"I think everyone is glad that trade [for Fortson] fell through," says Grunwald. "Except Boston."
By this point in the season, Milwaukee coach George Karl and point guard Sam Cassell both knew the drill. On Sunday morning, an hour before the opening game of his team's second-round playoff series, Karl sidled over to Cassell's locker and said, "Sammy, how are we doing today?"
"We're cool," Cassell mumbled.
"No. Look me in the eye," Karl said sternly. "How are we doing today?"
Cassell sheepishly looked up, widened his eyes, which usually squint as if blinded by sunshine, and met Karl's gaze. "It's all good, Coach. All good."
This dialogue has become a ritual between the two for a simple reason, claims Cassell. "George comes over because he's a nervous wreck before games, and he tries to feed off of my being cool."
Karl's explanation? "I just like to get a read on Sam and make sure he's focused," says the coach. "As he goes, so goes this team."
Cassell is indeed the Bucks' fulcrum, especially in the playoffs. While Milwaukee is in its first conference semifinals since 1989, Cassell was inoculated against postseason stage fright long ago. In his first two seasons in the league, his clutch shooting helped the Houston Rockets win back-to-back titles in the 1994 and '95 playoffs. Appearing in his 68th playoff game on Sunday, he steadied the nervous Bucks by scoring 10 points in the first six minutes and finished with 20 points and four assists in a 104-92 victory over the Charlotte Hornets before a raucous, Lambeau-like crowd at the sold-out Bradley Center. "These are the playoffs," says the 31-year-old Cassell, "and you have to bring your best stuff."
Despite consistently doing just that, Cassell, now with his fifth team, still finds fame hard to come by. His clashes with coach John Calipari while playing for the struggling Nets in the late '90s earned him a reputation as a hothead, and that perception continues to haunt him. Though his averages this season (18.2 points a game, 7.6 assists) are comparable to the league's premier point guards, he is rarely ranked among the top playmakers. "I feel," says Cassell, "as if I'm the New Age Rod Strickland, a guy who gets it done and still can't get respect."