You can see right away what's the matter with Ralph Lee Sampson as a basketball player.
He doesn't give a damn.
It's evident. He couldn't. Else, how would he stand there with that deadpan look on his face all the time?
Doesn't he know that this isn't nickel-and-dime poker with the guys from the garage?
This is a millionaires' game, the bank at Monte Carlo, the bloody NBA playoffs, no less. This is as big as it gets. You're supposed to show you care.
Not Sampson. You can't tell from him whether his team is down by 20 and he hasn't had a basket in two periods or whether he's setting fire to the strings. It's all the same to him. Or so it appears. He's found a new way to play the game--with a shrug.
You want to shake him. I mean, Pete Rose would be scandalized. You're supposed to play this game with a rubber face like Magic Johnson's, or at least at the intensity level of a guy cracking a safe.
Sampson looks as if he is in church. High Mass. He doesn't shout. He doesn't complain. He looks as if he's thinking of something else altogether. You imagine the Dalai Lama would play basketball this way.
What does he think this is, a game, for heaven's sakes?
You're supposed to give the appearance of effort out there. Look at Willie Mays. He used to buy his hats two sizes too small so they would fall off as he chased after a routine fly ball. You're supposed to get your uniform dirty. Sampson could play in top hat and tails.
No one has even seen him sweat. He's America's icicle. Milk would keep on him. Butter wouldn't melt.
You'd think he'd learn to wince after a bad shot--or a bad call. You know, the way Arnold Palmer used to after missing a 50-foot putt. As if he couldn't believe God would do it to him. As if his insides were churning.
Sampson looks like a guy tapping his mouth with a napkin after a full meal. He looks above it all. At 7 feet 4 inches, maybe he is. But you get the idea he's slumming.
It's an impression that's particularly damning when the game is going bad. That's when you want your star player to kick the bench, snarl at the crowd, cuss the referee, draw a technical. It would be nice if he'd at least frown.
It's not as if Sampson smiles. He doesn't even do that. He looks as if the whole scene were a matter of complete indifference to him, as if he were stuck at a movie he didn't care for or had seen before, or a party with a boring seat companion. Guys getting haircuts show more animation.
But then you say, "Hey! This is a guy playing out of position. After a lifetime in the pivot, he is asked to shift to a power forward. Maybe he detests it, feels like a great chef demoted to fry cook, a star asked to play the best friend."
That won't work, because Ralph Sampson displayed the self-same attitude when he played center--bemused, detached, superficially interested in the goings-on around him. Not really involved.
And, then, you look at the stats--1,491 points, 18.8 average, 879 rebounds, 283 assists. Hardly the output of an innocent bystander, a disinterested spectator.
You begin to feel that this Sampson is the man in the iron mask. You begin to remember that the great Joe DiMaggio never changed expressions much whether he had just hit in his 56th straight game or gone 0 for 4.
His hat never flew off, and he never grimaced over a bad call. You would swear the outcome of the game was of secondary importance to him--until you toted up all the pennants and World Series he was in.
You remember they used to call Hogan the Wee Ice Mon in Scotland because he had the same inscrutable expression whether he made a 2 or a 6.
Plenty of stars played the game without getting as emotional as the third act of Carmen. Plenty of people struck you out or crashed over your position for touchdowns with the nonchalant indifference of a guy reading a timetable.
No one ever heard Bing Crosby strain for a note in his life. No one was ever aware that Spencer Tracy was acting. No one dared to call Nick the Greek just because his eyes weren't shining.
And no one in the NBA is fooled because Ralph Sampson doesn't take the court waving a pompon or leading the team in cheers or shaking his fist after a dunk.
The things he did to the Lakers Tuesday night--he swatted away five shots and nudged Kareem Abdul-Jabbar into the waiting pickpocket of a guard under the basket--were hardly the antics of a guy who had just a mild interest in the proceedings.
The 24 points, 16 rebounds, 9 assists and 1 steal, plus the 5 blocks, made him look more like a guy who thought he had to do it all himself.
The facts of the matter are, the public persona of Ralph Lee Sampson was shaped precisely because he did get too involved, did care too much and had to guard against it.
It's hard to believe, but Ralph Sampson used to be a basket case who, when he first came into basketball, could make Bette Davis look like a nun, Pete Rose a cigar store Indian.
"I used to hyperventilate in college, I'd get so worked up," he admitted as he sat in a locker room the other night after dismantling the Lakers. "I had to learn to calm myself down."
Other guys have to wind down after a game like that. Ralph Sampson has to wind up.
Ralph Sampson cares very deeply. He just tries not to let his face know it. He tries not to let Ralph Sampson know it. He tries not to let the league know it.
It's doubtful he can ever fool the Lakers again. But if the Houston Rockets win the world basketball championship this year, not so long a shot as it used to be, you'll have no trouble picking Ralph Sampson out of the crowd.
He'll be the one who looks as if he just heard that Paris fell. He'll just be trying to keep the good news from himself. He doesn't want to have to celebrate by blowing in a bag.