HOUSTON — Apparently the skeptics were right all along. There isn't enough room for both Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon in the Houston Rockets' locker room.
Only a few feet separate the dressing cubicles of the 7-foot 4-inch Sampson and the 7-0 Olajuwon, the No. 1 selections in the last two National Basketball Assn. drafts, and that space is almost always occupied by a swarming horde of eager reporters. It causes locker room gridlock after every game.
But on the basketball court, where there were real doubts about the compatibility of the so-called Twin Towers, there have been hardly any problems. Look no further than the Rockets' record for proof. Going into tonight's game against the Lakers at the Forum, the once-dreadful Rockets are 33-23 and 2 1/2 games behind first-place Denver in the Midwest Division.
Not only have Sampson and Olajuwon been compatible, they also have shown some signs of domination. Sampson, last season's rookie of the year and now perhaps the world's tallest power forward, is averaging 21.6 points and 10.9 rebounds a game. Olajuwon, last summer's No. 1 pick, is averaging 20.9 points and 11.7 rebounds.
Considering that Sampson is 24 and Olajuwon 22, the statistics are all the more impressive. By virtue of losing the most games in the Western Conference the last two seasons and then winning consecutive coin flips, Houston has been able to construct a contending team quickly. Although the Rockets have yet to ascend to the NBA's elite level, that seems little more than a matter of time.
Some think they may mature enough yet this season to make a serious challenge by playoff time. Others, however, figure that it will take another year or two, maybe longer, since there still are some nights when Sampson and Olajuwon resemble twin tents.
This from Coach Dick Motta of the Dallas Mavericks, rarely one to lavish compliments on the opposition: "I've said that the Rockets are the only team that can legitimately challenge the Lakers for the Western Conference title (this season). That front line, when history is written, when they've grown up, might be the best ever assembled on one team. Ever."
That's certainly a departure from the doubts and questions that were being widely expressed last summer, after the Rockets had drafted Olajuwon to go with Sampson. At the time, many of the questions seemed valid.
Wouldn't two centers, even if their styles differed, stumble over one another inside. Wouldn't their egos clash off the court? Wouldn't the Rockets have been better off taking Michael Jordan last summer with their No. 1 pick? Besides, what would this do to the standard formula of starting one center, two forwards and two guards?
As we now know, the answers are no, no, no and who knows.
Houston Coach Bill Fitch says now that most of those doubts were simply manufactured by the media, and General Manager Ray Patterson says they were instigated by rival NBA executives who hoped the experiment would fail.
"Every time I'm asked about Akeem and Ralph--and I'm still asked about it a lot--I say it's really nothing new," Fitch said. "When I was in Boston, we did the same thing with (Robert) Parish and (Kevin) McHale. People don't think about that, though."
Playing two big men up front certainly is nothing new--remember the pair of 7-1 Wilt Chamberlain and 6-11 Nate Thurmond in the early '60s?--but never have players as big, highly touted and diverse in basketball skills teamed up. Until now.
Early in a recent Houston victory over Portland, Sampson maneuvered behind Trail Blazer guard Darnell Valentine and blocked a jump shot, triggering one of many Rocket fast breaks. After passing to small forward Rodney McCray and filling the lane, Sampson banged a layup attempt off the back rim. But there came Olajuwon, soaring above the rim, briefly cradling the rebound, then dunking the ball.
So, not only can the two clog the key and dominate the air space above the rim, they also are capable of both starting and finishing fast breaks. No surprise here, either, according to the pair themselves.
"There were no doubts in my mind it would work this way," said Sampson, carefully thinking over a question he undoubtedly has been asked hundreds of times this season. "I came into this season with an open mind. You play with what's dealt to you, but getting Akeem has been the best thing for us. It's opened up my game, let me do the things I can do best and he can do best."
Olajuwon, asked the same question later, answered with uncanny similarity. Apparently, these guys are also twin thinkers.
"I think if we were fighting for the same position, it would be different," Olajuwon said. "But I've had no doubts playing together. He is a forward. I am a center. Everything just works out great, doesn't it? Everybody's happy."
So it seems.