It is the summer of 1980. The Celtics have risen from the ashes of mediocrity, with their new star small-forward Larry Bird. They’ve won 61 games and fell short in the East finals vs Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers. But Red Auerbach isn’t worried. Thanks to most of the NBA teams during the era being run by complete schmucks, he was able to flip the disgruntled, overpaid and underperforming Bob McAdoo for two 1st round draft choices in the 1980 draft. One of those picks turned up out to be the first selection overall.
If I was alive during this time, I’d probably spend the summer handwringing over whether Jeff Judkins was coming back, or if Rick Robey could succeed the aging, but still productive Dave Cowens at center should he retire. Hearing Boston owning the number one pick and having a name attached to that pick be Joe Barry Carroll, I assumed the Celtics answered were to be found by simply applying Occam’s razor. “We need a center. We need depth. Take Barry Carroll.”
Did I know Carroll lacked “spirit” and “aggressiveness” as Purdue Boilermakers head coach Lee Rose was told when he recruited the seven-foot, then 195 pound dynamo from East High School, Denver? Of course not. And even if I had all the benefits of modern technology to do half-assed scouting, I probably wouldn’t even lend the criticism credence. “If the Celtics are picking him, then he has no flaws. Fuck you for saying otherwise.”
Red wasn’t content having the number one pick. He wasn’t high on Barry Carroll. Even in his last days, Red wasn’t fond of him. In his biography “Let Me Tell You A Story: A Lifetime In The Gme,” Auerbach and co-author John Feinstein wrote that Carroll “went on to have a mediocre NBA career” and the narrative stuck with him that he never lived up to snuff. Red eyed Minnesota Gopher low post scorer Kevin McHale. But he couldn’t take McHale number one. Nobody had him that high on their boards. So he decided to trade down.
The Celtics and the Golden State Warriors worked out a deal. McHale would be selected number three, shipped up to Boston along with 27-year-old Center Robert Parish and the thirteenth overall pick in exchange for the number one overall choice, the aforementioned Carroll.
The Utah Jazz stood pact, sandwiched between the teams at number two and took guard-forward hybrid scorer Darrell Griffith.
The rest is history.
But there’s a wrinkle to this story. High schooler Ralph Sampson was invited into the Celtics general managers home and offered $1 million to declare for the draft and not attend Virginia after completing his freshman season. Sampson turned the deal down, leaving Red befuddled and amazed. “Maybe Ralph and his parents will come to their senses.” Red fumed.
But he never did. Sampson spent four years dominating the collegiate level and was taken number one by the Houston Rockets in 1983. The next year, they would win the first pick again and select Hakeem Olajuwon, form the Twin Towers, crash the 1986 NBA Finals and fall of the face of the earth less than a year later after cocaine destroyed the team, and wear and tear ate Sampson’s legs.
In many ways, Sampson landing in Houston was a form of basketball injustice. Sampson was 7 foot, 4 inches, could dribble the ball between his legs, run the floor in a fast break and shoot from 25 feet. When the three-point line was introduced in 1979-80 it was 22 feet from the basket. It isn’t far fetched to suggest if Sampson came along twenty-five years later he’d be gold standard of stretch bigs.
Micromanaging head coach Bill Fitch wasn’t about to let Sampson bring up the floor. The Rockets management had their own plans. The Twin Towers concept fit the philosophy of the NBA perfectly, up until 2015. Trying to score in the lane with Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson in the way is like driving through Boston during “The Big Dig.” You cant and you’re better off not even trying.
Once Robert Reid was guarding future Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson. D.J brings the ball up the floor and Reid “opens up the gate.” D.J looks at Reid. “What are you doing? You ain’t going to play no defense!” Reid looks at Johnson, probably with a satisfied grin. “Look down there. Do you feel lucky?” Dennis promptly cursed Reid out.
And they weren’t one dimensional either. Olajuwon and Sampson averaged 23 and 18 points between them, respectively.
Fitch is a fine head coach, likely a top-10 all-time steward during his long career, leading every team he helmed to the playoffs at least once. But Fitch wasn’t a good hand with the sensitive Sampson. “All you did was write about how much Coach Fitch hates Ralph.” He told off Sports Illustrated columnist Jack McCallum. Fitch’s most inflammatory quote from the now lost article “Ralph has never raised his voice at me, because if he did, he knows I’d knock him on his butt.”
If Fitch was around today, pulling this kind of shit. He’s shamed, canceled and relieved of his duties. And you know what else, he’d deserve to lose his job.
Ironically, if Sampson did accept Red’s $1 million offer Fitch be his head coach up until 1983 when “Captain Video” was booted out the door after an troublesome season plagued by too much talent resulted an early exit at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks… Oh, the irony!
So what if Sampson declared for the draft? Well, there is no Bird, McHale and Parish Big 3 to speak of. Parish is likely languishing in Golden State, doomed to a career of journeying the NBA never finding a home. Or, McHale is take third by Golden State meaning we get the famous pairing only on the opposite side of the country. Giving the Warriors a starting lineup of Parish – Kevin McHale – Bernard King – Purvis Short – John Lucas; and World B. Free as the sixth man.
Not bad. Except King has a cocaine problem (ditto Lucas). Parish is enigma. And McHale has nobody to help him grow beyond being just a scorer. People forget, he wasn’t an integral part to those early Celtics teams before 1984. Prior to that, he was considered a black hole. You pass it to him, the ball is going up. Knowing Golden State around this era, they’re likely trading him for pennies on the dollar to a rival.
As for the Celtics, they’re looking at Sampson as the starting center; perhaps Cowens sticks around for one more run feeling the need to tutor the next generation in Sampson. Larry Bird and Cedric Maxwell as the forwards. Chris Ford and Nate “Tiny” Archibald rounding out the backcourt. M.L Carr, Gerald Henderson, Rick Robey making up the bench.
I still see the Celtics winning 60 games and the title here. Sampson is young, even himself doubts his body was ready for the pro-game. But the Celtics would have conditioned him and shielded him behind Cowens and Robey. Sampson was 228 pounds in college. Daryl Dawkins was 251, but Parish did just fine and he’s only two-pounds heavier than Sampson.
In the ensuing 1981-82 and 1982-83 campaigns, I don’t see a different outcome. In ‘82 the season fell apart when Tiny separates his shoulder. Ainge wasn’t near ready to takeover, and the Celtics went from averaging 111 points per game to 106.4 in the final two months of action preceding the playoffs. 1982 was Parish’s best season. In ‘83, Nate was done. The guard spot was Boston’s weakest links for those two seasons.
1984, 1985 and 1986 is probably where we feel Sampson’s impact the most. His wars with Kareem, ultimately ending with the C’s coming out on top make the Celtics the team of the 1980s. Parish and McHale weren’t slouches and did their best to guard Kareem. His skyhook was the greatest shot in history for it’s difficultly to block and sureness to go in the hole. In the ‘86 West Finals, Sampson made Kareem look human in ways nobody could ever have dreamed.
In 1987, Sampson’s knees begin to give out and compound that with the tragic death of Len Bias the day after Boston selected him second overall in the 1986 draft, the dynasty suddenly ends. But Sampson has four championships and a special place in Springfield, Massachusetts waiting for him. Yes, Sampson made it 2012. He’d make it sooner if he was on those Celtics teams and nobody would have doubted if he deserved the honor.
A happier end for one of the nicest, most soft spoken players in league history.