You’re probably wondering who that random dude in the crowd is. That’s normal. I’ll spare you the detective work—his name is Ralph Sampson. Who is Ralph Sampson? I’ll spare you the reading time:
Here’s a terrifying prospect—in 1982, Ralph Sampson, who was in attendance for Game 1 of that year’s NBA Finals between the Sixers and Lakers, had the option of declaring for the NBA Draft through what was known at the time as the Hardship Exception.
After winning the NBA title over Philly in six games, the Lakers—shockingly—had the #1 pick that summer. They took James Worthy. Imagine a league today where the recently-crowned champion has a Top 2 pick in the NBA Draft.
The closest we’ve come to that has been the 2002-03 Détroit Pistons, who had the #2 pick in the ’03 Draft—as we already know, they went on to win the 2004 NBA Finals. Darko Miličić does. Suppose the Lakers take Ralph Sampson #1 overall?
Or even Dominique Wilkins, as I mentioned earlier? Could you imagine Magic running the floor with Byron Scott and Nique for the next decade, especially considering the latter’s scoring output didn’t dip under 17 PPG until he turned 38 years old?
As a reference, James Worthy’s career would last only 11 years, forcing him into retirement in 1994 after a series of knee injuries ended his career at only 32 years of age. Injuries don’t care who you are, and we’ve seen how they’ve changed NBA History.
As we would eventually find out, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had already turned 34 years old prior to the 1982 NBA Finals, would go on to play another seven full seasons in the NBA before retiring at the ripe old age of 42 at the end of the 1989 NBA Finals.
How much more could the Lakers have won with a dynamic duo of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Ralph Sampson up front? This means that Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon never form the Twin Towers in Houston. This means that there’s no Rockets upset of the Lakers in the 1986 Western Conference Semifinals.
Could this mean that a younger Sampson, not burdened with the fortunes of a franchise desperately in need of a new center with Moses Malone traded to Philadelphia, has a healthier career? Maybe. Do the Lakers, now equipped with Kareem and Sampson inside, still struggle with a dominant Malone inside the following season?
This is the fun part about these what-if scenarios. We might never truly know. Who knows, maybe the draft order, due to shifting talent in Houston and elsewhere, changes in the summer of 1984, meaning someone other than the Chicago Bulls is awarded the #3 pick. You know where this is going.
This means that Michael Jordan takes flight elsewhere—like Portland [they had the #2 pick here on Earth-1], Dallas [#4], or even—amazingly enough—in Philadelphia [5th] alongside his idol Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Mo Cheeks, and Bobby Jones (instead of Charles Barkley).
As a reference, the Sixers went 58-24 in 1984-85, and that was with Charles Barkley not starting for 22 games. Replace him with a young and superior Michael Jordan in that lineup, just two years removed from a dominant 1982-83 campaign. How do you count them out, even against a dominant Lakers team that season? With Sir Charles, they split the season series with L.A. (122-116, W on 12/07/1984; 104-109, L on 01/25/1985). Don’t they win with MJ instead?
And what does that mean for the rest of the decade? Imagine that if you must.
And it all starts with Ralph Sampson coming early out of college.
This is fun.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Boca Raton, Ricky J. Marc, J.D., M.S. is an alumnus of the Obama White House and Cornell Paris Institute, a former Legislative Aide with both the Florida House of Representatives and Florida Senate, and a graduate of St. Thomas University with a Juris Doctor and Master of Science in Sports Administration.
Ricky currently resides in Paris, France, is the host of the The RJM Experience (available everywhere podcasts are found), and is the host of the upcoming STICK TO SPORTS: A Sports Podcast (That Isn’t) series.
Follow him on Twitter @RickyJMarc. His life matters.