25 Years Ago: Ralph Sampson Punches Jerry Sichting

Boston Celtics fan holds Houston Rockets Ralph Sampson doll - Game 6 of 1986 NBA Finals

A Boston fan, flanked by two police officers, holds a Ralph Sampson doll by a string of
rope from the upper deck during Game 6 of the 1986 NBA Finals in Boston.

The hiring of Kevin McHale certainly has brought back memories of the 1986 NBA Finals when the Rockets took on the Boston Celtics, and today marks exactly 25 years since Game 5 of that series — the game where tensions boiled over and a melee broke out. Houston’s 7-foot-4 center/forward Ralph Sampson got entangled with Boston’s 6-foot-1 guard Jerry Sichting, then he snapped, firing punches at Sichting.

A few thoughts about this game, series and Rockets era:

  • For a short time, Ralph Sampson was a great player (MVP of the All-Star Game in 1985) and the sky seemed to be the limit, but injuries really tore him down. He had a scary fall, landing flush on his back, earlier in the season (coincidentally in Boston) and as a result of compensating for his hip pain, he developed knee problems. This fight also hurt Sampson’s image and, in a way, was the beginning of the end, just a few weeks after his miracle shot to beat the Lakers had the city hoisting him on its shoulders. The media blasted Sampson. Celtics players took shots in the press, with Sichting saying that his “little brother” had hit him harder and that he didn’t know if it was a “punch or a mosquito.” Larry Bird couldn’t believe Sampson picked a fight with Sichting. “Heck, my girlfriend could beat [Sichting] up,” said Bird. Celtics fans were merciless, taunting Sampson in Game 6 with chants and Boston passed out signs that read, “Sampson is a Sissy.” We thought we had a Rockets dynasty in the making, but a year and a half later, Sampson was shipped to Golden State and the Rockets were struggling to find the right puzzle pieces.

  • No suspensions were given out for this fight, despite roundhouses flying all over the place. Think the league has changed since then? Rod Thorn, then the VP of operations, said there were no suspensions because it wasn’t “premeditated.” Now that’s funny.

    “[Sampson] threw a bunch of punches, and connected with three or four, but we’re trying to take into consideration that it wasn’t premeditated,” said Thorn. “I think you’ll see, at the start of next season, that if we continue to have violent incidents, we’ll suspend people. But we didn’t want to start here. The Celtics and Rockets were playing an important game, were on an emotional high, and we didn’t feel the situation warranted a suspension. What happened appeared to be spontaneous, but we don’t want to have another Rudy Tomjanovich incident, either. We have huge people involved, and they’re not on hockey skates, where people don’t have leverage. We have to do everything in our power to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

  • Youth vs. Experience. The Celtics were used to the physical play and the Rockets weren’t. This is probably illustrated best by Hakeem Olajuwon (then “Akeem”), who just comes flying in to the pile throwing haymakers with no regard for human life, connecting with Bird’s back and Dennis Johnson’s face. Olajuwon had an amazing playoff run, but was kicked out of critical games for fighting/arguing — Game 6 in Denver (final game of series), Game 5 in Los Angeles (final game of series) and this elimination game against Boston. He had a lot of maturing to do … and mature he did.

  • This fight ignited a brief inferno under the Rockets, who led by just one at the time. They proceeded to blowout Boston, outscoring them by 23 points in the middle periods. Robert Reid had 17 assists, with 13 of them coming in one half, but it was really the Dream who stepped up huge — Akeem just started wrecking shop from that point against the Celtics’ historic front line, finishing with 32 points, 14 boards and 8 blocks. Some of his highlights are just sick.

  • Things that make you go ‘hmm’: Tommy Heinsohn, former Celtics player and Celtics color broadcaster (still is), is well known for his ridiculous pro-Celtics rants… yet he was doing the color work for the national broadcast of these games on CBS. Something tells me that analysis wasn’t exactly impartial.

  • Speaking of biased announcers, there was broadcaster Johnny Most, the legendary radio voice of the Celtics who spoke like he had gravel in his throat. Most teed off on Sampson on air while calling the play:

    “Sampson levels Sichting with an elbow [and] now they’re fighting. They don’t call it. He started the whole damn thing! And big Ralph Sampson is a foot and 3 inches taller than Sichting. He’s the last guy who has a right to complain. The big, brave bull. ‘I’m Ralph Sampson. I have the right to hit you. I have a right to bite your head off.’ Ralph Sampson is a gutless big guy who picks on little people, and he showed me a gutless streak. That was a gutless, yellow thing to do!”

  • The 1985-86 Boston Celtics won 67 games and were an astounding 40-1 at home (still a record). This was a great team, considered by some to be the best NBA team ever (the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls may argue that). Yet, isn’t it interesting that while critics dismiss the Houston Rockets’ titles in the 1990′s because they didn’t face Michael Jordan and the Bulls, they don’t say the same about this particular Celtics team with respect to the Lakers. After all, Boston lost to Los Angeles in the Finals in both 1985 and 1987 but were denied the chance to face the Lakers in ’86, courtesy of the Rockets.

  • I count no less than 6 players in this series that could completely solve the pivot problems of the 2011 Rockets — McHale, Robert Parish, Bill Walton, Olajuwon, Sampson and Jim Petersen. Yes, Jim Petersen. Hell, even Granville Waiters would give Jordan Hill a run for his money. I mean, back then, the Rockets had so much size they were converting franchise centers to power forward. Today’s Rockets are begging 6-foot-4 fours to slide to five.


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