"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 chance today?' "
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. It shows.
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.