Can he rub people the wrong way? Sometimes. But there is much more to the 36-year-old point guard than the selfish blabbermouth that some might perceive. At the core of Cassell, a success story is hiding, one that brought the son of a sanitation worker out of the rugged streets of Baltimore because of his ego, not despite it. “Nothing was given to me,” Cassell said. “I wasn’t a high-school All-American. I wasn’t a high draft pick. I was none of that. So nothing was ever given to me. Everything I got I earned.” Although Cassell has carved out a solid, 13-year NBA career featuring two championship rings with the Houston Rockets, he was far from a sure thing to play in the league. He’s a 6-foot-3 guard, who overcame numerous knocks to survive and thrive in the league. Some said he wasn’t fast enough. Others said he was too selfish. One thing his critics never could have realized is that all of his success and ability to overcome obstacles can be traced to one distinct day in the fall of 1989. Sam’s early swagger After graduating from Dunbar High in Baltimore as a Proposition 48 student, he hung around his hometown with nothing resembling a Division I scholarship. He might have shown some basketball prowess at Dunbar and in playground ball, but he spent the summer of ’89 on a path to nothingness. “For East Coast guys, it’s easy to get caught up doing nothing,” he said. “And that’s what I was doing in Baltimore nothing.” Without the academics to play Division I ball, he was directed to go to the junior-college hoop powerhouse San Jacinto College, outside of Houston, but he nearly scrapped it. “I didn’t want to go to San Jac,” he said. “My freshman year, I took the last flight, the day before school started to get down there. That was my make or break point. My whole family, my father, my grandmother, my great aunt all the people that supported me they just wanted me to get off the streets of Baltimore.” The major point is that not only did Cassell have an opportunity at San Jac, but he followed through on it albeit, on the last plane out. “So many guys that come from Baltimore don’t even give themselves that chance to fail,” Cassell said. “They defeat themselves before that from Day 1.” His coach at San Jac, Scott Gernander, said he believed in Cassell from Day 1. The vivacious personality that Cassell brought to the NBA was apparent at San Jac, too. “When Sam came here, I don’t want to say he had baggage,” Gernander said. “But people told me different things, that he was too hard to coach, that he carried his emotions on his sleeve. I found out quickly that he was a gym rat, and when he played, he played so hard.” Gernander’s words describing his former player are ones that still fit “brash,” “charismatic,” “outgoing” and “confident, very confident.” San Jac has developed an extremely well-respected basketball program, so much so that Orlando Magic star Steve Francis played there before attending Maryland and becoming the second overall pick of the 1999 NBA draft. Although Francis and Cassell might have had some similarities with their path to the NBA, the two are completely different. “Steve was just so much more athletic,” Gernander said. “He was so fast and could jump so high. Sure, Sam had one big dunk here, and he actually still talks about it. But he didn’t have the physical ability that Steve had. Sam is herky-jerky, deceptive, but not overly quick. It’s amazing what he’s done with what he has.” Even though it might sound as if Cassell developed his swagger at San Jac, that bravado was noticed by his parents, Sam and Donna Cassell, well before he went away to school. Sam Cassell, Sr., says that he saw his son trash-talk by the age 9 and probably earlier. And the kid didn’t direct his words to his peers, or his adult superiors, for that matter. “He was out there in the yard with imaginary friends,” Sam Sr. said. “He was doing all of that.” Little Sam used garbage cans as playmates, and he dribbled around them to work on his skills. Sam Sr. pointed out that his grandson, Sam Cassell III, actually does the same thing at home in Baltimore. The 13-year-old Sam Cassell III wasn’t too talkative when asked about his basketball ability. But when asked if he thought he would play in the NBA, he wrinkled his nose and nodded his head in a way that said, “Duh, of course.” His dad plays in the NBA, and his 56-year-old grandpa worked 29 years driving a garbage truck. Sam Sr., however, insists that despite the glamour factor regarding their occupations, that he and his son aren’t all that different. “He hasn’t changed,” Sam Sr. said. “He’s the same, all the time. As a matter of fact, when he’s at home, you can’t even believe he’s in the NBA the way he acts. He greets people the same way he always has with a smile.” Misperceptions abound After getting on a positive path at San Jac, Cassell put in two excellent seasons at Florida State, before the Rockets drafted him with the 24th pick in the 1993 NBA draft. After three seasons and two rings with the Rockets, his NBA path turned into a journeyman’s Phoenix, Dallas, New Jersey, Milwaukee, Minnesota and now the Clippers. His statistics, however, show he’s more than a journeyman. He averaged 16.2 points and 6.2 assists over his career when the Clippers got him in the summer, and this season, he is arguably the biggest key to the Clippers’ success. What Cassell has brought to the Clippers is what they desperately needed in recent seasons leadership, clutch shooting and a winning attitude. When the team went 14-5 for the best start in Clipper history, he was a huge reason why. He has been an excellent fit and has become a tutor to 20-year-old point guard Shaun Livingston. So considering his impact thus far, the big question is why so many people in the basketball world raised an eyebrow when the Clippers traded for him. Hardly anybody was more enthusiastic of acquiring Cassell than Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy, and even he was not certain everything would work out so neatly. “People were saying this is a guy who only cares about himself, he’s really selfish, whatever,” Dunleavy said. “I liked the way he played. All those things were particularly said, and I didn’t really see it. But you never know until he arrives. We’ve had no issues. Period.” The same issues are still swirling around Cassell that hovered around him at San Jac. Gernander tells entertaining tales about drawing up elaborate plays to start games with Cassell agreeing and being enthusiastic and then taking an ad-lib jump shot to start the game anyway. About the misperception of Cassell being a locker-room cancer or a me-first type of player, Gernander understands why those ideas are out there. Fans see an ultra-cocky persona on the basketball court that can be so over the top, he can appear to be a cartoon character. People make negative assumptions based on that character, and those assumptions aren’t the truth of who he really is. “When Sam’s out there playing, he’s talking all the time,” he said. “And he talks to everybody. Some guys see somebody like that as a head case. And Sam’s always been confident and not afraid to take big shots, so at times, that will look selfish.” Cassell certainly has his critics, who say he is overrated and nothing special. Another common perception is that he is a whiner who has repeatedly called himself “underpaid,” even though he has made more than $37 million over his career and is making $6.2 million this season. Cassell has never hesitated to speak his mind and be blunt. While it is confirmed that Cassell asked Minnesota for a contract extension after becoming an All-Star and he has been unhappy about some past contracts, nobody interviewed for this story significantly criticized the player. More than just talk Former teammates and current teammates alike praised him, and many said he was superb for team chemistry. Many said that, by comparison to other 30-something players, he was still in the league more for his desire to play than for his desire to pad his wallet. “Sam’s situation is that he’s going to do what it takes in order to win,” said Detroit Pistons coach Flip Saunders, who coached Cassell with Minnesota. “If other guys aren’t going, and if he thinks he has to get going in order to win, that’s what he’s going to do. I never thought Sam was ever a selfish player. I got a saying, ‘Sam, your greatest strength is your greatest weakness, if you can’t control it.” His greatest strength is that he wins games, but sometimes, he might go over the edge.” Saunders explained that to “go over the edge” means taking bad shots or trying to do too much. As a coach, he said he would often have to balance letting Cassell ad-lib and making him follow the team’s plan. Dunleavy has a similar job this season, but so far, the coach has beamed about the veteran’s contributions, and so have his teammates. “Sam has been great for the team,” the Clippers’ Corey Maggette said. “I can’t stress that enough. His leadership on this team is exactly what we needed.” Clippers guard Cuttino Mobley, who works out with Cassell during the offseason in Houston, said, “He talks a lot. He’s a big mouth, and I love him. He’s one of my closest friends. He’s a leader. He knows a lot of things, and he’s been around. You can learn a lot from him. He’s taught me a lot in these last several years as far as being in the NBA.” Cassell may be a little more pensive, as his career winds down than when he was a younger player. He has a 1-year-old son, Caron, and plans on being more involved in his early years than he was with Sam III when he was new to the NBA. He says he has two years left in him after this season, but wants to be a reserve and role player for his final two seasons. After that, he plans to coach. His goals for this season are relatively simple: “I want to get this team to the playoffs,” he said. “And my best friend, (San Antonio Spurs guard) Nick Van Exel said, ‘If you get that team to the playoffs, boy, I’m bowing down to you. I’m bowing down to you.” “ After all of these years, Cassell accepts the premise that he is misperceived by some who look at him and only see a bald man and an ego. “I’m a caring guy,” he said. “Everybody knows, that if you’re my friend, I got your back in a crisis. Not just financially, like my teammates here, they don’t need money. They need someone to talk to.” And, boy, can he talk. 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Two days before Sam Cassell met his former team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, for the first time as a Clipper, he talked about the deal that made him a Clipper. “If I’m a general manager, I’m not trading Sam Cassell for Marko Jaric,” he said. “No way. I’m a gamer. I know how to win.” Cassell delved into what went wrong in Minnesota. He may have been an All-Star for the first time in his career during his first season with the Wolves. But the second season turned into the worst of his career. He sat out 23 games with injuries. The Wolves missed the playoffs, and he says the franchise unjustly blamed him and Latrell Sprewell for the team’s woes. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREGift Box shows no rust in San Antonio Stakes win at Santa Anita Was that the first time Cassell was misunderstood? No way. He’s a gamer. In a league brimming with misunderstood millionaires, Cassell could be among the most misunderstood. Is he cocksure? For sure.