HOUSTON — As a fighter, Ralph Sampson is strictly from Palookaville: Floats like a butterfly, stings like a butterfly.
But as an inspirational figure to his teammates, as a martyr to the cause, Big Ralph is a regular Joan of Arc.
Thursday night at the Summit, in Game 5 of the NBA final, Houston Rocket center Ralph Sampson pulled the dumbest stunt of the series and maybe the season, when he starting raining punches down--literally--on the balding head of Boston Celtics reserve guard Jerry Sichting.
A quick tale-o'-the-tape: Sampson, in white trunks, weighed in at 7-4 and 235 pounds; Sichting (pronounced See-sting), wearing green trunks, tipped the scales at 6-1 and 175.
At the time of the bout, early in the second quarter, the Rockets had a one-point lead.
Sampson and Sichting hooked up near the Rockets' free-throw line as the Rockets were advancing the ball into their half of the court. The sequence went something like this:
Sampson drills Sichting upside the head with an elbow. Then another. A foul is called on Ralph. "I'll get you for that," Sichting tells Sampson.
Sampson decides not to wait. He tatoos Sichting with two quick rights. Except they were like those wash-off tatoos you get with bubblegum.
"He just elbowed me, they called a foul and he started throwing punches," Sichting said. "He was a long way away, I didn't think he could reach me."
Did the punches hurt?
"My little boy hits harder than that, and he is 3 years old," Sichting said.
"I only felt one (of the two punches). I couldn't tell if it was a punch or a mosquito."
Sampson also punched Celtic guard Dennis Johnson, who says he was trying to pull Sichting away. Johnson suffered a cut on his left eyebrow, and the left eyeball filled partially with blood.
"I don't think I'll need major surgery," Johnson said.
Until experts examine the computer-enhanced videotapes of the fight, we won't know for sure, but there's at least a possibility that Sampson may have been at least slightly provoked.
Sichting has fought before. He hooked up in a two-rounder with Laker Byron Scott earlier this season.
How many fights has he been in this year?
"I don't keep track," Sichting said. "You'll have to ask our stat man."
Now, a reserve guard who plays about 10 minutes a game and can't remember how many fights he's had this season either has a bad memory or a lot of tiffs. And remember, these are the Celtics, of clothesline-tackle fame.
However, Sampson is also a battler. He went after Maurice Lucas during a Laker game and had to be dragged away by Akeem Olajuwon.
Throwing those punches was a stupid, childish playground reaction. In the NBA, Ralph knows, it's: Use a fist, go to jail. If Ralph didn't know he was kicking himself out of the game right then, he should have known.
But no, Ralph was unrepentant.
"He hit me first," Sampson said in a quickie CBS-TV interview just after the fight. "I set a pick on Sichting . . . and he said something about getting me back. Walton grabbed me, and Sichting hit me. It was a bullshit call." The viewers heard every word.
After the game, Sampson said, "The incident on the court was unfortunate. I'm sorry it happened. The NBA is not that type of league. . . . I was very emotionally involved in the game and will continue to be in the series, but there will be no more fighting. I thought that a foul should have been called. I did what I had to do to protect myself. I'm sorry, and we're going to Boston."
Lucky for Ralph, because it was a bullbleep punch-out, too. Ralph abandoned his teammates. Ralph played rope-a-dope, and he was the dope.
So what happens? Do the Rockets panic? Crumble? Whimper? Desperately miss Ralph's offense and defense?
None of the above. The sight of poor Ralph being led away to the dungeon by the cops turns his teammates into raving, foaming-at-the-mouth maniacs.
From somewhere, they dig out an ungodly fast break, running around and over the wide-eyed Celtics. They attack the backboards and generally embarrass the shamrocks off the Celtics.
Akeem Olajuwon, in particular, picked up the slack left by Sampson's exit. Olajuwon got 32 points, 14 rebounds and enough blocked shots (8) to make you wonder if maybe soccer (he was a goalie) wasn't his best sport, after all.
"When Ralph goes out, Akeem becomes so much more of a dominant force," said Celtic forward Kevin McHale, who scored 33 points of his own. "There's more room for Akeem to operate.
"There were two timeouts right after the fight, then the officials warned both teams, and by the time we started playing basketball, we were out of sync, and it was like a Saturday afternoon game in the park for them. Something just happened after the fight. We let down, and they picked it up."
The Rockets picked up everything that wasn't bolted down in their frenzy to bury the Celtics and send the series back to Boston.
Indeed, it was one of the most incredible 20 minutes of basketball you're likely to see for a while. The Rockets were a team possessed.
The Celtics were lucky they only lost by 111-96.
The Rockets were lucky Ralph Sampson got himself kicked out of the game.
Ralph Sampson was lucky he wasn't the goat of the series.
Now, let's forget all about it and get on with the series. As Dennis Johnson said, summing it all up so well, "It was just an incident that happened."