Mighty Mouth Peripatetic point guard Sam Cassell has found a home in Minnesota, where his chatter and talent are appreciated

January 26, 2004

Kevin Garnett and several other Minnesota Timberwolves skyscrapers
were milling around the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in
Houston last week, but limousine driver Brenda Green had eyes for
a much shorter man. "Hey, Sam Cassell!" she shouted after
dropping off a fare. "We miss you, Sam Cassell. We miss you so
much." Cassell stopped, predictably, in mid-conversation, smiled
at her and waved. Taking in the scene, forward Mark Madsen
assured Green, "Everyone misses Sam." ¶ Even the team executives
who have asked Cassell to pack his bags over the years--Minnesota
is his sixth stop in a career that began with back-to-back
championships with the Houston Rockets in 1994 and '95--must be
missing him these days. T-Wolves coach Flip Saunders has written
his Western Conference counterparts, urging that they vote
Cassell onto his first All-Star team. If they don't, they should
be strapped to a chair in front of a loop of Gigli. At 34,
Cassell is playing as well as any point guard in the NBA, logging
big minutes (37 a game) because of injuries to his backup, Troy
Hudson (right ankle sprain), and to swingman Wally Szczerbiak
(plantar fasciitis, left foot). Through Sunday, Sudden Sam was
averaging 20.9 points (12th in the league and 5.0 points above
his career mark) and 7.4 assists (fifth), and his career-high
50.2% shooting from the field led all guards.

With another new arrival, swingman Latrell Sprewell, Cassell has
joined Garnett to form an entertaining and loquacious version of
the Three Amigos, not to mention the backbone of a Midwest
Division-leading team (26-12) that has raised the title hopes of
Minnesota fans. While there's no doubt that the Amigos have
helped one another, or that the 6'2" Cassell is playing the best
basketball of his career, it's not as if he's doing anything he
didn't do in Houston, Phoenix, Dallas, New Jersey and Milwaukee.
He is backing his man down, usually from his favored left side,
keeping the defender at bay with an educated elbow, waiting,
waiting, waiting, getting separation (that elbow again) and
burying jumper after jumper. "He gets you in his little torture
chamber," says former NBA guard Steve Kerr, "and doesn't let you
out."

Cassell neither leaps high nor fades away on his shot, usually
fired from between 12 and 19 feet, and explains the important
thing is the "dance-step-type" move that precedes the release.
"When I'm in rhythm and I miss," he says, "it takes me a split
second to recover because I'm amazed."

He's a good post-up scorer but rarely gets to the basket for a
camera-friendly finish; he can remember only three dunks in his
career and says that he could "probably" jam now. Nor does he put
up many three-pointers (just 2.5 per game at week's end), though
he was 42.1% shooting from behind the arc. "Every night's the
same shot, the same result," says Timberwolves center Ervin
Johnson, who played with Cassell for four years in Milwaukee.
"The word I think of for Sam is clever." The word Portland Trail
Blazers coach Maurice Cheeks thinks of is throwback, the art of
the midrange jumper being almost lost in the NBA.

Cassell is also taking--and making--big shots; since Dec. 1 he
has averaged 6.8 points and shot 56.8% in the fourth quarter. But
he's always had the capacity to make clutch buckets look routine,
"like he's at the table having breakfast," as Detroit Pistons
forward Darvin Ham, one of many former teammates, puts it.

There have been more peripatetic NBA souls, but rarely has a
solid player with two rings and guts to spare moved so
frequently. Cassell did bring one black mark with him to
Minnesota: He and former Bucks teammates Gary Payton and Jason
Caffey were charged with assault after a fight outside a Toronto
strip club last April. (A trial date has not been set.) Cassell
told general manager Kevin McHale months ago that it was "nothing
to worry about." Even if that doesn't turn out to be the case,
Cassell has never been a lawbreaker or even a serial team-rule
violator. So why is gypsy music the soundtrack of his career?

The anti-Cassell camp cites three issues: He doesn't practice
hard enough, he shoots too often, and he talks too much. To the
initial charge he pleads guilty, though being around the
workaholic Garnett has changed his attitude. For the first time
in Cassell's 11 years, in fact, he made it through preseason
two-a-days without begging off from at least one session,
prompting Saunders to drape a medal from a basketball camp around
his neck. Whether Cassell launches too much is open to debate,
but 16.6 attempts per game through Sunday (and 12.6 over his
career) does not seem inordinate for an accurate shooter, even
one who plays the point.

No doubt, Cassell is a relentless monologist who doesn't require
conversational support--or, for that matter, an audience, since
he also jabbers to himself, a plastic mouth guard moving in and
out of his mouth like a serpent's tongue. "See, I can talk and
play," he says. "A lot of guys can't. So if I can get them out of
their element and into mine, I've got them." Sometimes the
Prattling Point talks smack. During a 100-93 win at San Antonio
on Jan. 14, in which he torched the Spurs for 33 points, he began
yammering at playmaker Tony Parker before the tip-off. "Ooh, I'm
feeling it! Gonna be a long-ass night for somebody!" During the
game's final moments Cassell could be found near the Spurs'
bench, jawboning with assistant coach Mario Elie (yet another
ex-teammate), before Saunders motioned to him to get upcourt.

Sometimes his talk is instructive. After Garnett collected his
fifth foul with 7:34 left in the San Antonio game, Cassell rushed
to the bench and told Saunders, "You gotta get him out for two,
maybe three minutes, Flip! And I need Spree back in to help me."
Saunders complied on both counts, which undoubtedly reinforced
Cassell's conviction that "I will be a head coach in this league
someday." Then he went over to Garnett and pledged to "take care
of business" in his absence. True to his word, Cassell had hit
two three-pointers and a 16-footer by the time KG reported back
three minutes later, giving the T-Wolves an 87-85 lead they never
lost.

Sometimes his talk is critical. Madsen remembers missing a jumper
in an early-season game against the Sacramento Kings and being
surprised when Cassell got in his face almost immediately. "Mad
Dog, that is not the shot we want!" he exclaimed. Then he slapped
Madsen on the butt and told him to keep playing hard. Cassell
also frequently hollers to his big men, "You gotta show on the
pick!" even though, as Garnett wryly notes, "He's not playing too
much defense himself."

And sometimes Cassell's talk is just talk, pure commentary,
musings from Sammy Land. During a break in the final moments of a
hotly contested 2001 first-round playoff game between Milwaukee
and Orlando (eventually won by the Bucks), Cassell stood in front
of the Magic bench and proclaimed, "Man, is this f-----' great or
what?" Doc Rivers, then the Orlando coach, went home that night
to find his wife, Kris, kvetching about "that loudmouth Cassell."
Rivers tried to persuade her that Cassell hadn't been taunting
his team, but she wouldn't hear it. "People who don't take the
time to know me," Cassell says, "think I'm an a------."

From his mother, Donna, a scene-stealing regular in Reebok
commercials nine years ago, Cassell got his gift of gab; from his
father came his tenacity. At 55, the elder Sam Cassell is still a
foreman for Baltimore's sanitation department, rising at 5:30
a.m. Also in Baltimore is Cassell's 11-year-old son, Sam, an
up-and-coming baller. (Cassell has never been married and prefers
not to talk about his son's mother.) He had just arrived in
Orlando to watch his kid in a July AAU tournament, in fact, when
Saunders called to tell him that the T-Wolves had acquired
Sprewell from the New York Knicks. "I celebrated right there in
baggage claim," recalls Cassell.

Add Cassell to the hyperanimated Garnett, the demonstrative
Sprewell and the uncommonly enthusiastic Madsen, who runs onto
the court and back to the bench like he's fleeing a fire, and the
Timberwolves have the league's most theatrical team. In timeout
huddles accusations and spit fly, feelings get hurt. Garnett
wants to make it clear that "we're not out-and-out crazy" and
"we're usually able to manage ourselves, take a sip of water and
chill out." But he concedes that part of the unstated job
description of Johnson and reserve guard Fred Hoiberg is to
interrupt the opera from time to time and offer a few calming
words.

This dynamic has worked so far, largely because Garnett's primacy
as leader is unquestioned by both Cassell and Sprewell--"We
always say we'll be here as long as KG wants us here," says
Cassell--just as the status of Sam and Spree is unquestioned by
the rest of the team. Indeed, it will be incumbent upon Hudson
and Szczerbiak to accept that hierarchy when they return. "Right
now the personality of KG, Sam and Spree is so strong," says
Saunders, "that nobody coming back from an injury is going to be
able to demand anything."

Before most games these "fellows of infinite tongue," as
Shakespeare put it in Henry V, can be found in the locker room,
Garnett and Cassell sitting on either side of Sprewell. Sometimes
they listen to music--"What comes out of Spree's headphones is so
loud that KG and I don't need our own," Cassell says--but mostly
they think about basketball, talk about basketball and argue
about basketball. An example of a recent debate: Garnett held
that Bill Russell guarded Wilt Chamberlain straight up, while
Cassell said that even in the 1950s and '60s there was a lot of
double-teaming. (Garnett was probably right.) Then, when it's
time to play, their demeanor changes and, Garnett says, "We
soldier up." Says Johnson, "The energy that comes from those
three is always positive."

Garnett gives most of the credit on that score to Cassell. "Sam
is the joy of our team, the heart, pumping the blood that gives
us life," he says. For those who know and love him, the essence
of Cassell's appeal is simple. "He has fun when he plays, and he
plays really hard," adds McHale. "We're not asking Sam to get
involved with the Mideast peace process. We're asking him to
entertain us."

Which he does, whether playing or talking. "The one thing I know
is that I come cheap for what I do," says Cassell, who, after
this season, has two years left on a contract that pays him about
$6 million a year. "That's O.K., though, because nobody thought
I'd be here. The experts said I was too small or too this or too
that; one of them even called me a CBA lifer. Well, Sam Cassell
is still here, and he ain't going anywhere."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CLAY PATRICK MCBRIDE SAM'S CLUB Next month the 34-year-old Cassell should be named to an All-Star team for the first time in his career. COLOR PHOTO: ERIC GAY/AP (FAR LEFT) COLOR PHOTO: DAVID SHERMAN/GETTY IMAGES COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER (RIGHT) NOT THE SAME SAM Cassell has always had a knack for scoring, but this season he leads all guards in shooting percentage.

THREE-for-All

By scoring 66.8% of the Timberwolves' points at week's end, Kevin
Garnett (top, left), Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell (8) had
contributed more than any other trio in the NBA. (The Pacers'
Jermaine O'Neal, Ron Artest and Al Harrington were a distant
second at 55.7%.) They were also on pace (by hundredths of a
percentage point) to set a record for a threesome.

TEAM TOP THREE SCORERS % OF TEAM'S POINTS

2003-04 Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell,
MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES Latrell Sprewell 66.8

1961-62 Wilt Chamberlain, Paul Arizin,
PHILADELPHIA WARRIORS Tom Meschery 66.8

1949-50 George Mikan, Jim Pollard,
MINNEAPOLIS LAKERS Vern Mikkelsen 63.5

1952-53 Bob Cousy, Ed Macauley,
BOSTON CELTICS Bill Sharman 63.2

1951-52 George Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen,
MINNEAPOLIS LAKERS Jim Pollard 62.8

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)