HOUSTON — How can you reconcile this? How can you take a bloody disgrace and wrap it in a miracle? What Houston did Thursday night in an arena gone mad
— defeating Boston in Game 5 of the NBA championship series — should stand as a monument to courageous basketball. Was there ever a gutsier performance? Was there ever men with more fire in their eyes, playing beyond their expectations, treating defeat like one would treat death at a family picnic.

They won handily, 111-96. And yet you cannot forget what inspired them: an unprovoked attack by their captain, Ralph Sampson, on Boston’s Jerry Sichting

that, before it was over, would leave the benches cleared, Sampson and Bill Walton wrestling on the floor, Akeem Olajuwon cutting Dennis Johnson with a roundhouse punch to his forehead, 22 giants of grace elbowing and shoving each other into a seething pile, and the sellout crowd screaming bloody murder.

This was stark, ugly hatred, from the cattle calls that filled the Summit
— “Boston s—-!” — to the clenched jaws and heaving chests of every Houston player who touched the basketball. The Rockets’ play was magnificent. It was inspiring. But that doesn’t change a thing. The game was stained. The series was stained. What happened is what happened. And it was Ralph Sampson’s doing. The incident to remember

The incident — which will now and forever be remembered as “the fight” — came with 9:40 left in the second quarter. Sampson collided with Boston’s Jerry Sichting while running down the court. When Sichting bumped him on the ensuing play, Sampson squared off and threw a fist right at Sichting’s head. Why? Who knows? Sichting reeled, then came back for more. Sampson threw another punch. Then Johnson came toward Sampson and Sampson leveled one at him as well. By the time the refs broke it up, the damage had been done. What was to be a basketball game had become a war, a bloodfeud, with every Houston score a stab of the stiletto and every Boston mistake a cause for hysterical celebration.

Sampson was ejected — as he should have been, championship series or no.

“Sichting hit me!” he screamed in the hallway after he’d been thrown out.

“With what?” someone asked.

“With his elbow,” Sampson said. “Walton grabbed me and Sichting hit me. It was a bullbleep call! I’m sorry it had to come in a game like this. If that’s the way they want to play, we can play that way all night.”

And he stalked off into the locker room.

That was not the way the Rockets played the rest of the night. Instead, without Sampson, their tallest player, without the man who had led them in their last few games, they played a hustling, be-everywhere game that was as breathtaking as it was unlikely. How many times did they steal the ball? How many times did they block Boston’s shots? How many times did they outrebound, outposition, outrun the men in green who were supposed to be unbeatable?

The Rockets scored seven straight points after the fight and never trailed again. Jim Petersen, normally used to spell Sampson, replaced him with a ferocity heretofore unseen in this series. He grabbed rebounds, slammed in shots, got behind Boston’s front line. Olajuwon jetted into his spinning inside hook game, guards Robert Reid and Mitchell Wiggins and forward Rodney McCray seemed to be playing outside and inside at the same time. The place came unglued. The Celtics didn’t have a chance. This was 16,000-to-12.
“Madness,” Boston coach K.C. Jones would call it. At one point the crowd was roaring so loudly, the announcer yelled “TIME OUT!” three times before the players heard him.

And by the fourth quarter, with the Rocket players dripping the kind of sweat you taste only when you’re possessed to go beyond yourself, Houston coach Bill Fitch looked up at the scoreboard and realized what was happening.

The Rockets were doing the impossible. They were blowing the Celtics out by 20 points. Who gets the credit?

So what do you do? You applaud the performance and jeer the disgrace. Sampson’s behavior had no place in this series. His denying any wrongdoing — although he was a bit more apologetic afterward — is typical of a man whose long-limbed grace is matched only by his short-tempered obnoxiousness.

The Rockets played the game of their lives without him, and you can bet there will be more than a few jokes this morning that Houston should leave Sampson behind for Game 6 in Boston.

The feeling is that Houston will get a dose of its own medicine in the sweatbox the Celtics call home on Sunday. Which is too bad.

The Rockets, without Sampson, outran the Celtics, outhustled them, out-everythinged them. But perhaps the real reason they won is because they outhated them. And that’s not the way championships should be decided.

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