In Superman comics there’s a topsy-turvy place known as Bizarro World. Everything works backward there: Good is bad, bad is good, etc. Bizarro World has a lot in common with professional basketball. Particularly the NBA draft, where you win by losing.
Take the once woebegone Houston Rockets—a team that may well become the NBA’s next great power. In the 1982-83 season the Rockets played miserably, finishing dead last in their conference. This entitled them to pick first in the draft, so they chose highly touted Ralph Sampson from the University of Virginia. The 7’4″, 230-pound center helped (Sampson won the NBA’s coveted Rookie of the Year award), but not very much. The Rockets finished last again. So they picked first again in 1984, plucking Nigerian-born Akeem Abdul Olajuwon—a 6’11”, 250-pound center—out of the University of Houston.
Basketball savants wondered if the two big men, instantly dubbed the “Twin Towers,” could work together. The answer, thus far, is that they work together like gangbusters. With the 21-year-old “Akeem the Dream” at center and Sampson, 24, moved to forward, the Rockets lifted off to their best start ever, winning their first eight games. They are second in their conference in rebounds and blocked shots, while playing grinding defense and a fast-break, racehorse-type offense. There’s lots of fanny patting, high fives and, for the first time in years, wildly cheering fans in the seats.
“I enjoy it,” says Sampson of his teammate’s presence. “I definitely enjoy it. With Akeem inside there’s less pressure on me to rebound or block shots.” Despite his size Sampson plays the game with surprising agility. A superb ball handler who can shoot from the outside, he’s averaging 19.7 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. Another reason Sampson likes having Olajuwon around: He deflects some of the media pressure. Though he was a speech-communications major at Virginia, Sampson doesn’t enjoy talking to the press. He answers basketball-related questions, but his face, as one local scribe poetically put it, often bears the “expressionless countenance of an Indian fakir.” Explains Rocket Coach Bill Fitch, “Ralph is not the type of person who likes to be onstage. But people get the wrong impression when they think he’s a grouch.” He may not be a grouch, but he’s not exactly gregarious either. Sample exchange: What do you do when you’re not playing basketball? “Nothing.” Do you date anyone? “Not a question to ask. Put it down in your notebook like that.”
The proud owner of a four-year, $5.3 million contract, Sampson is freer with his money than he is with interview time. “Last year,” he says, “I made sure my family was happy. Everybody got cars and the house got redone.” This year he took care of Ralph. He drives a Mercedes 500 SEL and a Porsche 944 (the license plate reads STIX 50, alluding to his nickname and uniform number). He has just moved into a six-bedroom house, which his kidding teammates say is the size of an elementary school, in the heavily wooded Memorial section of Houston. His custom-made shirts bear a discreet RS embroidered on the pocket. “I don’t need much to live,” he says.
If Sampson is a finesse player, Olajuwon is ferocious. His style is reminiscent of the 76ers’ Moses Malone. (No accident—the two practice against each other in the off-season.) Averaging 11.1 rebounds and 17.2 points per game, Olajuwon says one of the toughest things about adjusting to the pros “is that you have to work for every point you get. In college you can get lazy and get away with it. Here, the competition will take advantage.”
Born in Lagos, Olajuwon was a soccer goalie as a kid. He took up basketball only six years ago and still has a reputation for naïveté. Earlier this season he didn’t know whether to wear his uniform or street clothes on the team bus. Before a road trip he was surprised to learn he wouldn’t be coming home between games. “He may be inexperienced,” says Fitch, “but Akeem is dumb like a fox. He’s streetwise.”
And he’s learning. “I am a businessman,” says Olajuwon, whose $6.3 million contract runs for six years. The other Rockets have not only warmed up to the ebullient African, they’ve taken him under their wing. Especially Sampson. “Ralph has been very considerate,” says Fitch. “He’s helped him along and shown him how hard he has to work.” Akeem agrees: “He gives me a lot of confidence and encouragement.” Like Sampson, Olajuwon drives a Porsche and Mercedes(his license plate: DREEM). And like Sampson he has bought a new house; his in the north Houston area. Sometimes the rookie even seems to be taking lessons in communications from Sampson. He politely but steadfastly refuses to answer questions that don’t suit him. When a reporter asked him about his new home, Olajuwon simply excused himself and left. But no, it wasn’t an exercise in Bizarro public relations; it was more like a confirmation of his street smarts. “People will know when I’m out of town,” he later explained. “It would be easy for them to rob me.”
How tall will the Twin Towers eventually stand? “As a team,” says Fitch, “Akeem and Ralph are about two years away. Both of them have a long way to go in their games.” And nowhere to go but up.