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 hearts."
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.