National powers Oklahoma and Arkansas came calling. But for Baltimore native Sam Cassell, Florida State had something going for it that the others couldn't match -- this season the Seminoles became the ACC's ninth and newest member.
So the 6-foot-3 guard, considered by some to be the nation's top junior college playmaker, cast his lot with the Seminoles.
"That was the main reason," says Cassell, "to play in the ACC and do my thing."
Last weekend at North Carolina's cavernous Dean E. Smith Center, Cassell did both in stylish fashion, leading Florida State to an 86-74 victory in its league debut. Ten of Cassell's game-high 22 points came in the first three minutes, giving FSU an early edge that, by Cassell's estimation, "shocked" the Tar Heels.
For the flashy, cocky junior, who turned 22 last month, the North Carolina game was the welcome culmination of a long, circuitous journey.
Cassell played for Bob Wade at Dunbar High as a sophomore, then became an all-city player his junior and senior seasons under Wade's successor, Pete Pompey. Baltimore's high school player of the year in 1988, Cassell committed to attend DePaul but failed to qualify academically. So it was off for a year to Maine Central Institute, a prep school, then San Jacinto College in Texas for two more seasons.
"His junior college team last year was not very strong and Sam, of course, was asked to take over most games," says Florida State coach Pat Kennedy. "We've tried to explain to Sam, on this level he isn't necessarily going to be able to take over a whole game the entire game, but to learn to pick and choose his moments. He's a great one-on-one player."
Cassell wasted no time picking his moments after running through the Smith Center corridors shouting "Dean who?"
He hit a three-pointer the first time Florida State touched the ball. Following a basket by backcourt mate Charlie Ward, Cassell hit a baseline jumper and a three-pointer from the top of the key. A minute later Cassell hit another jumper and strutted the Dean Dome court in obvious self-satisfaction.
When North Carolina tried to stop him with 6-7 Henrik Rodl, Cassell used his quickness to penetrate the defense for layups. Cassell wound up scoring 14 of his team's first 18 points, 16 of the first 23.
"We needed a good start," he says. "We knew we were quicker than their guards. We just had to attack."
For a time it appeared Cassell, the Seminoles' leading scorer (20.5 points) , wouldn't play against the Tar Heels. A week before FSU's Chapel Hill visit, a first-half brawl forced officials to call an early halt to Florida State's game against Florida A&M.
Cassell, among three Seminoles suspended for a game for participating in the melee, allegedly had grabbed a pencil from press row to wield against A&M players attacking FSU forward Douglas Edwards.
But because he was physically restrained by Kennedy and Florida State athletic director Bob Goin, Cassell never actually entered the fray, and won an appeal to be reinstated for the North Carolina game. "Without Sam, we don't win that game," Kennedy says.
Facing the Tar Heels without Edwards and reserve forward Ray Donald, the Seminoles went to a three-guard offense that freed Cassell of exclusive ballhandling responsibilities. "I think when he didn't have to handle the ball, it relieved some of the pressure on him," says teammate Chuck Graham.
Running a team isn't necessarily what Cassell does best, according to former San Jacinto teammate Rodney Odom, now at UNC-Charlotte. "He's a great passer when he wants to be," Odom says. "Sam, he does like to shoot it, though."
Kennedy apparently has come to a similar conclusion about Cassell's skills. The coach now considers Ward, the football team's reserve quarterback, his starting point guard and Cassell an off-guard and backup playmaker.
"The first few games, without any question it took some time for Sam to get kind of under control," Kennedy says. That adjustment period is not finished. But as Cassell made clear against North Carolina, all that's left is the fine tuning. The long journey from prospect to prominence is over.