: I remember stepping to Michael Cooper at the beginning of the game. We were going up and down the court and Magic kept pulling on my trunks. He did it like four or five times. I said if he did it again, I was going to stick him real good. Then he went out of the game and Cooper came in the game and Cooper started doing the same thing. When they called a timeout, I stepped to Cooper and said, “This is my house. We’re getting ready to run y’all off the court.”

Reid: I was sitting at the scorer’s table and Jack Nicholson says, “Robert, why don’t you go on and let us have this game?” I say, “Jack, give me five minutes speaking in your next movie and you can have this game.”

McCray: In the fourth quarter, they sent Kupchak in to get under Olajuwon’s skin and kind of ruffle his feathers to see if they could disrupt his rhythm.

Rambis: [Pat] Riley made a point of agitating everybody to the point that we were so on edge — and I say agitating in a good way — he got the team hyped up, ready to play. And Mitch was always a very physical, hard-nosed player.

Reid: I kept trying to tell Dream, “Don’t fall for it. Don’t fall for it.” But when Kupchak kept poking him in the stomach, Dream said, “Do it again, I’m going to knock you out.”

Olajuwon: I don’t mind people being physical. But this guy, he had no intentions of playing defense. [He was in] just to rough you up. I had 27 or so points already. He came in and was just too rough. I told myself, “I don’t mind physical. I don’t back down.” So, if that was the game plan it worked perfectly. I got kicked out.

Hakeem Olajuwon and Mitch Kupchak

Jess Kersey (referee): I tried to get between Hakeem and Kupchak and had Hakeem around the waist. They were throwing punches above my head because I’m only 5-10. I grabbed Hakeem when he was on his heels and the little bit of body weight that I had, it kind of moved him back a little bit and both of us went down to the floor. People were coming around and they were kicking at Hakeem.18

Rambis: It was a validation, like most NBA brawls, that basketball players can’t fight.19

Kersey: Somebody punched me in the head and I yelled up, “I don’t know which one of you just punched me in the head, but if I find out, you’re going to be ejected.” With that, Bill Fitch said to me, “Jess, I know who punched you.” Of course in the heat of the moment, I look at Bill and say, “Who was it?” He said, “It was Kareem and Magic.”

Leavell: That’s the way we played ball back then. You did what you had to do. If you had to play physical to get an edge, that was part of it. You didn’t have free dunks like you do now like everybody’s getting ready for a picture.

Kersey: Anyone throwing punches had to be ejected. That was automatic. I had to eject both of them.

Olajuwon: Back then, I didn’t even get suspended, just fined. You won’t be able to do that in today’s league. That would be the dumbest thing to get suspended in a series like that.

Mitch Kupchak (forward, Lakers): That was my last game in the NBA. That’s not the way you want to go out. Not that anyone remembers.20

Olajuwon: I got kicked out with Kupchak. Who had the better deal?

Tomjanovich: It was my job to escort [Hakeem] back to the locker room.

Blinebury: Hakeem is just thinking, I’ve blown this thing, sitting back there. He was just fearful of the wrath of Fitch coming in if they had lost the game with him sitting in the locker room.

Sampson: Everybody banded together and said, “Everybody has to step up.”

Magic Johnson sank a baseline 20-footer to give the Lakers a three-point lead, but Reid’s clutch 3-pointer tied it at 112-112 with 15 seconds remaining. The Lakers had a chance to close the game but Byron Scott missed a jumper with one second left — or maybe even less than that.

Leavell: I was just lucky enough to get the ball and call a timeout before time ran out.21

Dawson: You never knew in those days if it was a full second or how much time was on. It could have just been a tenth of a second.

Reid: Coach wanted Rodney to throw the inbounds. Ralph was going to come down, screen Allen, and Allen was going to take the shot.22

McCray: I’m trying to get the referee to hurry up and give me the ball before the Lakers figure out that the defense they were in would basically allow me a direct line into Ralph.

Kersey: He was yelling, “Hurry up, hurry up.”

McCray: Worthy was in limbo. He was asking Coach Riley, “Do you want me on the ball? Do you want me to go back into Ralph’s lap?” They were in a little bit of a frenzy.

Worthy: It was a state of confusion — for about a second, I was in no-man’s land. I was nowhere. I look back at that kind of like I do that ’84 pass to [Gerald] Henderson23 — there’s a couple of seconds I wish I could take back. Looking back, I wish I could have at least put more pressure on the passer. Maybe he wouldn’t have gotten that pass to Ralph so easily.

Blinebury: Kareem is backing off because he’s trying not to commit a foul and send somebody to the foul line. Worthy is kind of frozen.

McCray: Once the referee gave me the ball, I just threw a direct pass to [Ralph].

Sampson: I knew I was above the box. I got position and turned. I just wanted to get it directed toward the rim. I couldn’t come down with the ball. I had to turn and shoot it.

McDowell: He’s literally on his toes by the time the ball gets there and spinning and throwing it over his shoulder. He wasn’t even close to squaring up. Maybe his right shoulder was facing the basket.

Rambis: It was just kind of a bullshit type of shot, like, “There’s no way this is going to happen” kind of thing prior to it happening.

Sampson: It hit the front, the back, and dropped in.

Worthy: I don’t know if anyone else other than Ralph could catch and turn and twist it up and knock it down.

West: He could shoot that 100 times and never make that again. But good fortune is what makes sports. It was the shot that everyone remembers, but it certainly wasn’t the shot that decided that playoff.

McCray: During practice, we’ve seen him shoot crazy shots before. My first initial thing after the game was to say, “Hey, you finally got one of those shots to go in.”

Leavell: If he shot that 500,000 more times, he probably wouldn’t hit it again.

Sampson: Every kid in the world wants the ball in the last three seconds and practices just throwing the ball at the basket. Rodney will tell you that it wasn’t my shot, it was his pass. So I give him all the credit.

Dawson: I was afraid [Mitchell] Wiggins was going to touch the ball on the rim. Wiggins jumped at it but he didn’t touch it.

McDowell: When it dropped through, boom. You propel off the bench and that arena was so quiet.

Dawson: That idiot in the white jacket running out there is me. I didn’t know what to do. I was running around looking for somebody to grab.

Lloyd: I almost touched the scoreboard, I jumped so high. That was one of the happiest days of my life, dethroning the world champions.

Green: I was as paralyzed as Michael Cooper was.24

McDowell: I can still see Cooper lying on the floor in the lane.

Lloyd: I seen [Cooper] lying on the ground. Him and Magic were talking all that mess about how they were going to take it one game at a time and they were going to come back. They were blown away. They could have never imagined how we dethroned them like that.

Green: Everything within you, in all measurements of your fanhood, persona, basketball psyche, and knowledge from a fan to a player says, “No way.”

Tomjanovich: We were watching the play [in the locker room] and once Ralph shot the ball, Hakeem started moving and bouncing around. When it went in, his feet were moving so fast, he had no traction. We were sort of running around, whooping and hollering. But if you’ve seen a dog on marble or linoleum, it was like that. He was just so glad we didn’t lose this game with him in the locker room.

Olajuwon: I remember when everybody was running toward the locker room, I ran out to meet everybody. We’re in celebration. Nobody ever mentioned I did anything stupid.

Pat Riley (coach, Lakers): Bill Fitch tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Tough way to lose.” I was tremendously disappointed. Sampson’s funky shot raised a question for the Lakers and for me. How were we going to deal with losing?25

Thomas: Jerry Buss and I were 30 feet from the shot. Jerry turned around and said, “Congratulations, Charlie,” and we shook hands. Jerry and I were good friends the whole time I was in the league. I went up to the Forum Club with five or six people after and bottles of champagne started being poured to us by people in the club. I couldn’t believe it. It was classy. They started hollering, “Charlie, beat Boston.”

Rambis: They had a team that was set up to win for a long period of time.

West: With the size of those two guys up front, I think everyone looked at them and said, “Oh my gosh.” But we felt we were capable of competing with anyone — we certainly proved that the two years following [both Lakers titles] with very little change to our team. When you watched Houston play, you thought the two big guys together was a tremendous combination. But other times, you thought, offensively there were things you can do. Like if they missed, they wouldn’t be able to get back defensively. But they were a team that looked like they were on the verge of being able to win for eight to 10 years.

Heisler: Bottom line, the Twin Towers thing scared the shit out of the Lakers and the rest of the NBA.

THE “BIG-LITTLE MAN FIGHT” FINALS

Coming off a 67-win season and a blistering 11-1 record in the first three rounds — including a 25-0 run in Game 5 of the clinching conference finals game against Atlanta — the Celtics were heavy favorites heading into the Finals. But everyone in Houston had rallied behind the Rockets. Ehlo remembers the team capitalizing on the momentum from the Chicago Bears’ “Super Bowl Shuffle” video with something called “The Rockets Strut.” Remembers Ehlo, “We actually spent a lot of time filming it. The “Super Bowl Shuffle” was done really well. Ours was kind of pieced-together and turned out to be a disaster. It wasn’t a good showing, but it was fun making it. I’m hoping it’s been destroyed, but it was funny. They gave us each a line like, ‘My name is Lewis Lloyd and I’m filling the void.’ It was stupid stuff like that.” And no, it hasn’t been destroyed.

Meanwhile, the Celtics easily captured the first two Finals games in Boston before Houston squeaked out Game 3 behind Sampson’s 24 points and 22 rebounds and Wiggins’s late tip on an offensive rebound. That set up a suddenly dramatic Game 4 in Houston.

Sichting: As a Celtic, we were a little bit surprised and a little bit disappointed that we weren’t playing the Lakers. It was my first year, but the guys who had lost the year before really wanted to play the Lakers. We beat them both times in the regular season.

Robert Parish (center, Celtics): I was disappointed. I wanted to redeem ourselves [against the Lakers after the '85 Finals], but it didn’t work out that way. It was the Rockets’ time, obviously.

Olajuwon: I have great respect for that team. If you want to put an ideal basketball team together, that would be the team. A basketball team is supposed to be big. They had a big front line. And they’re very smart. They don’t waste opportunities. If you take a bad shot, they’re going to capitalize.

Lloyd: You talk about our Twin Towers. They had Kevin McHale,26 Robert Parish, Bill Walton. Big, big, huge guys.

Parish: We didn’t have a mismatch with those two 7-footers. We only had somewhat of a mismatch with Larry because [McCray] was somewhat shorter.

Petersen: Being a [Bill] Russell fan and a fan of Dave Cowens, I grew up appreciating those teams. I was drafted with Olajuwon; Dream and I were pretty close. I remember both of us walking into the Boston Garden for the first time. You’ve got to walk into the building from the street and you get off the elevator and it smells like stale beer. When we walked in the first time into the entrance of the bowl with all the banners and — I was a huge hockey fan, too, being from Minnesota — it took my breath away. But I’m standing next to Dream and not saying a word and he looks at me and says, “What a dump.”

Fitch: I recognized an awful lot of the plays they ran against us. In fact, I was tempted to go down to their bench every once in a while during a timeout and tell them they were messing up one of them. I figured Bird would probably kick me out.27

Sichting: Fitch was the only other X factor. A lot of guys liked him. They respected him. They kind of quit on him his last year there, I think. They all were respectful of what he did, but since we weren’t playing the Lakers, that added more motivation to win.

Parish: I have a great deal of respect for Coach Fitch. When we won the championship in ’81, he was the main reason why we won. We were down and he never let us doubt ourselves.

Rockets

Fitch: I knew Bird as well as I knew any player. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to stop him.28

Olajuwon: I was a shot blocker jumping three or four times in the air and they are passing the ball three times before they shoot a basket. How many times am I going to do that before it’s the fourth quarter and I’m tired? A shot that I would normally block from some players, they dish it off. You’re just jumping all over the place.

Parish: The Rockets never gave up. They were in each game. I definitely had more respect for them after the series.

Lucas: It was really tough for me — we just didn’t have enough movement and versatility at point guard.

Reid: I was good at point guard, but I wasn’t getting those 12 assists that Lucas [could get] easily with us and still get his 12 points. I got us into our offense. I wasn’t Magic. I could lead the break, but not at a shifty level.

Blinebury: They missed Lucas. It finally caught up to them. They needed him to settle them down and set the break. They just looked like they had finally gotten a little bit over their heads.

Ryan: Game 4 was the best NBA Finals game in the previous 10 years. It was one of those high-level games and the deciding thing in the game, from the Celtics’ point of view, was it was the only time all season that [Boston coach] K.C. Jones let Walton finish the game instead of Robert Parish. He went on a whim and Walton came up with two offensive rebounds and a couple of great finishes to end the game.

Olajuwon: Walton, I remember clearly, he made a basket that I touched. That was the deciding basket. Walton was such a smart player. He kept the ball up. That’s what experience is. Normally, I would block that shot from a lot of people. But with him, I touched it and it still went in. That game was most painful to me.29

Dawson: That was in our place. You remember the ones that hurt more.

After their emotional Game 4 victory, everyone expected the Celtics to finish things off in Game 5 and cement their status as one of the NBA’s greatest teams ever. The game ended up being remembered for something else: Sampson’s bizarre fistfight with Boston’s Jerry Sichting in the second quarter.

Parish: I couldn’t believe, of all people on the court, an altercation broke out between those two.

Danny Ainge (guard, Celtics): We [would] run a play where we set back picks on the free throw shooters to try and advance the ball down the court. After Ralph shot his free throw, throughout the series, we would have a guard screen him. Finally, I think he just got really frustrated and threw an elbow and the next thing you know, there’s a brawl going on.

Sichting: I was kind of shocked the whole thing happened. I was used to taking shots from big guys. When you’re small, you’re always going to get knocked down, have hard picks set on you, and all those types of things. We came down on a break and [Sampson] actually put his forearm down and hit me in the back of the neck because I went over to try and block him out. I wasn’t on the ball. I just tried to go over and got into his legs.

Leavell: I don’t believe that. Every time he went through a screen, he gave a little bump. Ralph just got fed up.

McCray: Big men, we don’t like short men — whether they’re boxing us out or being pesky, because they’re so low to the ground. Something had to precede that in order for something like that to happen during the course of the game.

Parish: Jerry is not known to be a dirty player or somebody that’s going to provoke the outburst that happened.

Sampson: Whatever tactics were used at that point of time were used. It’s the Finals.

Sichting: He hit me. They blew the whistle and called a foul. I turned, I kind of had both hands up, saying, “What are you doing?” because he just whacked me and then he just punched. Then, it just got crazy.

Parish: You have two mild-mannered personalities and it escalates to the level it escalates to … I was shocked.

Reid: He’s swinging — at 7-foot-4 — at a 6-foot-1 guard like he’s Joe Frazier.


Jerry Sichting vs Ralph Sampson Fight (1986)by kevin-garnett123

Parish: It was not a fight. If you are a parent, that would be like you fighting your child. It was such a mismatch.

Dawson: I remember getting a hold of Ralph’s waistline. I was trying to pull him back and he elbowed me right in the temple. I was seeing stars.

Ehlo: I lost a lot of money in that. [Dennis Johnson] caught an elbow in that whole thing. I handed D.J. a towel to wipe his eye where he got cut. When I took the towel out to him I had left the bench area.

McDowell: I ran straight down the baseline and grabbed Olajuwon. For $500, I’ll do it. Ralph was gone. I had to make sure Olajuwon doesn’t somehow throw a punch.

Dawson: [Losing Ralph] was another rallying point. I think we went on a 20-10 run right after that happened and went on to win that Game 5.30

Ainge: Nobody was saying a word, which was not like the personality of our team. It was quiet on the plane ride back. As soon as we landed in Boston, we had a practice and the practice was incredibly intense and focused and very short. K.C. [Jones] called it off because he knew that we were ready.

Dawson: Ralph was not a real welcome guy in Boston.

Sichting: In those days, some fans would go out and meet the team coming in. They weren’t charter flights; everybody flew commercial. [Boston] was a tough place to play.

The Night Ralph Sampson Snapped

For Game 6 of the Finals in Boston, my father and I were sitting right on the tunnel where the players walked on and off the court. People were holding “SAMPSON IS A SISSY” signs and the entire building was chanting “SAMPSON SUCKS!” even before Houston came out for warm-ups. When Ralph came out to earsplitting boos, there was legitimate hatred in the air. Ralph walked right by us and I remember thinking, That guy’s done. He looked rattled. You know the rest — Ralph played terribly, Bird played out of his mind and the Celts blew them out. But Celtics fans never stopped holding a grudge after the Sichting fight — they booed Ralph every time he came to Boston. During my junior year in college [1990], I spent Thanksgiving with my dad and we caught a Kings-Celtics game the next night. Ralph came in and everyone booed for old time’s sake. He only ended up playing a few minutes. He couldn’t move. It was actually sad. You just knew it was over for him. I still can’t believe how quickly Ralph’s career came and went — one minute he was this 7-foot-4 freak of a forward who played above the rim and handled the ball and did things we’d never seen, and the next minute, boom, he’s out of the league.

— Bill Simmons

Reid: It’s a different atmosphere when you got Boston fans really pinpointing you. When they’re after the team, it’s one thing. But when they’re attacking one guy and then when we land to go up to the gate, we had to go to the tarmac because of a bomb threat. Then we get to the hotel, another bomb threat, and that starts to get in your mind. What’s these fools doing?

Blinebury: [Sampson] just shrank when they went back up there. He just faded away. The Boston fans got on him and he was intimidated.31

McCallum: We show up there and Boston Garden is like 900 degrees and they go out and somebody has hung up a noose with a message to Ralph Sampson.

Sam Vincent (guard, Celtics): That was probably as loud as I’ve ever heard anything.

Ryan: The crowd was all over Ralph. He was public enemy number one at that point and he could not handle the pressure at all.

Sampson: It didn’t affect me at all.

Ryan: It was on the list of top-five Bird games. It was my personal favorite of all. If you go look at that tape, you will see a man play as good of an all-around game that is seemingly possible to play.

Petersen: Larry was fearless out there and so supremely confident. He was cold-blooded. That whole team had a swagger.

McCallum: Hakeem was playing so well that game. Without him, Houston would have lost by 70.

Worthy: It’s almost like [Houston's] goal was to beat the Lakers. When they got into the series against Boston, they just seemed to lose their composure a little bit. It’s just like in ’84, Boston kind of took us off our tracks with their physical play. I don’t think they were ready for that. They didn’t have anybody on that team that really had that experience, other than the coach himself. Sampson was just totally distracted. They could just never find their game.

The Celtics took the Finals in six games, defeating the Rockets in the Boston Garden behind a Bird triple-double to claim their 16th title.

Lloyd: When it ended, we felt we were going to be here for the next five, six, seven years.

Olajuwon: We had the confidence that we could beat anybody. The foundation was there. We are the future. We believed that.

McCray: I was like, This is how it’s going to be for years to come. Us and the Lakers battling to get to the NBA Finals.

Tomjanovich: That team was ready to go on a run and compete for championships.

Ainge: It was just the savvy veterans going up against the two up-and-coming stars. In my unbiased opinion, of course, I think the ’86 Celtics team was as good as a team that’s ever played. You saw the Rockets upsetting another dynasty in the Lakers right before us and then losing in six games to the ’86 Celtics. It was reasonable to believe that that team was the team of the future.

Ehlo: Anywhere we went, people were trying to buy your dinner — and that was even for me being the 12th man on the bench.

Reid: We all had a great summer. We had a great camp, and that first game against L.A., we beat them by 24. We knew it was on.32

Petersen: We were going to be back every year. We had Sampson. We had Olajuwon. We had depth. We had young players. It was all gone in two years.

ONE TOWER (AND TWO LOST GUARDS)

Sports and drugs intertwined in the mid- to late-1980s with scary and tragic results. Len Bias’s fatal overdose grabbed the headlines, but a handful of NBA stars had their careers derailed by substance abuse — and not just known offenders like Lucas, Micheal Ray Richardson, and Roy Tarpley. A 1987 New York Times headline screamed, “IN SPORTS, COCAINE’S HERE TO STAY.” According to the Times, “since 1980, more than 100 professional football, basketball and baseball players have publicly admitted using cocaine, with most entering addiction-treatment centers.” In that same piece, the president of the NBA Player’s Association, Larry Fleisher, admitted, “I don’t mean to sound defeatist, but there is going to be drug use. You’re not going to eliminate it. All we can do is try to better the situation.”

NBA commissioner David Stern began issuing career-crippling penalties for those who did not seek treatment before being found out. Meanwhile, the Rockets stumbled out of the gate, starting out 10-17 and launching a slew of “What’s wrong with the Rockets?” articles. They won five of their next six, easily cruising past Dallas at home on January 10, 1987. Lloyd and Wiggins combined for 24 points.

Dawson: We had heard that the league was fixing to come down [with drug suspensions]. We picked out some other teams we thought it was probably going to be. We didn’t know it was us.33

McCray: One day, we were like, “Man, where are coach and them at? We’re starting shootaround late.”

Lloyd: Bill Fitch said somebody wanted to talk to us. They said, “If you don’t take this test, you’re going to be banned. If you take the test and test positive, you’re still going to be banned.” We didn’t have no choice. Me and Mitch should have protested. But they scared us that we were going to be banned anyways. We took the test and it came up positive. Then we went into rehab.

Reid: They were leaving the club and this guy came up and told them, “Hey, man, I’ve got something outside. This is the good shit. It’s the best. Just take a little bump.” And they told me, they took a little bump. The next day, [former NBA security chief] Horace Balmer and them are at practice. They were there at 9 a.m. when we started practice. You cannot leave New York City in the morning to be in Houston that early in the morning. So you would have had to be there the night before. I knew then. I knew then that they got set up.

Lloyd: We were definitely set up. Probably somebody on our team set us up. I don’t know. It was unbelievable.

Fitch: I stayed up all night with [Wiggins] before they were coming in. He said, “Don’t worry about it, Coach. I’m clean.”34

Leavell: It was like there was no question that they were going to fail the drug test. The moment they came in, I could see on their faces they were saying “crap.”

Reid: It was as if you broke the law the night before and you felt you got away with it, and here comes the man.

Lloyd: It was a new rule. We didn’t even know about that rule. The rule is like this: If you go to them and tell them you’re on drugs, they put you in the program. John Lucas, Walter Davis, Micheal Ray Richardson, all of them got more than one chance. We only got one chance.

John Lucas

Reid: How many chances did Lucas get? How many chances did other guys get?

Lloyd: They destroyed our lives. They just took us right out of the game. It was devastating to our lives.

Stern: When we created the anti-drug program, we knew we needed discipline measures that would create a very strong deterrent from participating in those activities. Every one of our key stakeholders — from owners to players to our fans — understood the importance of eliminating drug use from our game. The lifetime ban, with the possibility of reinstatement after two years, was probably considered by many to be very harsh at that time. But looking back nearly 30 years later, I’m certain we made the correct decision.

Lloyd: I shouldn’t have been doing drugs. If I was to tell the whole story and write a book, I’d have a lot of people mad at me. But I wouldn’t do that. Where I come from, if you tell, they kill you. I wouldn’t want to mess nobody’s life up. As a matter of fact, they even asked me. A representative in the rehab program asked me if I knew of anybody else. I told him no because I wouldn’t want to out nobody else in that position and destroy their life.

Petersen: John Lucas failing two drug tests and being kicked off the team should have been a cautionary tale. It was a kick to the gut with Mitchell and Lewis.

Thomas: I could do nothing but agree with the commissioner on what had to be done. But it took its toll on an awful good team. Both of those guys played hard. They played hard on the court and, I think, after the game.

Leavell: It was the culture of the times itself. It was much freer. If it was something you wanted to partake in, you wouldn’t have had a problem getting it. That’s for sure.

Reid: The league had to stop us from going to the Oakland Hyatt. You would walk in that hotel and you had the hookers, you had the pimps, you had the drug dealers. We didn’t have chartered flights then. We would go out to a club or a restaurant and with the two big fellows, with their celebrity status — and everybody was coming to see us play. We would go into a restaurant, if we went to a club, “Hey, man, that was a great game. I’ve got a little something-something for ya.” That’s how it was. It’s scary. That part of that life off the court was scary because you basically did not know who this individual was, trying to set you up.

Thomas: Somebody informed on them, maybe more than one person. I don’t know. I wouldn’t ask [who the informant was] any more than I would have asked Jerry [Buss] for Magic Johnson. David and I are just too close of friends. I was curious. I was very curious. But he couldn’t tell me if he wanted to. I would have liked to have known. It wasn’t anybody on the club. I know that. I know that they were hanging out in all the bad clubs and everything like that. That was a fact.

Olajuwon: It’s something you didn’t know that was going on around you. I was more concerned for them at that time before I even looked at what was the consequences for the team.

Ehlo: I didn’t hang out with them, but I had seen them in some places and you hear things about what they were doing. I didn’t think it was that bad, maybe something like marijuana. I knew Lewis had kind of a background in that area. Because [Mitchell] played so hard and did so much, I didn’t know he had that type of problem.35

Heisler: Houston’s a big party city. That was Charles Barkley’s line about why he later went to Houston. I think he said, “No state income tax and the titty bars don’t close.”

Ehlo: Houston at that time, the money was rolling. The oil was $300 a barrel. The construction, there was no zoning. People were rolling in the dough and that’s kind of where that city was. You could get caught up in it. Myself, just being a young and dumb guy at that age, I remember staying out all the time because the city was rolling in cash and there were just a lot of things to do.36

Thomas: They were just young guys and it was those times, I guess. I think they helped clean the league up. They don’t give them credit for that, do they? When you take two key guys off a potential championship team, I guess that got a lot of young people’s attention.

McCray: When the call came down that they were gone for two years,37 it was like, “Wow.” It was a shock. I really can’t describe the word.

Reid: They broke that team up. They did what they wanted to do. You took millions away from those two guys for a onetime mistake. And now look. They have not did that to nobody in soccer, basketball, football, baseball. For life? For the first time?

Lloyd: It’s a harsh punishment, real harsh. They were setting an example. But when you look at the all-substance-abuse team, our guys went down the hardest. I look on Facebook and Google and I see the all-substance-abuse team, I didn’t know that many guys went down for drugs until I saw that list.

McCray: We were looking at it from a basketball point of view. Not from the point that these guys needed help. We were all young. We were all mad at the time. We had a good thing going, a dynasty in the making, and then the guys go out and do this.

Leavell: It was sad because they were probably the best pair of two guards in the NBA at that time. We knew it was going to hurt us, and it did.

Petersen:’85-’86 was the best time of my life. Then it was one of the tragic parts of my life from that point.

Thomas: You talk about a disaster. Without those two guys, we had to start rebuilding all over again.38

Reid: They broke us up intentionally because they wanted Bird and Magic. They knew L.A. would never get past us.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse for the Rockets, Sampson started belatedly feeling the effects of a frightening fall that happened in Boston on March 24, 1986. Steve Harris had missed a shot and Sampson leaped for an offensive rebound between Boston’s McHale and Scott Wedman. “I know that I was up higher in the air than usual,” Sampson told the Houston Chronicle afterward, “and maybe got a little off-balance as I was reaching for the ball.” Sampson reported temporary paralysis in his right leg afterward and was feared to have broken his back. (X-rays were negative.) He resumed playing a week later but never totally shook the effects of that fall.

Sampson: I was undercut and landed on my left side. I only remember being in the hospital in Boston, the next thing, and not being able to feel my side for a good bit of time.

Blinebury: He came down with a really, really sickening thud on the back of his head. We thought the guy might have been dead. It was like a watermelon being dropped off of a roof.

Ryan: It was an eerie moment, one of those “dead silence” moments. I don’t think he was ever the same in Boston Garden after that.

Reid: We didn’t have the trainers like these young men have today. We didn’t have the equipment. When he fell on his back and they were putting him on the stretcher, I was watching his hand and it was trembling. Not the rest of his body. Just that arm.

Fitch: Ralph came out of Virginia limping. The first time he had his knee aspirated wasn’t when he was in the pros.

Reid: I found out later that his left hip was a quarter-inch higher than the right. I notice now how he’s loping when he runs, baloop, baloop, baloop, like there’s a flat tire on one end.

Blinebury: He started to play and his hip injury was there, and overcompensating for the hip, that began the deterioration of his knees and all those surgeries.

Dawson: We were in Denver, I remember Fat Lever jumped and stole the ball right in front of our bench. There was a wet spot, I started hollering for the referees to get the moppers out there. But, of all things, we steal it back just past midcourt and Ralph comes back and hits that spot. And I think that’s what did his knee in. He tore it up.

Sampson: [I came back] too quick. I had my first knee operation and came back in eight weeks. These days, guys would have stayed out a year. But I wanted to play. I thought we had an opportunity to win and I did what I had to do at that point of time.

Olajuwon: When he was injured, he couldn’t jump as high as he used to and was not as mobile as he used to be. That [power forward] position is very difficult for a tall and skinny person against a guy that’s shorter and very wide, and power forwards back then were big, heavy guys. When we would switch, I would be guarding some power forwards and I would say, “Wow. They’re strong. I don’t want that. I don’t want to deal with that. Ralph!”

Reid: One game he played after he got hurt and came back, he came down the floor, got a rebound, running down on offense. The other team threw it, Ralph caught it, and he’s coming back on defense and he got it and spun around on that one foot like he was one of the Three Stooges, “Woo, woo, woo, woo.”

Dawson: Once he got going, he could run. But stopping and turning around and changing directions was hard. It changed his whole game.

After the Rockets’ second-round elimination, Patterson told the Houston Chronicle, “We will never trade Ralph Sampson — period, period, period, period, period.” But in December of ’87, just a few months after Sampson signed a new deal, the Rockets flipped him to Golden State with Steve Harris for Sleepy Floyd and Joe Barry Carroll. Sports Illustrated called the trade “the sort of megaswap that happens every decade or so.” Just 18 months after beating the invincible Lakers, the Twin Towers had been broken up.

Sampson: I was disappointed to go anywhere.

Olajuwon: Somebody just came to tell him he’d been traded. It wasn’t the best way. He handled it very well.

Sampson: I think anybody’s a little bit angry they’re traded. They knew, but they didn’t tell me.

Fitch: We had seen him every day at practice and he’s playing against Hakeem and Jim Petersen, who was more than holding his own at the time. It was just a matter of time before he was going to have to give up on that knee anyhow.

Don Nelson (Warriors coach, 1988-1995): We had information that his knee was not good. You could watch him play and he wasn’t dominating, that’s for sure. We knew that.

Fitch: I’d make that deal tomorrow again because of what we needed.

Sampson: At least have the respect to tell me. Not getting off the airplane; saying, “Oh, we heard that you were traded.” You’re the coach. You know what’s going on, or you should. At least have that respect. I don’t think I was given that.

Blinebury: At the end there was no relationship. They didn’t get along almost from the start. Ralph came into the league and he had this reputation for being aloof. I think what it was was painful, unbelievable shyness. And then you come in with Fitch, who’s an in-your-face type of guy like most coaches at that time. [Fitch] never said anything to the outside world that he really didn’t respect Ralph that much. He just wasn’t the macho, low-post, I’m going to beat you up center that he was accustomed to.

Reid: We lose Lewis and Wiggins, we trade Ralph, we get Sleepy and Joe Barry Carroll, and then the next year, we do another trade. We basically traded us for Golden State, and how many times did Golden State go to the playoffs?

Nelson: I actually thought that it was important that we make a move of any kind to get rid of Joe Barry Carroll. He had outlived his usefulness in Golden State. He had become an unpopular player. He had the nickname of “Joe Barely Cares.” I knew Ralph was hurt, had been struggling, and probably was never going to return to what he was. I still pulled the trigger because I thought it was important to make that move.

Mitch Richmond (guard, Warriors): We needed a taller guy to play inside and outside and Ralph gave us that. 39We were fighting with the Lakers and we had Manute [Bol] and Ralph. If Ralph was the younger Ralph, there’s no doubt that we would have won a championship.

Sampson: Chris Mullin, Mitch Richmond, Larry Smith, Chris Washburn. Some great guys on that team. We bonded and played well together. It makes a difference with a Hall of Fame coach ([like Nelson] that knows the game really well, knew how to play the game, but also understood the players.40

Nelson: He was great. He’s an incredible human being. He did everything that he could, gave us what he had, and was wonderful to work with.

Richmond: We knew [Ralph] was struggling with his knees at that time. He still put the time in and put the work in. Everybody has to come to the end of their career. I know that he wanted to give us a little more than he could.

Ralph Sampson

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Nelson: The money that he was making, it was just a matter of time before we had to move him. It was a short period of time, but very enjoyable.

Richmond: He taught me a lot of lifetime lessons. He would tell me not to give anyone power of attorney or things of that nature — some of the pitfalls that some of his teammates went through. He used to tell me a lot of things I should watch. He gave me a lot of input as a rookie. I always talked with him when we were on the plane.41

Reid: [In October 1988], Rodney called me because I was in Charlotte by then. He said, “We just took our team picture. I was on one end and Jim [Petersen] is on the other end.” I said, “You got your bags packed? Because your ass is about to go somewhere in the morning.” That was a joke. If you were asked to stand on the end, you were on your way out. Go home and turn on ABC News because your ass just got traded.42

Petersen: Rodney and I got traded to Sacramento, and I’ll never forget that flight. We’re on the flight to Sacramento and getting ready to land. We had both fell asleep and we’re looking out the window and all we see are cornfields. Rodney looks at me and goes, “Goddamn.” That moment meant the dream that we had been living was over.

Eleven months later, Petersen was traded to Golden State for his old teammate Ralph Sampson. Once upon a time, he had been Ralph’s backup. Now they were being dealt straight-up for one another, just two big guys with bum knees on their way out of the league.

Jerry Reynolds (coach, Sacramento Kings, ’86-’87): It was really tough. Ralph was one of the most professional players I’ve been around. The guy worked hard and tried to get healthy and get his game back, but quite honestly, he just didn’t have any legs at all. It was really sad for such a great player, certainly one of the great college players of all time.

Ainge: Playing with Ralph in Sacramento gave me a real appreciation for Ralph as a person. Here was a guy who was a great, great, college legend, a star NBA rookie, an All-Star player in the NBA, and he was struggling physically with his knees. But that guy worked and he was being paid. He sort of made the money already. But he was determined to continue playing. I was very impressed with how hard he worked and how determined he was to get back on the court.

Reynolds: We worked out a buyout deal — I’m sure it was Ralph feeling he could play better and play more than he was playing for us. Our feeling was, quite honestly, that that wasn’t going to happen. I wish I’d been wrong. He went to Washington for a little while, but his career was over.

Dawson: I always felt a lot of admiration for [Sampson] because with a three-time player of the year, the expectations were so high that nobody could have lived up to what people wanted. People forget. I go to bat for him all the time.

Ryan: Ralph didn’t want to be 7-foot-4. But he accomplished what he accomplished. I think Ralph was a prisoner of his psyche. A lot of big guys are. He was one of the great examples. He played like a man who wished he was a foot shorter.

Blinebury: In his heart of hearts, Ralph would have loved to be a point guard or at least a shooting guard.

Parish: [Ralph] reminds me of Sam Bowie a little bit. All that’s different is, Ralph was able to play a little longer and be more of an impact player than Sam Bowie was.

THE IMPACT OF THE TOWERS

Sampson played just 154 games over four-plus seasons after leaving Houston, before retiring in 1992. He fell into issues over child support payments, bankruptcy, and mail fraud later in life. Phoenix recently hired Sampson as an assistant player development coordinator. Meanwhile, Lucas turned his life around, became an NBA coach, and now tutors athletes on how to overcome their addictions. Lewis and Wiggins both rejoined the Rockets in 1989-90, but their NBA careers ended shortly and unspectacularly after that. Olajuwon claimed his elusive championships in 1994 and 1995 when Michael Jordan took his baseball sabbatical, doing it without any of his teammates from the ’85-’86 season. Those Rockets left nearly as soon as they came. But for that brief stretch, the rest of the league feared, respected, and tried to duplicate them.43

Donnie Walsh (general manager, Indiana Pacers): If one team that’s really good has two big guys, then the other teams will try to get two big guys.

Heisler: After 1986, the Lakers went into the next season bound and determined to find another 7-footer. They almost made the [Roy] Tarpley trade. That was going to be for Worthy and [Byron] Scott and that was at Magic’s instigation because they were going to get [Mark] Aguirre too. The deal was made by Jerry Buss and then Buss called up Don Carter, the owner of the Mavericks at the time, and asked him to let him out of the deal because he was afraid he was going to lose his general manager. West wasn’t happy about it. They didn’t do the deal and it wound up saving the Lakers because Tarpley went into rehab soon after. The Lakers really thought they had to get another 7-footer to match the Rockets. They looked everywhere and almost went through on this ruinous deal.

Dawson: We got the shooters around [Olajuwon] in the early ’90s with [Vernon] Maxwell, Kenny Smith, Mario Elie, and [Sam] Cassell. We started making 3s and we could kick it into Hakeem. That’s how we won our championships.

Olajuwon: When you win, you thank God. You’re on the other side so many times, which makes it more valuable. You’ve been close so many times.

Tomjanovich: We grew up here. Especially Hakeem and myself. We grew up in that organization. You rarely see that in sports, where somebody is right there in that spot where they lived and spent a lot of time.

Thomas: The team that won it was the identical team that I sold [in 1994]. If I had known they were going to win a championship, I might not have even sold it. Six months later, they were world champions.

Sampson: I think a lot of people thought What if? with the Rockets back in that day. Because the Rockets during that era were the only team that dethroned the Lakers in the Western Conference, with Moses Malone in the early ’80s and us in the mid ’80s. We had some issues with teammates and getting a good point guard, but that could have been a good dynasty.

Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

McCray: I don’t think, to this day, you’ve had two 7-footers with the caliber of Ralph and Dream on the court together.44

Reid: I talked to James Worthy at a golf tournament a couple years back — he was telling me, and Magic was telling me, how they really didn’t like to play us because we matched up too well for them.

Worthy: We got our mojo back after losing. That was embarrassing. I think Houston kind of lost their drive after they beat the Lakers. Beating the Lakers in the ’80s was a big thing.

McDowell: You sure weren’t expected to beat the Lakers four times in a row. The Lakers? Who saw that coming? Who saw that, really? Even to this day.

McCray: To this day, we still believe that if we would have had everybody clicking at the same time of the Finals, we would have won the championship.

Sampson: You marvel at some of the things that could have happened.

Reid: If we had not lost John Lucas, all of us would have had a ring. There is no way anyone was going to stop us.

Lucas: [Fitch] really had a major impact in my life 26 years ago. We had all the pieces to win a championship, but I might be dead now, so it’s a curse and a blessing.45

McCray: We were just the young guns, the new kids on the block, that were supposed to be together for years to come. Us being selfish and not taking anything away from those championship teams, whenever I run into a Robert Reid or an Allen Leavell or Ralph, we say that we could have beat those other teams. But when you win championships, that’s number one on the list.

McCray: When you talk about the Rockets, you talk about the back-to-back championship teams [in the '90s]. Not the team that could have been.

Lloyd: It was one of the greatest teams in the history of the game that didn’t get to make a run for three, or four, five years. If we would have had three or four years to stay together, we would have won a couple of championships. We had beat the Lakers and we had their number.

Blinebury: These guys self-destructed. These guys did it to themselves.

Parish: I always wondered how good they would have been had Sampson not had the knee problems he experienced. What if he had played as long as Hakeem did? What if those two were able to play together for the duration of their careers? Think about how many championships they would have won. It would have been real interesting, I’ll tell you that. I think about that sometimes.

Filed Under: NBA, History, General topics, Houston Rockets, Teams, oral history

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Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland. He is working on a book about the NBA’s prep-to-pro generation of players.

Archive @ JPdabrams

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