FORMER NBA star Ralph Sampson, 32, will lead Hongkong's challenge in the Asian Basketball Association (ABA), a professional league for East Asian countries, starting in July. Sampson, a star collegiate player when he was at the University of Virginia, was the NBA's number one draft choice in 1983 and signed up with the Houston Rockets. The seven-foot four-inch Sampson lived up to his reputation by winning the Rookie of the Year title in 1984. And in 1985, only his second year at Houston, he was named Most Valuable Player in the NBA All-Star Game, joining the ranks of legendary players like Julius Erving and Larry Bird. Later, superstars like Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and Magic Johnson also won the award. Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon, a seven-foot Nigerian native, were part of the Rockets' twin-tower arrangement that propelled the team to the NBA finals against the Boston Celtics in the 1985-86 season. Knee problems plagued Sampson, however. After several trades, including one to the Golden State Warriors, he was waived by the Sacramento Kings before the 1991-92 season. He then played 10 games for the Washington Bullets in 1991-92 before opting for the Spanish league and the Unicaja de Ronda team last season. He ended his US career with averages of 15.4 points and 8.8 rebounds in 456 games. In announcing the acquisition of Sampson for Team Hongkong yesterday, team owner Landy Eng said: ''It's great to have a 'million dollar player' like Ralph in our team. Eng is hoping to sign another top name player to boost Hongkong's prospects against professional outfits from South Korea, Taiwan, China, Singapore and the Philippines. But he added: ''We will not be using our full quota of three expatriate players because we want to use as many local talents as possible. ''Team Hongkong belongs to the people and we want the local involvement, both in terms of players and the fans' participation. We haven't given the team an official name yet because we want the public to select it. ''There will be a contest to name the team and the fans can either pick one from a number of choices, namely Dragons, Phoenix, Typhoons, Dollars, 88 and 98 or they can make fresh suggestions. There will be an open draft for the local players in the first week of June and Eng promised that the successful applicants will be richly rewarded during their three-month contract with Team Hongkong. The ABA tips off a season of 20 matches in Shanghai in late July with the second round of matches being held in Wuhan and then moving to Hongkong, Taiwan, Singapore and culminating with the play-offs in the Philippines. Hongkong players making the team, however, will have to go through almost two months of physical training at The Gym health club in a programme specially designed for them by professionals. The league will feature a combination of international and NBA rules. For example, players will get three free throws if they're fouled taking a three-point shot. They also will foul out after six violations. Each team will be permitted to field three foreign players on the court at any given time. Foreign players from the NBA, Europe and other leagues would probably be paid US$8,000-US$10,000 per month. The terms of Sampson's deal weren't announced, but he is expected to receive more.