The thing about players from the 70s, 80s, and 90s missing more physicality in today’s NBA most slept on is – they enjoyed the potential of someone “taking your head off.” They were brought up in a different time where conflict was embraced, but there were rules; an honor code if you will. Ralph Sampson knows a thing or two about that.
“That’s the way it was – if you didn’t like somebody, your partner was going to help you take them out. It was fun to play against the guys like that for us because it made you play hard. They could take your head off; you couldn’t do the things they do today in the NBA back then. They would come down to the lane, and they would knock you on your butt.” –Ralph Sampson, Legends of Sport
Coming into the league as an already accomplished player 7’4″ Sampson knew very well that he could successfully play literally against anyone. Still, the veteran players who were known for being very physical would approach him, even before the game, and try to send the message that he just came to their neighborhood. Sampson, who had was voted 1984 NBA Rookie of the Year, vividly recalls what it was to communicate with one of the leading enforcers of that era, veteran journeyman Maurice Lucas.
“‘Big Luke’ would come to me before the jump-off. He would just take his elbow and hit me in the chest and said, ‘Big brother, I’ll be here tonight. I might not be able to catch you on the court, so I’m catching you now.’”Ralph Sampson, Legends of Sport
Indeed, when the game started, Lucas would immediately come after Sampson, pushing and elbowing him, both on the floor and in the air. Whenever Sampson went for a dunk, and Lucas was around, he would try to ‘land him.’ And, at some point, Sampson was eager to retaliate. After their careers ended, the two met at a charitable event and talked it over.
“We hung out at that event, and he told me, ‘I was doing it purposely.‘ I said, ‘Yeah.’ When I was dunking the ball, he would just push me. And you see me right up wanna fight him at that point in time. I’m like ‘I’m not a high-school or college kid.‘ He would ‘kill’ me at that point in time.”Ralph Sampson, Legends of Sport
But the enforcers wouldn’t go just after Stick. They also tend to aim his Rockets teammates. On one such occasion, which most surprisingly came in a 1984 preseason game, the Washington Bullets power forward Rick Mahorn and his frontcourt teammate went after and took a shot at the Rockets back-up power forward Hank McDowell.
“Now, this is preseason, exhibition game! And after it, Rick came to me, started laughing, and said ‘This is how we’re going to play‘. So, he and his partner, a bruiser as well, looked at each other and nodded their heads and said, ‘Now, it’s time to go and get him.‘ And the next play down, they took Hank McDowell out of the game.”Ralph Sampson, Legends of Sport
The tensions between the players would rise to another level in the postseason. Back in those days, almost every postseason series had its own scuffle story. One of the most memorable scuffles of that era came in the grueling game 6 of the 1986 Western Conference finals. The tensions between the Rockets big man Hakeem Olajuwon and Lakers power forward Mitch Kupchak had been there even before. With the decisive game on the line, the tensions escalated. Sampson, who later in that game hit The Shot, witnessed this particular scuffle directly from the Great Western Forum floor.
“Kupchak is defending Hakeem, and somehow he hit him in the back or something happened. I looked up, and Hakeem is swinging on him. So, Kupchak than grabs him and takes him down over the Lakers bench. And we all, kind of, just go for it. Something like ‘Get off from him, don’t try to hurt him.‘”Ralph Sampson, Legends of Sport
Looking back at those intimidating scuffles, Sampson, luckily, teamed up with 7’0″ Hakeem The Dream Olajuwon at the center position. The two formed the fearsome Twin towers combo, one of the most dominant frontcourt tandems in basketball entire history. That mighty, they were never intimidated by anyone over their three-year reign together.