For his first three years with the Houston Rockets, Sampson averaged 20.7 points and 10.9 rebounds. He was NBA Rookie of the Year and a four-time All-Star, and he played on a team that dethroned the Los Angeles Lakers from atop the Western Conference and reached the NBA Finals in NBA Finals. But his long, gangly frame proved too much for his knees to bear, and Sampson eventually faded away among injury-plagued seasons and mumblings that he had come up short of his potential.
Sampson was already 6-foot-7 by the ninth grade and was 7-foot-3 in high school in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He averaged nearly 30 points, 19 rebounds, and 7 blocked shots as a high school senior.He lost the player of the year award to another talented center, Sam Bowie.
At the University of Virginia he was voted National Player of the Year in three of his four seasons. But even though the Cavaliers made it to the Final Four during his sophomore year, Sampson was criticized for not living up to expectations because his team never won an NCAA Championship. His Virginia team was also criticized for an unpredictable loss to small Chaminade University.
Sampson was arguably the most heavily recruited (for both college and the NBA) basketball prospect of his generation. Playing for the University of Virginia, he was one of only two male players in the history of college basketball to receive the Naismith Award as the National Player of the Year three times (Bill Walton of UCLA was the other male, Cheryl Miller of USC won three times, as well). He was the only player to win the Wooden Award twice.
Still, with his size and agility—he could dribble with guards and run the floor as well as anyone—he was expected to score like Wilt Chamberlain and win championships like Bill Russell. The Houston Rockets made him the No. 1 pick in the 1983. As a rookie he averaged 21.0 points and 11.1 rebounds, played in the All-Star Game, and won the NBA Rookie of the Year Award.
The Rockets managed only a 29-53 record in 1983 and again earned the right to pick first in the 1984 NBA Draft. This time they chose the 7-foot Olajuwon out of the University of Houston. Many observers felt that the Rockets had made a mistake because it was believed that two 7-footers couldn’t play effectively together. But others thought the combination would be overpowering. Sampson, playing a new style of power forward, had new expectations placed upon him. At the time, Dallas Mavericks Coach Dick Motta said, "That front line, when history is written, when they’ve grown up, might be the best ever assembled on one team. Ever." Houston guard John Lucas said of Sampson’s move to forward, "He’ll revolutionize the game."
The so-called "Twin Towers" worked out pretty well. In 1984-85 the Rockets improved by 19 games to 48-34 and made the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. Sampson had his best individual campaign, averaging 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds and earning a berth on the All-NBA Second Team. He and Olajuwon both played in the 1985 NBA All-Star Game, and Sampson, after scoring 24 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, earned the game’s MVP Award.
The next season Houston won the Midwest Division with a 51-31 record and defeated Los Angeles, four games to one, in the Western Conference Finals. In Game 5 of that series in Los Angeles, Sampson provided one of the most memorable moments in NBA Playoff history. With the score tied at 112 apiece and a mere second remaining on the clock, Sampson took an inbounds pass and launched a miraculous, twisting turnaround jumper that sailed through the hoop at the buzzer, giving the Rockets a 114-112 victory and a shocking series upset.
In the NBA Finals against Boston, Sampson suffered a jarring fall on his back and had a disappointing series. His difficulties were compounded by an incident in Game 5 in which he swung at 6-foot-1 Boston guard Jerry Sichting and was ejected from the game. During the six-game championship series loss against the Celtics, Sampson averaged 14.8 points on .438 shooting, 9.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.
Injured halfway into the NBA Finals, Sampson fell out of favor with Rockets Coach Bill Fitch and was traded, along with guard Steve Harris, to the Golden State Warriors for Eric "Sleepy" Floyd and Joe Barry Carroll. But Sampson’s knee and back troubles worsened, and he never played a full slate in the next four seasons. He averaged 6.4 points and 5.0 rebounds with Golden State in 1988-89 and was traded to the Sacramento Kings for Jim Petersen.
Sampson’s days at Sacramento were disheartening. He totaled 51 games in two seasons, averaging 4.2 and 3.0 points, respectively. The player once predicted to be the greatest the NBA had ever seen was waived by the Kings before the 1991–92 season.
Sampson, who underwent three knee operations during his career, signed as a free agent with the Washington Bullets in a last-ditch effort to salvage his career. But he logged only 10 games with Washington in 1991-92 before the Bullets waived him in January. He finished out the year in Europe, playing eight games for Unicaja Ronda of the Spanish League.
Sampson finally gave up his playing career at age 32 and decided to try his hand at coaching. He spent the 1992–93 season as a $16,000-per-year assistant to Lefty Driesell at James Madison University.
Looking back on his career, Sampson admitted that he had attempted to come back too quickly from the knee injuries, and said that he tried not to think about what could have been.
In 1996, Sampson was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.
NBA Draft: Selected in the 1st round (1st overall).
On September 7, 2006, Sampson pleaded guilty to mail fraud in the U.S. District Court in Richmond and received a two month prison sentence. The plea to mail fraud was part of the agreement with federal prosecutors. Also as part of the agreement, charges of making a false claim, making a false statement about his finances in a child support case, and perjury were dropped. Sampson asked to postpone his two month incarceration until April 2, 2007, and U.S. District Judge James Spencer allowed the delay.
Sampson now lives in a suburb of Atlanta along with his fiancee and their three year old daughter. He will serve his sentence in a facility located in or near Atlanta. His ex-wife, Aleize from whom he was divorced in 2003, and their four children also live in the Atlanta area. His son Ralph Sampson III is a highly recruited senior from Duluth, GA, and has committed to play at the University of Minnesota.
- Ralph Sampson is referred to in the sitcom Full House, when D.J.'s cousin Steve refers to Sampson as "a building," and Bob Saget's character refers to the Golden State Warriors, his team at the time, as "a city."
- In his senior year at the University of Virginia, Sampson lived in one of the prestigious yet small rooms on The Lawn, and had to have his dormitory room bed custom-built due to his height.
- He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated an unprecedented six times in a span of less than four years (issues of December 17, 1979; December 1, 1980; March 30, 1981; November 29, 1982; December 20, 1982; and October 31, 1983).
- During the 2008 NBA Playoffs the NBA ran a short promo ad that only featured the 2008 NBA Playoffs logo, with an announcer in the background yelling "what a magnificent shot by Ralph Sampson."
- nba.com historical playerfile
- "His Future is Up in the Air" Sports Illustrated (Dec. 17, 1979)
- ClutchFans.net Ralph Sampson Profile - Houston Rocket Fan Site
- Oscar Robertson Trophy USBWA College Player of the Year
- "The prodigal Sampson: Ralph returns to UVA" 2007 article in the Hook weekly
- University of Virginia Basketball Media Guide (PDF copy available at www.virginiasports.com)