If I challenged you to name the wildest buzzer-beaters in playoff history, there’s one I’m sure you would forget. Let me guess who you’ve got – Ray Allen vs Spurs, Jordan vs. Cleveland (“The Shot), Jordan vs. the Jazz (not “The Shot”), Lillard vs. OKC, Horry vs. Kings, Fisher vs. Spurs. That’s all good – but you forgot Ralph Sampson’s insane shot to eliminate the LA Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
The year is 1986. Coming into the series against the mighty L.A. Lakers, the Rockets felt exhausted from their Western Conference semifinal clash with the furious Denver Nuggets. With their starting center Hakeem Olajuwon ejected from the game, the depth of the Rockets bench supplied the contending team with the energy boost that pushed them to a decisive win in game six at The Mile High City.
“We were worn out. We were tired, and we had 48 hours basically to regroup and play the mighty Los Angeles Lakers at home, and they had been resting for a number of days, right. So, we got our tail beat in the first game, and I think they thought we were going to back down, they thought we would just give in because we were the ‘young bucks on the block’. They could have taken us down if they were motivated.”Ralph Sampson, Legends of Sports
After convincingly losing Game 1 of the series in Los Angeles by 107-119, the Rockets held a team-meeting. After it, the team regrouped and won the next three games of a thrilling series. Game 5 in Los Angeles was tight from its very begging. Teams just went at each other at full speed and strength. Things escalated when the scuffle had broken out between the Lakers’ power forward Mitch Kupchak and Hakeem Olajuwon. Both were ejected from the game.
The Rockets successfully defended the Lakers’ last possession of the regulation, and after Allen Leavel came down with the defensive board, they immediately called the time-out. After the time-out, with the score tied at 112-112 and less than a second to go, everyone thought that there would be an overtime. But the Rockets, particularly their power forward Ralph Sampson, had the plans of their own.
Rockets 6’7″ point forward Rodney McCray inbounded the ball from the half-court. With the man who was guarding him that night, Magic Johnson, zoning the free-throw area, McCray threw in just a perfect pass, targeting and precisely hitting Sampson on the left wing.
“Rodney McCray says, ‘It wasn’t the shot, it was his pass.’ They put no one in front of him. So typically you’d have a defender in front of a guy, and Kareem played me behind so I could get the ball. Maybe he should have fronted me, but he didn’t do that, so I was able to get the ball in a direct pass from Rodney.”Ralph Sampson, Legends of Sports
Sampson caught a midcourt pass in the midair, and instantly launched a last-second prayer, flipping the ball over 7’2″ Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The ball somehow miraculously hit the rim, then bounced off it a couple of times, and then shockingly went in the basket. It was the shot that shocked the World champions L.A. Lakers and their fans in their invincible fortress – The Great Western Forum!
“Playing against the World champions, on their home court, and then seeing Michael Cooper lying on the floor, that was one of the best moments ever. Those shots, during the game they go forever. But it’s real-time, but it’s always slow motion, bounces here, bounces there. And everybody is on the edge of their seat, either cheering or ‘Man, we lost.‘”Ralph Sampson, Legends of Sports
We always think these shots are pure luck. The catch is, NBA players are maniacs who work on these their entire life. Sampson admits that he had been visualizing and practicing such off-balance shots ever since he was a kid in the backyard of his barn in the rural county of Harrisonburg, Virginia!
“Sometimes, you practice crazy shots. So, you always want a game-winning shot as a kid. I knew where the basket was, and so I just tried to get something, because I only had something like 0.9 seconds or some crazy time left on the clock, and I had to get something off quickly. I got a great bounce, and luckily, it went in. One of those shots you dream about.”Ralph Sampson, Legends of Sports
Sampson also claims that even if his shot eventually didn’t go in, the exhausted Lakers would have a tough time beating the Rockets in Houston in the potential game six of the grueling series.
“As I tell Mr. Michael Cooper or Magic if I see them sometimes, if that shot didn’t go in, we would beat you anyway. We were going back home. We would have won anyway back in Houston the next game because they were tired too.”Ralph Sampson, Legends of Sports
The 1985-86 Houston Rockets advanced to the 1986 NBA finals, where they clashed with their coach Bill Fitch’s former team – the Boston Celtics. Rockets eventually lost the grueling series 4-2, and the Celtics won their third championship title of the 1980s. But NBA history will forever remember the fact that the 1985-86 Rockets were one of only three squads that were able to advance to the NBA finals during the era of Lakers & Celtics. The other two were the Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons.