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The NBA : Sampson Is Shorn of Some Great Expectations

December 15, 1987|Gordon Edes

The biggest men in basketball are supposed to be the most valuable, but isn't it striking how even the greatest of the titans have not been immune from trade.

Thirty-one years ago, the St. Louis Hawks gave Boston the rights to Bill Russell. Wilt Chamberlain was traded twice. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton, Bob Lanier and Nate Thurmond, Elvin Hayes and Robert Parish, Moses Malone and Jack Sikma--they've all been sent packing.

And, last Saturday night, Houston removed one of its Twin Towers from the Rockets' skyline, dealing 7-foot 4-inch Ralph Sampson and guard Steve Harris to Golden State for 7-1 center Joe Barry Carroll and guard Eric (Sleepy) Floyd.

Both Carroll and Sampson are big men who have failed to meet bigger expectations.

Carroll, long an object of scorn in the Bay Area--some said J.B. stood for Just Breathing--made the All-Star team for the first time last season, but his true value to the Warriors perhaps was gauged after Golden State lost a playoff game to the Lakers, and Coach George Karl tore the door off Carroll's locker.

This season, the Warriors had the worst record in the West (3-15), and Carroll's numbers were all career lows--15.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 38% shooting accuracy.

The Rockets' dissatisfaction with Sampson apparently came to a head last Thursday night in Utah, where teammates reportedly had to separate Sampson from Coach Bill Fitch.

Sampson had played 20 minutes that night, missing all six of his shots and committing four turnovers. In Houston's game against the Lakers earlier this season, Sampson had a 1-for-11 first half.

"It really came about three days ago," said Don Nelson, the Warriors' executive vice president, at a press conference Sunday. "I'd talked with Fitch about a month ago. I told him I'd heard they were having a problem with Ralph and that I just wanted to put our name in the hat if they were thinking about trading him.

"We said we'd give them a lot, but he said they weren't going to do anything. But something must have happened because all of a sudden they wanted him out of there right now."

An alleged distaste for physical play has long been a rap against Sampson, and it surfaced again after the Utah game, when he was manhandled by Karl Malone of the Jazz. In 11 direct meetings with Malone, Sampson was averaging just 13 points and shooting 38%.

"After Karl shut him down, that probably was the last straw," Bob Hansen of the Jazz said. "He was shying away from Karl banging him."

Malone said the Rockets were best rid of Sampson, who probably is best remembered here for the off-balance, buzzer-beating shot he made to eliminate the Lakers in the Western Conference finals in 1986.

"With Ralph and Akeem (Olajuwon) in there, Ralph, he's kind of standing around and watching because it's Akeem's show," said Malone, who contended that the Rockets will be better off with Jim Petersen at power forward.

"Petersen, he bangs more than Ralph," Malone said. "Ralph runs away from contact."

It may be that Sampson, who moved to power forward out of deference to Olajuwon, has suffered by playing out of position. The Warriors, who plan to restore him to center, obviously subscribe to that theory.

"I don't know all of the reasons he hasn't been more successful," Nelson said. "We'll probably find out during the rest of the season. But now we have a game plan. Before, we only had a bad team. We have a 7-4 terrific basketball player to build around and that's exciting. You look at the draft and there's really no good year for centers until about 1991."

Nelson has been involved in three major trades involving centers. He was a coach with Milwaukee when the Bucks acquired Bob Lanier from Detroit for Kent Benson and a No. 1 draft choice in 1980, and also was involved in the 1986 deal that sent Jack Sikma to the Bucks from Seattle for Alton Lister.

"If Kareem can get traded, it can happen to anyone," Floyd said. "I knew something was going on. I've been in the league for a while and I knew that me and J.B. were the one players on the team that were valuable. (The Warriors) were talking about a new direction. It was kind of like the writing was on the wall."

Laker General Manager Jerry West said Monday that the Warriors had been shopping Floyd and Carroll for some time.

"There were people who wanted to make a move, and people who weren't happy," West said. "But it's too early to say who got the better of the deal."

Like Carroll, Floyd was an All-Star last season, and had a spectacular game in the playoffs, scoring 51 points against the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals. But while Floyd would seem to answer the Rockets' desperate need for a point guard, there are those who say he may be a liability because of his alleged selfishness.

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