Legends of Sport: Restarting the Clock: Episode 7: Legendary Upsets

By Veronica An

Ralph Sampson takes us back to the 1986 Western Conference Finals when the Houston Rockets were up against the number one seed and defending NBA champions, Los Angeles Lakers. Center Hakeem Olajuwon had been ejected from the game and the pressure was on. With less than one second on the clock, Sampson caught an inbound pass from Rodney McCray and sank a basket that flew past Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Sampson’s basket sent the Rockets to the 1986 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Sampson said. “It’s one of those shots that you dream about. Those shots during a game, they go forever. But it’s real time, but there’s always so much. It bounces here. It bounces there. Everybody is like on the edge of their seat.”

The Rockets had just finished a grueling series against the Denver Nuggets and had 48 hours to regroup before facing the Lakers. The Lakers won the first game and the Rockets would go on to win the next four and the series in five games. 

“Back in those days the Celtics and the Lakers were kings of the NBA,” Sampson said.”Playing against the world champions on their home court and then seeing Michael Cooper laying on the floor, that was one of the best feelings ever.”

The buzzer-beating basket made Rockets history. NBA.com ranked it as no. 11 in “The 60 Greatest Playoff Moments” and called the entire series one of the greatest playoff upsets in league history.

“They thought we would kind of just give in because we were the young bucks on the block. We were just getting ready to take that ride to the top,” Sampson said. “We were very fortunate to win that game. But we had a powerhouse team. I mean, Craig Ehlo, imagine, was our 12th man on our team.”

Although Sampson may best be remembered for his 1986 performance, top coaches had their eye on him from the time he was a senior in high school. Sampson recounts some of the unorthodox recruiting offers he received.

“I considered it out of high school,” Sampson said. “I considered it in my first year in college where lovely Red Auerbach and that crew came to my parents’ house and put a million dollars in a briefcase on the table and said, ‘You can come play for the mighty Boston Celtics and here’s a million dollars. If you don’t take this, you’ll never get it again.’”

Sampson decided to finish college at the University of Virginia but kept his teammates on the edge of their seats by test driving offers.

Ricky Stokes, his teammates at UVA said, “We were always holding our breath that Ralph was going to leave early for the pros.  He was test driving these cars like he was going to buy an expensive one once we got the big contract, and he’d take us out for joy rides. We were always relieved when he’d so back up in his old car and we knew he was staying.”   

When he finally decided to declare for the NBA draft, Sampson became part of the Rockets’ “twin towers” concept with Hakeem Olajuwon. He later played for the Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings, Washington Bullets, and Unicaja Ronda (Spanish league) before turning this attention to coaching and the Sampson Family Foundation in his hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia. Program initiatives include providing school breakfast and lunch to combat hunger, supporting cancer research, teaching young people to grow their own food, and other far-reaching projects.

“When I got back to Virginia eight, nine, ten years ago, I was hearing that there were kids going to school hungry. Now, where I live and am from is the largest agricultural county in the state of Virginia…it doesn’t make sense that kids go to school hungry,” Sampson said. “What’s wrong with that picture? So, now, the school breakfasts in the high school and the elementary schools, school lunches as well that we just kind of worked on and got that done.”

Sampson hosts a podcast with Jason Zone Fisher called “Center Court.” 

Listen to the full Legends Of Sport podcast here. Watch the video of the podcast on the @legendsofsport YouTube channel.

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