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Red’s fascination with Ralph Sampson nearly cost us the Big 3

Chuck - Red's Army November 8, 2012 Around the NBA, Past 3 Comments

If you enjoyed 80s basketball, you’ll enjoy reading Grantland’s oral history on the Houston Rockets: The Greatest Team that Never Was. 

Here’s something I didn’t know; Red Auerbach wanted Ralph Sampson to leave college early for the Celtics. Had Sampson obliged, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale might never have worn green.

After Sampson averaged 14.9 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 4.6 blocks his freshman season, Boston Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach tried to convince him to enter the 1980 NBA draft. The Celtics, a 61-win team in the previous season, featured a transcendent rookie forward named Larry Bird and owned the first overall pick. Sampson remembers it well. “Auerbach came to my house and said, ‘You can come and play for the mighty Boston Celtics.’ I gave it a thought. Ralph Sampson coming to Boston — there might not have been a Kevin McHale there or Robert Parish.” When Sampson stunned basketball by staying in school, Auerbach traded that pick and the 13th selection to Golden State for Parish and the third overall pick (which would become McHale), creating the “Big Three” that would eventually win three NBA titles over the next six seasons.

Can you imagine life w/o the original Big 3? Sampson’s career may have taken a different turn had he played alongside Larry Bird, but it was knee injuries that ultimately ended his career.

I also enjoyed the accounts of the Jerry Sichting/Sampson fight in Game 4 of the 1986 Finals.


Jerry Sichting vs Ralph Sampson Fight (1986… by kevin-garnett123

Sichting: He hit me. They blew the whistle and called a foul. I turned, I kind of had both hands up, saying, “What are you doing?” because he just whacked me and then he just punched. Then, it just got crazy.

Parish: It was not a fight. If you are a parent, that would be like you fighting your child. It was such a mismatch.

Props to Scott Wedman Bill Walton for his wrestling take down of the 7-footer. And how about Dennis Johnson going right after Sampson?

The Rockets success was derailed by the lifetime bans of Lewis Lloyd and Mitchell Wiggins for cocaine use. Robert Reid claims the two players were set up by the league and punished unjustly for one reason:

Reid: They broke us up intentionally because they wanted Bird and Magic. They knew L.A. would never get past us.

A conspiracy? You don’t say…

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  • RedsLoveChild

    John Feinstein wrote about this in detail in his 2004 book on Red. Red knew immediately that the trip to the Sampson house was a waste of time.

    He was met at the door by Sampson`s preacher/advisor/counselor. The guy had a self-important attitude, plus total “mind control” over the Sampson family. He called the shots, and was against Ralph signing.

  • Josh Pueschel

    Looks like it was Bill Walton wrestling him down, not Wedman… Thanks for digging this up. Love the memories!

  • http://driveittothemoon.com/ Lee in Oregon

    Sampson was a pussy at Virginia too. He made a huge deal about going back for his senior year- then not long after his playing days he was a completely broke dead-beat dad who couldn’t even muster up child support.

    Robert Reid is one funny preacher, those 2 (hopefully former) coke addicts he’s talking about weren’t even starters.