Sampson hardly a Hall of Famer

Numbers reveal overrated college career and mediocre pro stint

Updated: September 7, 2012, 11:35 AM ET
By Neil Paine | Basketball-Reference.com
Ralph SampsonAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesLong on potential and limbs, Ralph Sampson's career fell short. Should he be in the Hall of Fame?

When Ralph Sampson enters the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, it will feel a bit like a fait accompli -- something that was always ordained to happen -- whether Sampson actually earned it or not.

Ask anyone who was around at the time and they'll tell you Sampson was practically destined for Springfield ever since his days of averaging 30.4 points and 20.5 rebounds per game as a heavily touted high school senior in Harrisonburg, Va. Although he stood 7-foot-4, which eventually would make him the eighth-tallest player in NBA history, Sampson also was freakishly athletic -- he would later go on to jam from the free throw line in the 1984 NBA Slam Dunk Contest -- and possessed the quickness and dexterity of a much smaller man.

Such physical tools had pro scouts drooling over Sampson's potential during his time at Harrisonburg, and their collective longing for Sampson only intensified after he led the University of Virginia to an .830 winning percentage over four seasons in Charlottesville, winning three national college player of the year awards in the process. After Sampson's freshman year at Virginia, none other than Red Auerbach predicted that he would become the next Bill Russell; meanwhile, the quest to land Sampson in 1983 led the Rockets to engage in what we would now call "tanking," producing an impossibly bad 14-win season that guaranteed them a coin flip with Indiana for the No. 1 pick.

In the end, Houston got its man and he put together three healthy seasons as a Rocket (two as part of a "Twin Towers" combination with Hakeem Olajuwon), winning NBA Rookie of the Year in 1984, capturing All-NBA honors in 1985 and helping Houston upset the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1986 Western Conference finals with a twisting, series-clinching buzzer-beater that sent the Rockets to the Finals. But, in the 1986-87 season, Sampson hurt his knee while slipping over a slick spot on the court, the first of many injuries that ultimately would derail such a promising career.

Or so the Sampson myth would have us believe.


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Neil Paine writes for FiveThirtyEight, the data-supported sports, politics and culture site coming soon from ESPN.