ONE TOWER (AND TWO LOST GUARDS)
Sports and drugs intertwined in the mid- to late-1980s with scary and tragic results. Len Bias's fatal overdose grabbed the headlines, but a handful of NBA stars had their careers derailed by substance abuse — and not just known offenders like Lucas, Micheal Ray Richardson, and Roy Tarpley. A 1987 New York Times headline screamed, "IN SPORTS, COCAINE'S HERE TO STAY." According to the Times, "since 1980, more than 100 professional football, basketball and baseball players have publicly admitted using cocaine, with most entering addiction-treatment centers." In that same piece, the president of the NBA Player's Association, Larry Fleisher, admitted, "I don't mean to sound defeatist, but there is going to be drug use. You're not going to eliminate it. All we can do is try to better the situation."
NBA commissioner David Stern began issuing career-crippling penalties for those who did not seek treatment before being found out. Meanwhile, the Rockets stumbled out of the gate, starting out 10-17 and launching a slew of "What's wrong with the Rockets?" articles. They won five of their next six, easily cruising past Dallas at home on January 10, 1987. Lloyd and Wiggins combined for 24 points.
Dawson: We had heard that the league was fixing to come down [with drug suspensions]. We picked out some other teams we thought it was probably going to be. We didn't know it was us.33
McCray: One day, we were like, "Man, where are coach and them at? We're starting shootaround late."
Lloyd: Bill Fitch said somebody wanted to talk to us. They said, "If you don't take this test, you're going to be banned. If you take the test and test positive, you're still going to be banned." We didn't have no choice. Me and Mitch should have protested. But they scared us that we were going to be banned anyways. We took the test and it came up positive. Then we went into rehab.
Reid: They were leaving the club and this guy came up and told them, "Hey, man, I've got something outside. This is the good shit. It's the best. Just take a little bump." And they told me, they took a little bump. The next day, [former NBA security chief] Horace Balmer and them are at practice. They were there at 9 a.m. when we started practice. You cannot leave New York City in the morning to be in Houston that early in the morning. So you would have had to be there the night before. I knew then. I knew then that they got set up.
Lloyd: We were definitely set up. Probably somebody on our team set us up. I don't know. It was unbelievable.
Fitch: I stayed up all night with [Wiggins] before they were coming in. He said, "Don't worry about it, Coach. I'm clean."34
Leavell: It was like there was no question that they were going to fail the drug test. The moment they came in, I could see on their faces they were saying "crap."
Reid: It was as if you broke the law the night before and you felt you got away with it, and here comes the man.
Lloyd: It was a new rule. We didn't even know about that rule. The rule is like this: If you go to them and tell them you're on drugs, they put you in the program. John Lucas, Walter Davis, Micheal Ray Richardson, all of them got more than one chance. We only got one chance.
Reid: How many chances did Lucas get? How many chances did other guys get?
Lloyd: They destroyed our lives. They just took us right out of the game. It was devastating to our lives.
Stern: When we created the anti-drug program, we knew we needed discipline measures that would create a very strong deterrent from participating in those activities. Every one of our key stakeholders — from owners to players to our fans — understood the importance of eliminating drug use from our game. The lifetime ban, with the possibility of reinstatement after two years, was probably considered by many to be very harsh at that time. But looking back nearly 30 years later, I'm certain we made the correct decision.
Lloyd: I shouldn't have been doing drugs. If I was to tell the whole story and write a book, I'd have a lot of people mad at me. But I wouldn't do that. Where I come from, if you tell, they kill you. I wouldn't want to mess nobody's life up. As a matter of fact, they even asked me. A representative in the rehab program asked me if I knew of anybody else. I told him no because I wouldn't want to out nobody else in that position and destroy their life.
Petersen: John Lucas failing two drug tests and being kicked off the team should have been a cautionary tale. It was a kick to the gut with Mitchell and Lewis.
Thomas: I could do nothing but agree with the commissioner on what had to be done. But it took its toll on an awful good team. Both of those guys played hard. They played hard on the court and, I think, after the game.
Leavell: It was the culture of the times itself. It was much freer. If it was something you wanted to partake in, you wouldn't have had a problem getting it. That's for sure.
Reid: The league had to stop us from going to the Oakland Hyatt. You would walk in that hotel and you had the hookers, you had the pimps, you had the drug dealers. We didn't have chartered flights then. We would go out to a club or a restaurant and with the two big fellows, with their celebrity status — and everybody was coming to see us play. We would go into a restaurant, if we went to a club, "Hey, man, that was a great game. I've got a little something-something for ya." That's how it was. It's scary. That part of that life off the court was scary because you basically did not know who this individual was, trying to set you up.
Thomas: Somebody informed on them, maybe more than one person. I don't know. I wouldn't ask [who the informant was] any more than I would have asked Jerry [Buss] for Magic Johnson. David and I are just too close of friends. I was curious. I was very curious. But he couldn't tell me if he wanted to. I would have liked to have known. It wasn't anybody on the club. I know that. I know that they were hanging out in all the bad clubs and everything like that. That was a fact.
Olajuwon: It's something you didn't know that was going on around you. I was more concerned for them at that time before I even looked at what was the consequences for the team.
Ehlo: I didn't hang out with them, but I had seen them in some places and you hear things about what they were doing. I didn't think it was that bad, maybe something like marijuana. I knew Lewis had kind of a background in that area. Because [Mitchell] played so hard and did so much, I didn't know he had that type of problem.35
Heisler: Houston's a big party city. That was Charles Barkley's line about why he later went to Houston. I think he said, "No state income tax and the titty bars don't close."
Ehlo: Houston at that time, the money was rolling. The oil was $300 a barrel. The construction, there was no zoning. People were rolling in the dough and that's kind of where that city was. You could get caught up in it. Myself, just being a young and dumb guy at that age, I remember staying out all the time because the city was rolling in cash and there were just a lot of things to do.36
Thomas: They were just young guys and it was those times, I guess. I think they helped clean the league up. They don't give them credit for that, do they? When you take two key guys off a potential championship team, I guess that got a lot of young people's attention.
McCray: When the call came down that they were gone for two years,37 it was like, "Wow." It was a shock. I really can't describe the word.
Reid: They broke that team up. They did what they wanted to do. You took millions away from those two guys for a onetime mistake. And now look. They have not did that to nobody in soccer, basketball, football, baseball. For life? For the first time?
Lloyd: It's a harsh punishment, real harsh. They were setting an example. But when you look at the all-substance-abuse team, our guys went down the hardest. I look on Facebook and Google and I see the all-substance-abuse team, I didn't know that many guys went down for drugs until I saw that list.
McCray: We were looking at it from a basketball point of view. Not from the point that these guys needed help. We were all young. We were all mad at the time. We had a good thing going, a dynasty in the making, and then the guys go out and do this.
Leavell: It was sad because they were probably the best pair of two guards in the NBA at that time. We knew it was going to hurt us, and it did.
Petersen:'85-'86 was the best time of my life. Then it was one of the tragic parts of my life from that point.
Thomas: You talk about a disaster. Without those two guys, we had to start rebuilding all over again.38
Reid: They broke us up intentionally because they wanted Bird and Magic. They knew L.A. would never get past us.
Just when you thought things couldn't get worse for the Rockets, Sampson started belatedly feeling the effects of a frightening fall that happened in Boston on March 24, 1986. Steve Harris had missed a shot and Sampson leaped for an offensive rebound between Boston's McHale and Scott Wedman. "I know that I was up higher in the air than usual," Sampson told the Houston Chronicle afterward, "and maybe got a little off-balance as I was reaching for the ball." Sampson reported temporary paralysis in his right leg afterward and was feared to have broken his back. (X-rays were negative.) He resumed playing a week later but never totally shook the effects of that fall.
Sampson: I was undercut and landed on my left side. I only remember being in the hospital in Boston, the next thing, and not being able to feel my side for a good bit of time.
Blinebury: He came down with a really, really sickening thud on the back of his head. We thought the guy might have been dead. It was like a watermelon being dropped off of a roof.
Ryan: It was an eerie moment, one of those "dead silence" moments. I don't think he was ever the same in Boston Garden after that.
Reid: We didn't have the trainers like these young men have today. We didn't have the equipment. When he fell on his back and they were putting him on the stretcher, I was watching his hand and it was trembling. Not the rest of his body. Just that arm.
Fitch: Ralph came out of Virginia limping. The first time he had his knee aspirated wasn't when he was in the pros.
Reid: I found out later that his left hip was a quarter-inch higher than the right. I notice now how he's loping when he runs, baloop, baloop, baloop, like there's a flat tire on one end.
Blinebury: He started to play and his hip injury was there, and overcompensating for the hip, that began the deterioration of his knees and all those surgeries.
Dawson: We were in Denver, I remember Fat Lever jumped and stole the ball right in front of our bench. There was a wet spot, I started hollering for the referees to get the moppers out there. But, of all things, we steal it back just past midcourt and Ralph comes back and hits that spot. And I think that's what did his knee in. He tore it up.
Sampson: [I came back] too quick. I had my first knee operation and came back in eight weeks. These days, guys would have stayed out a year. But I wanted to play. I thought we had an opportunity to win and I did what I had to do at that point of time.
Olajuwon: When he was injured, he couldn't jump as high as he used to and was not as mobile as he used to be. That [power forward] position is very difficult for a tall and skinny person against a guy that's shorter and very wide, and power forwards back then were big, heavy guys. When we would switch, I would be guarding some power forwards and I would say, "Wow. They're strong. I don't want that. I don't want to deal with that. Ralph!"
Reid: One game he played after he got hurt and came back, he came down the floor, got a rebound, running down on offense. The other team threw it, Ralph caught it, and he's coming back on defense and he got it and spun around on that one foot like he was one of the Three Stooges, "Woo, woo, woo, woo."
Dawson: Once he got going, he could run. But stopping and turning around and changing directions was hard. It changed his whole game.
After the Rockets' second-round elimination, Patterson told the Houston Chronicle, "We will never trade Ralph Sampson — period, period, period, period, period." But in December of '87, just a few months after Sampson signed a new deal, the Rockets flipped him to Golden State with Steve Harris for Sleepy Floyd and Joe Barry Carroll. Sports Illustrated called the trade "the sort of megaswap that happens every decade or so." Just 18 months after beating the invincible Lakers, the Twin Towers had been broken up.
Sampson: I was disappointed to go anywhere.
Olajuwon: Somebody just came to tell him he'd been traded. It wasn't the best way. He handled it very well.
Sampson: I think anybody's a little bit angry they're traded. They knew, but they didn't tell me.
Fitch: We had seen him every day at practice and he's playing against Hakeem and Jim Petersen, who was more than holding his own at the time. It was just a matter of time before he was going to have to give up on that knee anyhow.
Don Nelson (Warriors coach, 1988-1995): We had information that his knee was not good. You could watch him play and he wasn't dominating, that's for sure. We knew that.
Fitch: I'd make that deal tomorrow again because of what we needed.
Sampson: At least have the respect to tell me. Not getting off the airplane; saying, "Oh, we heard that you were traded." You're the coach. You know what's going on, or you should. At least have that respect. I don't think I was given that.
Blinebury: At the end there was no relationship. They didn't get along almost from the start. Ralph came into the league and he had this reputation for being aloof. I think what it was was painful, unbelievable shyness. And then you come in with Fitch, who's an in-your-face type of guy like most coaches at that time. [Fitch] never said anything to the outside world that he really didn't respect Ralph that much. He just wasn't the macho, low-post, I'm going to beat you up center that he was accustomed to.
Reid: We lose Lewis and Wiggins, we trade Ralph, we get Sleepy and Joe Barry Carroll, and then the next year, we do another trade. We basically traded us for Golden State, and how many times did Golden State go to the playoffs?
Nelson: I actually thought that it was important that we make a move of any kind to get rid of Joe Barry Carroll. He had outlived his usefulness in Golden State. He had become an unpopular player. He had the nickname of "Joe Barely Cares." I knew Ralph was hurt, had been struggling, and probably was never going to return to what he was. I still pulled the trigger because I thought it was important to make that move.
Mitch Richmond (guard, Warriors): We needed a taller guy to play inside and outside and Ralph gave us that.39 We were fighting with the Lakers and we had Manute [Bol] and Ralph. If Ralph was the younger Ralph, there's no doubt that we would have won a championship.
Sampson: Chris Mullin, Mitch Richmond, Larry Smith, Chris Washburn. Some great guys on that team. We bonded and played well together. It makes a difference with a Hall of Fame coach ([like Nelson] that knows the game really well, knew how to play the game, but also understood the players.40
Nelson: He was great. He's an incredible human being. He did everything that he could, gave us what he had, and was wonderful to work with.
Richmond: We knew [Ralph] was struggling with his knees at that time. He still put the time in and put the work in. Everybody has to come to the end of their career. I know that he wanted to give us a little more than he could.
Nelson: The money that he was making, it was just a matter of time before we had to move him. It was a short period of time, but very enjoyable.
Richmond: He taught me a lot of lifetime lessons. He would tell me not to give anyone power of attorney or things of that nature — some of the pitfalls that some of his teammates went through. He used to tell me a lot of things I should watch. He gave me a lot of input as a rookie. I always talked with him when we were on the plane.41
Reid: [In October 1988], Rodney called me because I was in Charlotte by then. He said, "We just took our team picture. I was on one end and Jim [Petersen] is on the other end." I said, "You got your bags packed? Because your ass is about to go somewhere in the morning." That was a joke. If you were asked to stand on the end, you were on your way out. Go home and turn on ABC News because your ass just got traded.42
Petersen: Rodney and I got traded to Sacramento, and I'll never forget that flight. We're on the flight to Sacramento and getting ready to land. We had both fell asleep and we're looking out the window and all we see are cornfields. Rodney looks at me and goes, "Goddamn." That moment meant the dream that we had been living was over.
Eleven months later, Petersen was traded to Golden State for his old teammate Ralph Sampson. Once upon a time, he had been Ralph's backup. Now they were being dealt straight-up for one another, just two big guys with bum knees on their way out of the league.
Jerry Reynolds (coach, Sacramento Kings, '86-'87): It was really tough. Ralph was one of the most professional players I've been around. The guy worked hard and tried to get healthy and get his game back, but quite honestly, he just didn't have any legs at all. It was really sad for such a great player, certainly one of the great college players of all time.
Ainge: Playing with Ralph in Sacramento gave me a real appreciation for Ralph as a person. Here was a guy who was a great, great, college legend, a star NBA rookie, an All-Star player in the NBA, and he was struggling physically with his knees. But that guy worked and he was being paid. He sort of made the money already. But he was determined to continue playing. I was very impressed with how hard he worked and how determined he was to get back on the court.
Reynolds: We worked out a buyout deal — I'm sure it was Ralph feeling he could play better and play more than he was playing for us. Our feeling was, quite honestly, that that wasn't going to happen. I wish I'd been wrong. He went to Washington for a little while, but his career was over.
Dawson: I always felt a lot of admiration for [Sampson] because with a three-time player of the year, the expectations were so high that nobody could have lived up to what people wanted. People forget. I go to bat for him all the time.
Ryan: Ralph didn't want to be 7-foot-4. But he accomplished what he accomplished. I think Ralph was a prisoner of his psyche. A lot of big guys are. He was one of the great examples. He played like a man who wished he was a foot shorter.
Blinebury: In his heart of hearts, Ralph would have loved to be a point guard or at least a shooting guard.
Parish: [Ralph] reminds me of Sam Bowie a little bit. All that's different is, Ralph was able to play a little longer and be more of an impact player than Sam Bowie was.
THE IMPACT OF THE TOWERS
Sampson played just 154 games over four-plus seasons after leaving Houston, before retiring in 1992. He fell into issues over child support payments, bankruptcy, and mail fraud later in life. Phoenix recently hired Sampson as an assistant player development coordinator. Meanwhile, Lucas turned his life around, became an NBA coach, and now tutors athletes on how to overcome their addictions. Lewis and Wiggins both rejoined the Rockets in 1989-90, but their NBA careers ended shortly and unspectacularly after that. Olajuwon claimed his elusive championships in 1994 and 1995 when Michael Jordan took his baseball sabbatical, doing it without any of his teammates from the '85-'86 season. Those Rockets left nearly as soon as they came. But for that brief stretch, the rest of the league feared, respected, and tried to duplicate them.43
Donnie Walsh (general manager, Indiana Pacers): If one team that's really good has two big guys, then the other teams will try to get two big guys.
Heisler: After 1986, the Lakers went into the next season bound and determined to find another 7-footer. They almost made the [Roy] Tarpley trade. That was going to be for Worthy and [Byron] Scott and that was at Magic's instigation because they were going to get [Mark] Aguirre too. The deal was made by Jerry Buss and then Buss called up Don Carter, the owner of the Mavericks at the time, and asked him to let him out of the deal because he was afraid he was going to lose his general manager. West wasn't happy about it. They didn't do the deal and it wound up saving the Lakers because Tarpley went into rehab soon after. The Lakers really thought they had to get another 7-footer to match the Rockets. They looked everywhere and almost went through on this ruinous deal.
Dawson: We got the shooters around [Olajuwon] in the early '90s with [Vernon] Maxwell, Kenny Smith, Mario Elie, and [Sam] Cassell. We started making 3s and we could kick it into Hakeem. That's how we won our championships.
Olajuwon: When you win, you thank God. You're on the other side so many times, which makes it more valuable. You've been close so many times.
Tomjanovich: We grew up here. Especially Hakeem and myself. We grew up in that organization. You rarely see that in sports, where somebody is right there in that spot where they lived and spent a lot of time.
Thomas: The team that won it was the identical team that I sold [in 1994]. If I had known they were going to win a championship, I might not have even sold it. Six months later, they were world champions.
Sampson: I think a lot of people thought What if? with the Rockets back in that day. Because the Rockets during that era were the only team that dethroned the Lakers in the Western Conference, with Moses Malone in the early '80s and us in the mid '80s. We had some issues with teammates and getting a good point guard, but that could have been a good dynasty.
McCray: I don't think, to this day, you've had two 7-footers with the caliber of Ralph and Dream on the court together.44
Reid: I talked to James Worthy at a golf tournament a couple years back — he was telling me, and Magic was telling me, how they really didn't like to play us because we matched up too well for them.
Worthy: We got our mojo back after losing. That was embarrassing. I think Houston kind of lost their drive after they beat the Lakers. Beating the Lakers in the '80s was a big thing.
McDowell: You sure weren't expected to beat the Lakers four times in a row. The Lakers? Who saw that coming? Who saw that, really? Even to this day.
McCray: To this day, we still believe that if we would have had everybody clicking at the same time of the Finals, we would have won the championship.
Sampson: You marvel at some of the things that could have happened.
Reid: If we had not lost John Lucas, all of us would have had a ring. There is no way anyone was going to stop us.
Lucas: [Fitch] really had a major impact in my life 26 years ago. We had all the pieces to win a championship, but I might be dead now, so it's a curse and a blessing.45
McCray: We were just the young guns, the new kids on the block, that were supposed to be together for years to come. Us being selfish and not taking anything away from those championship teams, whenever I run into a Robert Reid or an Allen Leavell or Ralph, we say that we could have beat those other teams. But when you win championships, that's number one on the list.
McCray: When you talk about the Rockets, you talk about the back-to-back championship teams [in the '90s]. Not the team that could have been.
Lloyd: It was one of the greatest teams in the history of the game that didn't get to make a run for three, or four, five years. If we would have had three or four years to stay together, we would have won a couple of championships. We had beat the Lakers and we had their number.
Blinebury: These guys self-destructed. These guys did it to themselves.
Parish: I always wondered how good they would have been had Sampson not had the knee problems he experienced. What if he had played as long as Hakeem did? What if those two were able to play together for the duration of their careers? Think about how many championships they would have won. It would have been real interesting, I'll tell you that. I think about that sometimes.