More than an ego trip
“If I’m a general manager, I’m not trading Sam Cassell for Marko Jaric,” Cassell said, referring to the trade that brought him from Minnesota last summer. “No way. I’m a gamer. I know how to win.” There is much more to the 36-year-old point guard than the selfish blabbermouth that some perceive. This outgoing son of a sanitation worker from the rugged streets of Baltimore thrives because of his ego, not despite it. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORESanta Anita opens winter meet Saturday with loaded card Cassell has brought to the Clippers much needed leadership, clutch shooting and a winning attitude. When the team went 14-5 for the best start in Clipper history, he was a huge reason. “Sam has been great for the team,” the Clippers’ Corey Maggette said. “I can’t stress that enough. His leadership on this team is exactly what we needed.” The ups and downs of playing for seven teams in 13 seasons, including three in one season, have helped shape his character. Cassell was an all-star during 2003-04, his first season with the Timberwolves. In the second, he missed a career-high 23 games with injuries and was blamed when the team missed the playoffs. He also learned a lot the year he graduated from Baltimore’s Dunbar High in 1989 as a Proposition 48 student. That summer, Cassell hung around his hometown with nothing resembling a Division I scholarship. He might have shown some basketball prowess at Dunbar and in playground ball, but he spent most of his time on a path to nothingness. Sam Cassell is cocky. He rubs some people the wrong way. And the Clippers couldn’t be happier. “It’s easy to get caught up doing nothing,” he said. “And that’s what I was doing in Baltimore – nothing.” Without the academics to play at the Division I level, he was directed to go to the junior-college hoop powerhouse San Jacinto College, outside Houston. “I didn’t want to go to San Jac,” he said. “My freshman year, I took the last flight, the day before school started to get down there. That was my make or break point. My whole family, my father, my grandmother, my great aunt – all the people that supported me – they just wanted me to get off the streets of Baltimore.” The major point is that not only did Cassell have an opportunity at San Jacinto, he followed through. “When Sam came here, I don’t want to say he had baggage,” San Jacinto coach Scott Gernander said. “But people told me different things, that he was too hard to coach, that he carried his emotions on his sleeve. I found out quickly that he was a gym rat, and when he played, he played so hard.” San Jacinto has a well-respected basketball program, so much so that Orlando Magic star Steve Francis played there before attending Maryland and becoming the second overall pick of the 1999 NBA draft. Even though Cassell honed his swagger at San Jac, that bravado was noticed by his parents, Sam and Donna Cassell, well before he went away to school. Sam Cassell, Sr., says that he saw his son trash-talk by the age 9 and probably earlier. And the kid didn’t direct his words to his peers, or adults, for that matter. “He was out there in the yard with imaginary friends,” Sam Sr. said. “He was doing all of that.” Little Sam used garbage cans as playmates, and he dribbled around them to work on his skills. Sam Sr. pointed out that his grandson, Sam Cassell III, actually does the same thing at home in Baltimore. The 13-year-old Sam Cassell III wasn’t too talkative when asked about his basketball ability. But when asked if he thought he would play in the NBA, he wrinkled his nose and nodded his head in a way that said, “Duh, of course.” His dad plays in the NBA, and his 56-year-old grandpa worked 29 years driving a garbage truck. Sam Sr., however, insists that despite the difference in their careers, he and his son aren’t all that different. “He hasn’t changed,” Sam Sr. said. “He’s the same, all the time. As a matter of fact, when he’s at home, you can’t even believe he’s in the NBA the way he acts. He greets people the same way he always has – with a smile.” After getting on a positive path at San Jac, Cassell put in two excellent seasons at Florida State, before the Rockets took him with the 24th pick in the 1993 NBA draft. After three seasons and two rings with the Rockets, he left after the 1995-95 season. In the next nine years, he played in Phoenix, Dallas, New Jersey, Milwaukee and Minnesota before joining the Clippers last summer. Through it all, Cassell averaged 16.2 points and 6.2 assists. He has been an excellent fit here and has become a tutor to 20-year-old point guard Shaun Livingston. So considering his impact thus far, the big question is why so many basketball insiders were shocked when the Clippers made the deal. “People were saying this is a guy who only cares about himself, he’s really selfish, whatever,” coach Mike Dunleavy said. “I liked the way he played. All those things were particularly said, and I didn’t really see it. But you never know until he arrives. We’ve had no issues. Period.” Well, maybe one. Gernander tells entertaining tales about drawing up elaborate plays to start games with Cassell agreeing and being enthusiastic and then taking an ad-lib jump shot to start the game. That occasionally still applies. About the misperception of Cassell being a locker-room agitator or a me-first player, Gernander understands why those ideas are out there. Fans often see an ultra-cocky persona on the basketball court, so over the top he can appear to be a cartoon character. “When Sam’s out there playing, he’s talking all the time,” he said. “And he talks to everyone.. Some guys see somebody like that as a head case. And Sam’s always been confident and not afraid to take big shots, so at times, that will look selfish.” Another common perception is that he is a whiner who has repeatedly called himself `underpaid,’ even though he has made more than $37 million over his career and is making $6.2 million this season. Cassell has never hesitated to speak his mind and be blunt. Cassell asked Minnesota for a contract extension after becoming an all-star and he has been unhappy about some past contracts. “Sam’s situation is that he’s going to do what it takes in order to win,” said Detroit Pistons coach Flip Saunders, who coached Cassell with Minnesota. … “I got a saying, `Sam, your greatest strength is your greatest weakness, if you can’t control it.’ His greatest strength is that he wins games, but sometimes, he might go over the edge.” Saunders said that to `go over the edge’ means taking bad shots or trying to do too much. As a coach, he said he would often have to balance letting Cassell ad-lib and making him follow the team’s plan. Dunleavy has a similar job this season, but so far, the coach has beamed about the veteran’s contributions, and so have his teammates. Clippers guard Cuttino Mobley, who works out with Cassell during the offseason in Houston, said, “He talks a lot. He’s a big mouth, and I love him. He’s one of my closest friends. He’s a leader. He knows a lot of things, and he’s been around. You can learn a lot from him. He’s taught me a lot in these last several years as far as being in the NBA.” Cassell may be a little more pensive, as his career winds down. than when he was a younger a player. He has a 1-year-old son, Caron, and plans on being more involved in his early years than he was with Sam III early in his career. He says he has two years left in him after this season, but wants to be a reserve and role player for his final two seasons. After that, he plans to coach. “I’m a caring guy,” he said. “Everybody knows, that if you’re my friend, I got your back in a crisis. Not just financially, like my teammates here, they don’t need money. They need someone to talk to.” And, boy, can he talk. Joe Stevens, (562) 499-1338 [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!