In 1984, he was Rookie of the Year. In 1985, he was voted Most Valuable Player in the NBA All-Star Game. In 1986, he led the Houston Rockets to the NBA finals.
In 1992, Ralph Sampson is desperately clinging to his basketball life. He has chosen to finish the season playing in Spain rather than risk being released this week by the Washington Bullets or spending the rest of the season as a 12th man and crowd curiosity.
Sampson freed Bullets general manager John Nash of choosing between him and reserve guard Andre Turner as odd man out by announcing his decision at an impromptu news conference in the Capital Centre press room Saturday night after Washington's 113-99 loss to the New York Knicks.
Pride, not money, is driving Sampson, 31, who wants to prove his once brilliant career is not over.
He is financially secure, guaranteed $5 million over the next eight years as his buyout from the Sacramento Kings, who once offered him a plot of land behind the ARCO Arena so that he would go quietly into the night.
The 7-foot-4 center, who was a three-time All-American at Virginia and the first player selected in the 1983 draft by Houston, had been cut down to size by a series of knee and back injuries.
After averaging 20.7 points, 10.9 rebounds and 2.03 blocks his first three pro seasons with the Rockets, Sampson has spent the last few seasons rooted to the bench, not even considered capable enough to be a backup center.
For the Bullets, who were hurt by injuries, signing Sampson for the $130,000 minimum with no guarantees was hardly a risk. But for Sampson, it became a Catch-22 situation.
Trying to regain his skills and the bounce in his legs, Sampson hoped to play meaningful minutes as Pervis Ellison's backup. But the Bullets, after a 6-17 start, could not afford to give the rusty center significant playing time with winning games so essential. So Sampson, acquired Nov. 19, played a total of 108 minutes in 10 games and not at all in the last six as coach Wes Unseld basically employed eight players.
Sampson expressed no malice. "I'm not stupid," he said. "I knew what the situation was here. I had to play to get in shape, but the Bullets also had to win and try to work in their young players.
"Playing in Spain, I should be able to average 35 minutes a game. And with my own trainer, Bruce Frankie, joining me, I should be able to work myself back in shape. Ultimately, I hope to get back to the NBA, and hopefully, it will be with Washington."
The Bullets had nothing but praise for Sampson's work ethic and attitude during his brief tenure.
"Like a lot of people, I'd heard and read a lot of negative things about Ralph as a pro," said Bullets coach Wes Unseld.
"But I discovered just the opposite. He's really a good, caring individual. The few months he was with us, no one practiced harder or was more into the game, even sitting on the bench. He was nothing but a positive influence on the team.
"At the same time, I think Ralph has made the right decision.