Apparently the skeptics were right all along. There isn't enough room for both Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon in the Houston Rockets' locker room.
Only a few feet separate the dressing cubicles of the 7-foot 4-inch Sampson and the 7-0 Olajuwon, the No. 1 selections in the last two National Basketball Assn. drafts, and that space is almost always occupied by a swarming horde of eager reporters. It causes locker room gridlock after every game.
But on the basketball court, where there were real doubts about the compatibility of the so-called Twin Towers, there have been hardly any problems. Look no further than the Rockets' record for proof. Going into tonight's game against the Lakers at the Forum, the once-dreadful Rockets are 33-23 and 2 1/2 games behind first-place Denver in the Midwest Division.
Not only have Sampson and Olajuwon been compatible, they also have shown some signs of domination. Sampson, last season's rookie of the year and now perhaps the world's tallest power forward, is averaging 21.6 points and 10.9 rebounds a game. Olajuwon, last summer's No. 1 pick, is averaging 20.9 points and 11.7 rebounds.
Considering that Sampson is 24 and Olajuwon 22, the statistics are all the more impressive. By virtue of losing the most games in the Western Conference the last two seasons and then winning consecutive coin flips, Houston has been able to construct a contending team quickly. Although the Rockets have yet to ascend to the NBA's elite level, that seems little more than a matter of time.
Some think they may mature enough yet this season to make a serious challenge by playoff time. Others, however, figure that it will take another year or two, maybe longer, since there still are some nights when Sampson and Olajuwon resemble twin tents.
This from Coach Dick Motta of the Dallas Mavericks, rarely one to lavish compliments on the opposition: "I've said that the Rockets are the only team that can legitimately challenge the Lakers for the Western Conference title (this season). That front line, when history is written, when they've grown up, might be the best ever assembled on one team. Ever."
That's certainly a departure from the doubts and questions that were being widely expressed last summer, after the Rockets had drafted Olajuwon to go with Sampson. At the time, many of the questions seemed valid.
Wouldn't two centers, even if their styles differed, stumble over one another inside. Wouldn't their egos clash off the court? Wouldn't the Rockets have been better off taking Michael Jordan last summer with their No. 1 pick? Besides, what would this do to the standard formula of starting one center, two forwards and two guards?
As we now know, the answers are no, no, no and who knows.
Houston Coach Bill Fitch says now that most of those doubts were simply manufactured by the media, and General Manager Ray Patterson says they were instigated by rival NBA executives who hoped the experiment would fail.
"Every time I'm asked about Akeem and Ralph--and I'm still asked about it a lot--I say it's really nothing new," Fitch said. "When I was in Boston, we did the same thing with (Robert) Parish and (Kevin) McHale. People don't think about that, though."
Playing two big men up front certainly is nothing new--remember the pair of 7-1 Wilt Chamberlain and 6-11 Nate Thurmond in the early '60s?--but never have players as big, highly touted and diverse in basketball skills teamed up. Until now.
Early in a recent Houston victory over Portland, Sampson maneuvered behind Trail Blazer guard Darnell Valentine and blocked a jump shot, triggering one of many Rocket fast breaks. After passing to small forward Rodney McCray and filling the lane, Sampson banged a layup attempt off the back rim. But there came Olajuwon, soaring above the rim, briefly cradling the rebound, then dunking the ball.
So, not only can the two clog the key and dominate the air space above the rim, they also are capable of both starting and finishing fast breaks. No surprise here, either, according to the pair themselves.
"There were no doubts in my mind it would work this way," said Sampson, carefully thinking over a question he undoubtedly has been asked hundreds of times this season. "I came into this season with an open mind. You play with what's dealt to you, but getting Akeem has been the best thing for us. It's opened up my game, let me do the things I can do best and he can do best."
Olajuwon, asked the same question later, answered with uncanny similarity. Apparently, these guys are also twin thinkers.
"I think if we were fighting for the same position, it would be different," Olajuwon said. "But I've had no doubts playing together. He is a forward. I am a center. Everything just works out great, doesn't it? Everybody's happy."
So it seems.
Sampson is enjoying his second season much more than he did his first, since he no longer has to carry the team's burden alone. Olajuwon is simply thrilled to continue playing in Houston, the city he came to from Nigeria five years ago. For the Rockets, keeping them happy may be their most important task.
When Fitch was suspended from coaching the Rockets for two games after ripping the whistle off referee Paul Milhalak's neck in a heated confrontation last week, one of the first things he did was take Akeem Olajuwon aside and explain things to him.
"I told Akeem not to do that under any circumstances," said Fitch, smiling broadly. "I told him it's not an American custom to steal referees' whistles. I was joking around with him, but he seemed to take our conversation seriously."
Olajuwon continued to nod knowingly when a straight-faced Fitch said that if Olajuwon were ever to take a referee's whistle, assistant coach Carroll Dawson would replace him at center, just as he had replaced Fitch on the bench.
Fitch strongly suspects that Olajuwon was just going along with the gag. Akeem--nobody in Houston calls him by his surname--always seems to be smiling and enjoying himself.
Why not? Here is Olajuwon, five years removed from the soccer fields of Lagos, Nigeria, now making $6.3 million over the next six years.
That's the continuation of Olajuwon's remarkable story. One of four sons of a cement dealer, Olajuwon took up basketball six years ago in his native land, where he had also played soccer and team handball. On the advice of two American Peace Corps volunteers, Olajuwon came to the States, arriving unannounced at the University of Houston, where he presented himself at the office of Coach Guy Lewis.
Lewis, of course, took in Akeem, who rather quickly refined his raw skills. He was befriended and further instructed by the Philadelphia 76ers' Moses Malone, a former Rocket who worked out at Houston's Fonde Recreation Center during the summers. Olajuwon led the Cougars to three straight appearances in the NCAA Final Four.
A new, but widely anticipated, chapter in the story unfolded last May when Olajuwon decided to give up his senior season at Houston to turn pro. It had been Olajuwon's hope that he could play professionally in Houston, but he had to rely on the flip of a coin between the Rockets and Portland to determine his destination.
Patterson, who had called heads and ended up with Sampson a year earlier, had no choice this time. Portland called tails, and lost. So, Akeem's dream came true.
"It was a gamble," Olajuwon said. "Last year was the closest I could ever get to playing in Houston--the coin flip. It was good that I was picked by Houston. I'm playing where I want to play. I really like the city. It's a nice city to live in."
That's about as far as he will let people into his life off the court.
"It's personal," Olajuwon said, asked about his new house and cars. "I have to go take a shower now."
When he bathes at home, Olajuwon does it in a new house in Sugar Creek, a swanky resort development south of Houston. People around town have seen him cruising in a blue custom Mercedes-Benz mini-limo, and a Porsche similar to the one Sampson drives.
He likes to talk, though, and will do so freely and openly if the subject is basketball. A Houston writer asked him before last Friday's game if he planned to buy a cake for two teammates who were celebrating birthdays that day.
He smiled and shook his head. "I'm going to give them each dunks," he said, and backed up his promise by scoring 35 points in a 15-point victory over Portland.
Olajuwon's jaunty, impetuous manner gives him an unmistakable air of boyishness, something Fitch hopes will always remain. After all, there aren't many NBA players who laugh, joke and actually enjoy themselves at shoot-arounds on game mornings.
"Akeem still hasn't found out that it's not cool to show emotions," Patterson said. "His naivete, exuberance and joy of the game is equal to his natural ability. The combination of all that makes him an inspiration to coach. Ask Fitch."
It's an inspiration to Fitch mostly because Akeem is such a fast learner. Fitch likes to joke that, during training camp, Akeem ran the Houston offense better than anyone, then adds the punch line: "It was the Houston Cougar offense."
Fitch said that Olajuwon relied almost strictly on instincts and reactions at the start of camp, but that he had the basic system down by the start of the regular season. The learning process, Fitch says, is ongoing.
"I've spent some days in the saddle riding both of them (Olajuwon and Sampson)," he said. "But most guys on the team will tell you that they've had the saddle strapped to their backs."
If so, Olajuwon has been a tougher ride, mostly because he lacks experience and because of a language gap that is narrowing but still causes problems.
"The only problems I ever had with Akeem was in terminology and maybe throwing things at him too fast," Fitch said. "Akeem speaks English well, but when you start talking fast, you never know if he gets it. But he's played his way into our system. We film each practice and one day we'll show him how far he's come."
Apparently, Fitch still is learning things from Olajuwon four months into the season. "We're playing Milwaukee and I'm talking to Akeem on the court before the game," Fitch said. "Akeem will not look me in the eye. He looked all over but not at me. I asked him why. He said it was because it's a sign of disrespect to look eye to eye with a superior."
Said Olajuwon, who does look reporters in the eye: "It's been an adjustment this year. I'm playing against tough competition every night. That's a big difference. I just have to play hard all the time."
Maybe adjusting to life in the NBA has been like that on the court for Olajuwon. But he is just beginning to cope with the extensive travel and multitude of games that test even NBA veterans.
After an early season loss to Boston, Olajuwon mumbled: "Too many games. Too much travel. I hate to travel, but I have no choice. . . . I think Ralph has helped me with that."
More than anything, though, Sampson has helped Olajuwon on the court. "He tells me what other centers will do against me," Olajuwon said. "He played against them last season."
Besides, Sampson still serves as the Rockets' backup center.
For years, Ralph Sampson has harbored a desire to play guard in the NBA.
At 7-4 and 230 pounds, that would seem nearly as unattainable a goal as a 5-7 point guard's desire to make a 360-degree dunk. Even so, Sampson has said he believes he will do it some day.
"It a dream of mine," he said.
There were those who wondered whether Sampson would be able to adjust to power forward. In fact, though, Sampson often played away from the basket last season, shooting 17-foot jump shots.
Now, the transformation has been completed and Ralph Sampson is a 7-4 running, gunning, board-crashing power forward. Any lingering doubts about that were dispelled at the recent All-Star game, when he scored many of his 24 points off fast breaks with the Lakers' Magic Johnson, ramming home dunks on the run.
"I think it's just a matter of becoming more experienced," Sampson said after accepting the award as the game's most valuable player. "I've got a year under my belt and I've learned a lot of things about myself and my body. . . . I feel good about what I've accomplished. But by no means have I come close to testing my limit. There's more I can do."
More? All Sampson has done this season is redefine the role of a big man in pro basketball. "If Magic Johnson can be a 6-9 guard, why can't Ralph be a 7-4 forward?" Patterson asked. "Ralph wasn't willing to have himself categorized into a low-post man. He thought he could play forward, so he constantly worked at it and he's done it. Now, he's talking about guard." Patterson slyly smiles at the thought of Sampson's someday playing guard. What pleases Patterson more is that Sampson has developed into the leader the Rockets needed in only his second season.
"I really noticed Ralph starting to mature about three or four weeks ago," Patterson said. "He realizes he's the captain, and I think he leads by example more than anything. Plus, I think he's starting to articulate it more to the team."
Sampson, for instance, played a role in the recent return to the team of John Lucas, who had been waived in December after testing positively for cocaine. Besides providing support to Lucas, Sampson helped persuade Fitch and Patterson to re-sign Lucas.
"I just offered to help (Lucas)," Sampson said. "I told him that if he ever needed somebody to talk to, I was there. I asked to room next to him on the road, because if he needs support I want to be there."
Fitch said he had not hesitated to pick Sampson as captain.
"It was tough to do with a lot of older players on the team," Fitch said. "But everyone knows Ralph has earned it. I swear, it seems he can read minds. I'll go to play a practical joke on someone and Ralph knows what it's going to be. He knows me better than anyone, except maybe Larry Bird. Ralph and Bird are similar in terms of leadership."
Now that the pressures of his rookie season are over, Sampson has relaxed some with reporters. The microphones, after all, are not always pointed at him anymore. Still, in a Sports Illustrated story in October, it was written that Sampson is "surly and a general pain to the press."
Basically, that's accurate. Asked about his sometimes cool and aloof disposition, Sampson said: "I know who to deal with and who not to. It's a weeding out process."
One close friend Sampson has made in Houston is Robert Barr, the Rockets' unofficial weight training instructor. Although his sleek frame might suggest otherwise, Sampson has been a serious off-season weight lifter for several years.
"Around people he doesn't know, Ralph is just shy," Barr said. "I've always found him down to earth, warm. But a lot of people think he's cold. Ralph has his moods, but so does everybody. He's just like a regular guy, someone satisfied with his life."
Sampson seems more satisfied on the court, too. Bothered by the flu last weekend, Sampson was held to 12 points Friday in the Portland win, and to 14 Saturday in a loss to Washington. It was a weekend that perhaps would have frustrated Sampson last season, but he showed creditable restraint.
"You just go on to the next game," he said softly. "But I don't look too far into the future. Not next year, or next week. Just right now. You never know what might happen."
Not long after last summer's draft, the Rockets bought billboard space near The Summit and ran a picture of Sampson and Olajuwon with this caption: "The Future Is Now."
Was it false advertising?
"I think they can play for the championship right now," Clipper Center Bill Walton said. "They still have to beat the Lakers to get there. . . . If they don't do it this season, it will eventually happen. Most good players get much better after their rookie seasons and better in the next few years."
Said Denver Coach Doug Moe: "Sampson and Akeem are great now, but wait for a few years. They'll be awesome. Awesome."
If it's true that the Twin Towers are still under construction, who knows how high they'll rise when the work is finally done?
"I'm just waiting to find out," Fitch said.