Point guard Sam Cassell's clutch performances as the Houston
Rockets' sixth man during their NBA title runs the past two
seasons would have been enough to get him noticed. But he also
has that hyperactive bent, that goofy, irrepressible grin, those
almond-shaped eyes that snap open like two window blinds when an
impulse tugs at him, or when he's suddenly amused, or when he
sees something he just has to tell somebody about--which happens
constantly. And then? "Then, the last thing you want to do is
even look at Sam,'' Houston forward Robert Horry says jokingly.
Because then Cassell just has to say something. What?
"Anything," says San Antonio Spur guard Avery Johnson. "Last
year I came to a game in Houston during the NBA Finals because
my coach thought it would be good for me to experience the
environment, feel the intensity, right? So I'm sitting there
during Game 3, and Sam is running downcourt and suddenly he sees
me in the third row and he shouts, 'Hey! A.J.! What's up,
man?'--right in the middle of the play. In the NBA Finals."
"When he was young the other kids nicknamed him Guppy because he
used to, well ... because he used to--ha ha--because when he got
excited, he'd talk so fast he'd drool," Sam's mother, Donna,
says, her voice dissolving into high-pitched laughter. "Sam used
to slobber so much, the other guys used to say that was his
secret weapon to get open, I guess because no one wants to get
close enough to guard you if he knows--hee hee--he might end up
with a string of saliva across his face. Ohhh, ha haha ha ha!"
"My mom, that's my girl," Sam coos.
"I used to go to his games and shout, 'That's my baby!''' Donna
adds. "I guess you can tell whom he takes after."
Among the Rockets, Cassell is known for clambering onto the team
bus and booming, "Get up, get up, get up!'' until his dozing
teammates jerk their heads upward. He's equally famous for
shattering the silence before Houston's early-morning practices
by bursting in the gym door and yelling to teammates like Horry,
Hakeem Olajuwon and Kenny Smith, "Hey, Robert! Hey, Dream! Hey
Kenny--I gotta talk to you!''
Cassell has a tendency to comically exaggerate almost
everything--his youth in Baltimore ("I was a playground
legend!"), the fact that he now has two championship rings in
just two NBA seasons ("Amazing! Unheard of!''), his reasons for
playing two years of junior college ball when he could have gone
to a Division I power like Arkansas as a Prop 48 student had he
been willing to sit out one season. "It wasn't even a thought,
it wasn't even a possibility. I've got to play, I got to play, I
need to play like I need water,'' Cassell wails, lolling his
shaved head back and forth like a man stranded in the Sahara.
"Even when I went home this summer, I was playing five days
after we won the championship. Of course, I was terrible. Guys
wouldn't even pass me the ball--and these were my friends! They
all told me, 'Man, if Rudy T could see you now, he'd trade your
Nah. Rudy Tomjanovich, the Rocket coach, loves Cassell's
cocksure attitude, his hunger to win, his fearlessness. "I
remember Sam's first exhibition start with us, against the
[Orlando] Magic,'' Tomjanovich says. "I looked up, and there's
Sam and Scott Skiles, another fierce competitor, fighting--I
mean, really going at it. Toe-to-toe. In an exhibition game!''
Perhaps it was something Cassell said.
"I told the Rockets that Sam competes so much, talks so much,
carries on so much, he can drive you crazy sometimes,'' says
Scott Gernander, Cassell's coach at San Jacinto Junior College
in Pasadena, Texas.
Smith, who is Houston's starting point guard, adds, "It doesn't
matter if it's 2 a.m. or 2 p.m., you'll hear Sam coming before
you see him. When he gets on the bus, I fake sleeping. Or I put
on the headphones of my Walkman and start nodding my head to the
music--even when I don't have a tape in. And I know he was louder
at Florida State."
Smith's eyebrows twitch upward. "Can you imagine that?'' he
adds. "Sam's mature now."
As good as Cassell's career statistics were for the
Seminoles--18.3 points, 4.4 assists and 2.3 steals a game--they
hardly portended that, by the end of his rookie season of
1993-94, Cassell would have walked onto a veteran Rocket team
and carved out a spot as Tomjanovich's game closer. Houston had
won 55 games the season before. Ten guards were chosen before
the Rockets made Cassell the 24th pick in the '93 draft. One NBA
general manager told Cassell's agent that he rated Cassell no
better than a CBA lifer.
But Cassell's self-confidence has always been unshakable. Even
with Houston, a team on which everyone seems to shine--center
Olajuwon and guard Clyde Drexler for their unyielding
excellence, Horry for his playoff-game-winning jumper against
San Antonio last year, forward Mario Elie for his three-pointer
from the corner that killed the Phoenix Suns in Game 7 of the
1995 Western Conference semifinals--Cassell stands out.
And not just because he's a 6'3" joy buzzer.
"He's a great kid, just a great kid," Elie says. "He's got guts.
Confidence. Talent. And, you know...."
"He can really talk."
It has always been like this. From the time Sam was eight years
old until he was 13 or 14, Donna would look out the back window
of the Cassells' three-story row house on Montford Street in
Baltimore and, she recalls, "there would be Sam yelling, 'Go at
it, Smoothy. C'mon, Cool! You can't guard me, Magoo!' And there
would be nobody out there but him.
"He'd be calling out his friends' nicknames, getting mad if one
of them messed up the play--and he would go on like that for
hours, I mean hours, by himself,'' Donna says. "It got to the
point where I actually thought maybe there was something wrong
with my baby--that, you know, maybe he was a little crazy or
something. But my mom reassured me. She said, 'Aw, he's all
right. And if he's playing by himself, he can't get into a
"Nothing wrong with talking to yourself,'' Sam agrees. "As long
as you don't start answering yourself, you're all right.''
When he wasn't playing outside, Cassell was inside, using every
wall in the house for a backboard and tossing balled-up socks
into a cup and dribbling up and down the stairs--antics that all
became the grist for Donna's scene-stealing appearance in the
Reebok commercial she shot last spring, along with the mothers
of the New Jersey Nets' Kenny Anderson, the Charlotte Hornets'
Muggsy Bogues and the Los Angeles Lakers' Nick Van Exel. "The
first day of shooting, they almost had to pull comments out of
us,'' Donna says. "By Day 2, I was wired. By the third day the
director was saying to me, 'Are you going to give someone else a
Though he didn't even have a rim in his backyard for his
imaginary games, Sam did have the good fortune to come of age
during a halcyon period in Baltimore-area basketball. It was
just a 12-block walk from Cassell's home to the Madison Square
Recreation Center and The Dome, a roofed outdoor court that long
has drawn the best players in the city. And if Cassell had
walked another three blocks from there, he would have been at
Dunbar High, where the fabled team featuring Bogues, Reggie
Williams, David Wingate and the late Reggie Lewis polished off a
two-year run of 59-0 when Cassell was a ninth-grader.
All four of those Dunbar stars performed in the NBA before
Cassell. Though Cassell didn't play high school ball with any of
them, they tangled often on the playgrounds. When summer leagues
took over at The Dome, Cassell played against pros like John
Battle and Johnny Newman as soon as they let him in the games.
Cassell has a classic playground guard's game--the crossover
dribbles and drives to the rim, the spins and stutter-step moves
in traffic, the slick passes and creativity. And his skills have
been honed during a thousand rehearsals. The summer after the
Rockets won their first title, Cassell and Anfernee Hardaway,
the Orlando Magic's All-NBA guard, met for weeks at 11 p.m. each
night for full-court one-on-one games at a Houston high school
to which Cassell had the keys to the gym. He also studies
opponents on videotape. And Cassell has always sought the
counsel of top players. Drexler is his current oracle. Advice
seems to stick to him like Velcro.
Before Cassell left for Florida State, Bogues told him, ''You
can score--but play some defense, man. You've got the quickness.
But defense is nothing but desire. Do you have the desire?''
Cassell went out and remade his game. By his senior year at FSU,
he led the Atlantic Coast Conference in steals.
Cassell is proud of the doggedness he showed during his
circuitous route to the pros--the year he spent in prep school at
Maine Central Institute to improve his grades; San Jacinto's
34-4 and 24-3 records during his two-year stay there; his part
in boosting Florida State's program. "I was this kid chasing a
dream--and chasing it and chasing it and chasing it," he says.
On Saturday afternoons at San Jacinto, Cassell would sit in his
dorm room watching faraway ACC games, studying Anderson, who was
then at Georgia Tech, or Duke's Bobby Hurley to see how their
games compared to his. "I knew I could play with them," Cassell
says. "And I was always thinking NBA, even then." Yet when NBA
scouts came, Cassell says, "I found myself constantly selling
myself to them as a point guard. And they'd tell me I didn't
have 'point guard skills.'''
Tomjanovich was the exception. Of course, Tomjanovich admits,
"by the draft, I started to wonder, Am I crazy?"
Only in the best sense of the word.
Tomjanovich made the call, and Cassell joined Houston the same
year the Rockets reeled off their NBA-record-tying 15-0 run to
start the regular season. Given Rudy T's intensity, it's little
wonder Tomjanovich was drawn to Cassell. And from the minute
Cassell joined Houston, he fit in. "We tried to mess with him
from the start," Elie says with a laugh. "You know, you get a
skinny little kid in camp, especially one who talks, and you
want to see what he's made of. So we talked a lot of trash at
him in practice, tried to rattle him. We dared him, bumped him,
hacked him. But he didn't break. He'd come back talking just as
much as us. And on the court he had an answer for everything."
Cassell still had to wait his turn for playing time behind Smith
and Scott Brooks (now with the Dallas Mavericks). But when
Smith was hurt early in the 1993-94 season, the Rockets went 4-0
with Cassell as the starter. After that, Tomjanovich began
trusting Cassell to close out games, especially in the last
third of the season.
Even so, what Cassell did in the 1994 playoffs was a revelation.
Tomjanovich was still referring to him as Rook when Cassell
poured in 22 points in just 29 minutes against Phoenix in Game 7
of the Western Conference semis. Sun coach Paul Westphal called
Cassell's three-pointer with 4:50 to play--a shot launched just a
heartbeat before the shot-clock buzzer--"the dagger in our
The Rockets went winging into the Finals against the New York
Knicks two weeks later. Cassell was still doing such rookie
chores as carrying the practice basketballs on road trips. But
with the series at one game each and the Madison Square Garden
crowd howling, he scored Houston's last seven points, starting
with another nerveless three-pointer with 32.6 seconds left and
the Rockets trailing 88-86. Houston won by four. It turned out
to be the pivotal game of the series. Afterward, Knick center
Patrick Ewing stood in the losers' dressing room and told
reporters, "Cosell really stepped up tonight."
"I know, I know--he called me Cosell," Cassell groans. Then he
brightens and adds, "But they know my name now.''
In the 1995 Finals against the Magic, Cassell told Smith,
"Relax. I'm giving you the night off" and then rang up 31 points
in Houston's Game 2 victory in Orlando. "I thought he was
kidding," Smith says.
Now that the Rockets have won two titles, Cassell, who is in the
last year of a three-year, $2.5 million contract, says he has
received his share of respect. When Cassell went home to
Baltimore this summer bragging about his second ring--"What other
young guy has ever done that?"--a friend reminded him that Scott
Williams (then with the Chicago Bulls) actually had won three
titles in his first three NBA seasons and had done it before
Cassell won his. "Scott Williams?" Cassell shrieked. "He was
just a decoy! I'm a coach on the floor!"
When Cassell picked up the telephone one day this summer, he was
told Reebok wanted to make another commercial. Laughing now,
Cassell says, "The first thing I asked them was, 'Do you want
me? Or my mom?' And they said, 'You, Sam.'"
Like his mom's commercial, this one sounds perfectly conceived.
Cassell says all he had to do was play.