BOSTON — Two points. That’s what was next to his name on the final score sheet. He took 13 shots, he made one. Now the game was over, his team had lost, there was a towel around his waist and a crowd around his locker. He made his way through the crush of notepads, and he would not look anyone in the eye. How far had Ralph Sampson fallen? Two points. That’s how far.
“Ralph? . . . ” someone said.
Ralph said nothing.
Last Wednesday he was a hero. King of the front page. A shot he had thrown up in the final second against the Lakers had gone in, shoving his Houston Rockets through the door of the NBA finals, and breathing new life into his way-up-high nostrils. Ralph Sampson was a goat no longer. Ralph Sampson could get the job done. Ralph Sampson was not a wimp. He had sent his team into the finals with . . .
With two points.
Now that same digit represented his total output in Monday’s opening game against the Boston Celtics for the world championship. What happened? Where did he go? Two points?
“Ralph, can we . . . ” someone began.
Ralph slipped behind a door. He cried foul about calls He had exited the game almost as quickly. Dennis Johnson stole the ball from him and Sampson fouled him. Kevin McHale came inside and Sampson fouled him. Larry Bird tried a shot and Sampson fouled him. Out he went, after only 4:45 of the first quarter. Without a point.
“Where is he now?” a reporter asked.
“Behind that door, getting dressed.”
“Is he coming back?”
The Rockets had played well without him in the first half. He came back in the third quarter and they began to slip. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? It wasn’t.
Houston trailed, 79-72, when their other Twin Tower, Akeem Olajuwon — who had played brilliantly — exited with his fifth foul. “Now it’s my turn,” Sampson figured. He would do it. The ball would come to him. In that final game in LA, he had come alive when Olajuwon went out, taken control of the wheel and steered toward victory. He would have the spotlight again, yes?
No. Instead, his team deflated, fell behind by 15 points, and never recovered.
Now the game was over — a 112-100 loss. Now the crowd was waiting at his locker. Sampson pulled on his shoes and buttoned his light blue shirt and came out from behind the door.
“What happened?” someone asked.
“Referees took me out of the game,” he said.
“It was an off day,” he said.
“What about the third quarter?”
“I didn’t get the ball,” he said.
His answers were clipped. He rolled his eyes away from almost every question. How quickly had he fallen? How many pegs had he come down? Only one game had been played between the glory in Los Angeles and the gloom of Boston Garden. One game. Two points.
“Can you explain it?” someone said.
“I got in foul trouble, the ball didn’t go down for me, I took shots I don’t normally take, we didn’t run our offense effectively,” he said.
Next question. LA is only a memory now It has been this way a lot for Ralph Sampson. All year — all career — he has been questioned about his ineffectiveness, his apparent lack of desire, how a guy 7-foot-4 could be so . . . passive.
His teams had never won a major championship. Why? He was so tall but got shoved around. Why? He brooded. The critics fired away. It all seemed to end last Wednesday. His miracle shot had suddenly flicked on a different color spotlight. Cast him in regal reds, kingly golds.
“This is the happiest moment of my career,” he had said in the mayhem that followed. A change was gonna come.
But one shot can’t do all that — no matter how many headlines. And on the parquet floor of Boston Garden Monday, Sampson was back to mortal, and being shoved around by the likes of McHale, Robert Parish and Bill Walton. His soft shots rolled out. His rebounding was meek. “Our plan was to take it inside on Ralph and Akeem,” McHale said afterwards. Sampson acquiesced in the worst way, with quick fouls, and he hit the bench.
He said the calls were lousy. What player doesn’t? He said he wanted the ball more in the third quarter. He said it was only one game. He said all that, and it didn’t change anything.
He pursed his lips and flicked away a piece of lint from his shirt. How different was this scene from five days ago in LA?
“I don’t remember the LA series anymore,” he said. “That’s over.”
So is his joyride at the top. It did not last long. It lasted as long as, say, two points.