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Rocket Ralph Plays Game 3 With the Strength of Sampson

Sunday was a big test for the Boston Celtics, a test of whether or not they could play their game in a gymnasium that has air-conditioning, indoor plumbing and a basketball floor that wasn’t at one time the poop deck of the Mayflower.

Sunday was also a big test for Ralph Sampson of the Houston Rockets. In the first two games of the NBA Finals, in the Boston Garden, the 7-4 Sampson played like a Tower of Flower Power, a pacifist among snarling basketball soldiers of fortune.

On Sunday, the Celtics flunked their test; Ralph passed his.

Ralph’s Rockets won the game, 106-104, as Sampson himself scored 24 points and snagged 22 rebounds.

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By comparison, in the two games in Boston, Sampson had a total of 20 points and 15 rebounds, and didn’t seem to get completely caught up in the excitement of the NBA Finals, if you know what I mean.

Sunday Ralph showed the kind of fired-up animation and emotion you usually see out of Magic Johnson.

What was the difference?

The most obvious difference was the media. After Game 1, Ralph lashed out at reporters in the postgame press conference for asking him “stupid questions.”

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It’s amazing how much the intelligence level of the news hounds rises after you’ve grabbed 22 rebounds and saved your team and your city from complete and total humiliation at the hands of a cocky bunch of guys from Boston.

Sunday Ralph didn’t even raise an eyebrow when a radio guy asked him if this win gives the Rockets a new lease on life.

“Life ain’t got nothing to do with playing basketball,” Sampson patiently explained to the radio man.

The newsmen probed and prodded Ralph. We wanted him to say something like, “Look, I know I was a dog in the first two games, sleepwalk city. So I locked myself in a frozen meat locker last night and punched cow carcasses that I pretended were Kevin McHale--and there was an uncanny resemblance--until my knuckles bled, then I decided I’d stop acting like a Maypole on the court and play some dad-gum basketball.”

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But all Sampson would say was, “I just tried to come out and get us going a little bit, go to the glass hard, push the ball up, get our fast break going.

“I just tried to make an assertive effort. I wanted everyone to get into the flow, and if I showed more emotion, everyone picked up.”

Jim Petersen, the Rockets’ reserve center, said it better.

“He’s got something to prove,” Petersen said of Ralph. “His critics are on him, saying he hasn’t come to play. Sometimes Akeem (Olajuwon) controls the game so much on his own, Ralph can’t play that way (emotionally and enthusiastically).

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“Today was Ralph’s turn to be a monster.”

A monster, by the way, is either someone who plays basketball like Greg Kite, or someone who scores more than 20 points and gets more than 20 rebounds in a game. You don’t get 22 rebounds by accident, even if you’re 7-4. Ask Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

“The way he (Sampson) was playing they cannot beat us,” Olajuwon said. “He wanted to win so bad. He was rebounding, blocking shots. Dunking!”

Or, as Boston forward Kevin McHale said of Sampson: “He played better.”

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Someone asked McHale what kind of mood Sampson was in. So that’s where the stupid questions went.

“I don’t know,” McHale said. “I didn’t ask him.”

One theory is that Sampson was fired up by the home crowd. When the Rockets flew into town from Boston Friday, down 2-0 and reeling, the entire population of Houston turned out at the airport, a touching outpouring of affection and support.

OK, so it wasn’t the entire population of Houston. So it was 25 or so people, half of whom were probably trying to sign up the Rockets in support of Lyndon LaRouche.

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Still, the Rocket fans turned out Sunday at the Summit, in good voice, and their support seemed to help the local club.

The home environment certainly didn’t hurt Sampson, who played with desire and authority. If good basketball is like gourmet cooking, then rebounding is like scrubbing the pots and pans. Sampson scrubbed.

Certainly Ralph has been the missing link for the Rockets the first two games.

“You can’t keep a good man down,” Rocket Rodney McCray said after the game.

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The question that was being asked going into the game, however, was whether Sampson qualified for that description. Although nobody could find a copy of Sampson’s grammar school yearbook, beyond that everyone knows that Ralph has never won a big title, not in high school or college, and certainly not in the NBA.

It was one thing when Rocket guard Lewis Lloyd went into a slump against the Celtics, or when McCray was undressed by Larry Bird, or when Robert Reid had a couple sub-par games.

They’re human. Of Ralph Sampson, on the other hand, greater things are expected, and greater criticism comes his way when he does not play well. When you’re 7-4, you can’t hide a bad game.

The only question now is, can Sampson do it again? Can he inspire his team again Tuesday night in another crucial game at the Summit?

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Can Ralph lead his team to the three-game Summit sweep they so desperately need before the series returns to what’s left of Boston Garden?

Can Ralph spin a basketball on the tip of his nose?

Sorry, but in honor of Ralph, I thought I’d end this column with a stupid question.


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