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 butt.' "
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.