BOWIE -- A month ago, after finally reaching agreement on a contract buyout from the Sacramento Kings that guarantees him $5 million over the next eight years, Ralph Sampson went home, climbed into his king-sized bed and stayed there a whole day.
"My wife thought I was sick," said Sampson, now a 7-foot-4 free agent, who underwent a tryout yesterday for Washington Bullets coach Wes Unseld and general manager John Nash.
"I spent 17 years playing basketball," said the former All-American from Virginia. "I wanted to get out of bed, dress, go to the arena and play like I'd been doing all those years. But I suddenly realized it was over. Basketball wasn't in my life now. I'd reached a dead end, and I didn't know how to act.
"On the other hand, I was exhilarated, like an albatross had been lifted off my shoulders. But now, suddenly I had nothing to do. Nowhere to go.
"But the more I thought about it, I knew I'd be back in the game one day as a player or coach. I never say never. Of course, one day you know your career will end. But you always want to be in a situation to give it one last shot. My heart, body and mind are still with basketball, and the fire is still in my belly."
Sampson's resolve could soon be tested. If he passes a physical examination today, it's possible the Bullets could sign Sampson for the league minimum of $130,000.
Sampson, 31, who joined Hakeem Olajuwon in leading the Houston Rockets to the NBA Finals in 1986, has seen his basketball career all but ended after suffering a back injury in 1987 and subsequently undergoing operations on both knees. It transformed him from a perennial All-Star to a bench-warmer for Golden State and Sacramento the past four years.
Yesterday, Sampson went through a series of drills for nearly an hour. "He looked like he was in decent condition considering how little he has played [51 games] the last two years," Nash said. "Obviously, he can't do what he did at 22. We're not going to see him take off from the foul line and dunk anymore.
"The question is whether he can still run up and down the floor and perform a role for us, playing 15-20 minutes a game. We've had difficulty defending people in the low post. It would also give us the opportunity to move [center] Pervis Ellison to power forward.
"Ralph wants to demonstrate to the basketball world and the Bullets that he can still play. If he can, it could be beneficial for both of us."
Unseld preferred taking a wait-and-see attitude until results of Sampson's physical examination. But after losing to the Utah Jazz Saturday night, the coach underlined the need to acquire a go-to frontline player, a missing ingredient this season since knee surgery sidelined Bernard King.
"We don't have a man underneath and haven't had one for some time," said Unseld.
Sampson, who played in one preseason game in October before reaching his settlement with the Kings, said: "Right now, I'm out of shape by my standards and Wes' standards. But I'm a self-motivator. I know Wes would push me hard, but I'd welcome that. After playing so sparingly the last two years, the biggest thing is to get playing time and be focused."
Sampson said he received feelers from professional teams in Europe and could extend his career by adopting their lighter practice and game schedules.
But the native of Harrisonburg, Va., would prefer to resume his career playing for the Bullets, a team he adopted as a high school phenom.
"Ever since word got out that I was contacted by the Bullets, I was besieged by calls from relatives and friends, telling me whether it was a good or bad situation for me," Sampson said.
"I think it would be great to play only a few hours from home. The Washington area has always been good to me. I've played a lot of games at the Capital Centre, dating back to the Capital Classic when I was still in high school."
Before he took his first shot for the University of Virginia, Sampson was heralded as the heir apparent to Lakers superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
But after winning NBA Rookie of the Year honors in 1983 and being selected as an All-Star the next three years, Sampson began hearing and reading critics describe him as a classic under-achiever, a crybaby and, most recently, "damaged goods."
He used to bristle at the criticism and recalled pasting a negative comment by San Antonio Spurs star David Robinson on his refrigerator.
"I learned you can't control what people say," he said. "My career isn't over. What people expect or expected of me, isn't what I expect of myself. I always have high expectations, but I can only be Ralph Sampson."