OAKLAND — The dreamers, the doubters and the curiosity-seekers who were drawn by the prospect of seeing a new Ralph Sampson did not leave disappointed Thursday night.
But neither did the Lakers, who responded to the maelstrom of emotion that surrounded Sampson's debut as a Warrior with a lightning bolt to the heart. The Lakers emerged from a 7-foot 4-inch shadow by outscoring the Warriors, 22-5, in the last 6:43, wiping out a 10-point deficit to win going away, 113-106.
"I'm glad we didn't get the Ralph Sampson era off to an explosion," Laker Coach Pat Riley said. "That's all we would have needed."
Sampson, playing with an intensity that matched the standing ovation at his introduction, scored 24 points, grabbed 8 rebounds and had 5 assists--remarkable numbers considering he has had barely enough time to learn which freeway exit leads to the Oakland Coliseum Arena.
"Maybe this is what he needs to play like that," Magic Johnson said afterward. "To be able to say, 'I'm the man. I'm going to get 25 points every night.'
"Before, he could sit back and say, 'Akeem (Olajuwon), you go work tonight,' and he'd sit back. He had that luxury (in Houston). He doesn't have that luxury anymore."
And when has any team had the luxury of letting up on the Lakers, even with a double-digit lead on their home floor? The Celtics couldn't do it six nights ago in Boston, and neither could the 3-16 Warriors, who were breaking in such inexperienced guards as Kevin Henderson (Cal State Fullerton) and Winston Garland (Southwest Missouri State).
"We showed championship heart," Mychal Thompson said. "No matter what the situation is, you can't let up on the Lakers, because we'll be back. Just like the Terminator."
Naturally, it was Johnson, with 31 points and 17 assists, who upstaged Sampson, although two big baskets by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar--who finished with just 8 points--also figured prominently in the comeback.
The Lakers were still down by four, 103-99, when Michael Cooper stole a pass by Garland and sent Scott flying toward the basket with no one in front of him. However, the Warrior trailing him, Ben McDonald, got his feet tangled with Scott's, and the Laker guard went crashing to the floor.
A breakaway foul was called, giving Scott two free throws--which he made--and the Lakers possession of the ball, which Abdul-Jabbar turned into a game-tying hook over Sampson.
"I knew I was in front of (McDonald)," Scott said of the critical call. "When I tried to see where he was, just as I caught the ball for that extra burst of speed, I was knocked down."
The knockout punch was soon to follow. After Garland missed with a jumper, a hustling A.C. Green chased down a loose ball, and Johnson threw in a left-handed shot off the drive to give the Lakers their first lead since there was 4:32 left in the third quarter.
Sampson, who had been devastating inside--jamming home lob passes, throwing in a turnaround jumper while triple-teamed, driving for a reverse dunk--hurried an ill-advised 20-footer, and Johnson rebounded.
Abdul-Jabbar couldn't convert an alley-oop, and Sampson beat the Laker defense down the floor for a game-tying layup, 105 apiece, with 1:51 to go.
The Warriors would get just one point the rest of the way, while the Lakers would get their fourth straight win. Abdul-Jabbar made the sky hook in the lane, Cooper rebounded a miss on the other end, and Magic drove for a basket and was fouled by McDonald.
Johnson missed the free throw, but Green--who had 14 points and 12 rebounds--tipped it in, and the Lakers' lead was six with 1:05 to go. A Johnson steal--he had five for the night--finished off the Warriors.
"They were in an everything-to-gain, nothing-to-lose type of situation," said Scott, who had 20 points, as did a sore-kneed James Worthy.
"It was definitely a lot tougher for us than it was for them."
Never mind Sampson. For a while, it seemed that the Lakers were about to usher in the Garland era. Garland, who had been cut once already by the Warriors before being re-signed when Sleepy Floyd was traded, hit five quick baskets in a four-minute stretch spanning the end of the third quarter and the first half-minute of the fourth quarter.
"They were playing with tremendous emotion, resolve and spirit," Riley said. "And they were throwing in running one-handers and jumpers."
But in the end, the wild shots didn't drop, and emotion gave way to execution, Laker style.
"We came back like the Lakers used to do," Johnson said. "Their guys were hitting all kinds of shots, they were playing basketball like they had nothing to lose, until we said, 'OK. Wait a minute. Let's not let this get out of hand.' "
It was not hard to imagine, however, that the Lakers may have their hands full with Sampson in the future.
"They've got a good rudder for their new ship," Thompson said. "Ralph will steer them in the right direction, as long as he plays the way he did tonight, with fire and emotion."
Magic, for one, expects he will.
"I know Ralph; I know what makes him go," Johnson said. "If he ever was with us, I would know how to make him go. I think he's going to work out here fine."
Sampson likened the situation here to his first year in the league.
"I don't think anyone knew what to expect then," he said, "and I think I'm back to that now."
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who went 787 consecutive regular-season games scoring in double figures, now has finished with single digits twice in the last eight games. He scored seven against Milwaukee on Dec. 4. Foul trouble was a contributing factor: Abdul-Jabbar drew his fourth personal 53 seconds into the third quarter and didn't return until there was 10:34 left in the game. . . . James Worthy's left knee was clearly bothering him almost from the outset. Worthy played just 30 minutes, not at all in the last 6:51. . . . The Lakers play the Clippers at the Sports Arena Saturday night.