Sudden Fame, City's Fortune

August 30, 1994|By Roch Eric Kubatko | Roch Eric Kubatko,Sun Staff Writer

Sam Cassell has earned a rest, but there's no time for one.

Having put his slender, 6-foot-3 body through the rigors of his first NBA season, the former Dunbar standout could be relaxing with friends and family in his hometown of East Baltimore. Keeping a low profile. Or reveling in the fame -- including an NBA championship -- that has come so quickly.

But there is much to be done this summer.

The kids need him.

He has talked to them about the importance of getting an education, about the need for childhood immunizations, and about believing in themselves and achieving their goals. He has visited area schools and community centers to deliver these messages, teaming with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and various civic organizations.

Last month, he worked with a group of about 100 youngsters at Supreme Sports Club's basketball camp in Columbia, building their confidence in their shooting and in themselves. He will return there for another clinic Saturday and Sunday.

On Sept. 8, he will play in the Muggsy Bogues All-Star Classic at the Baltimore Arena to benefit Baltimore Reads, a nonprofit organization that provides literacy courses. And there will be other endeavors. Plenty of them.

"It's always good to be wanted," Cassell said last week while waiting to enter Lake Clifton's gymnasium for a Nike-sponsored Believe to Achieve Seminar, which attracted youngsters from about 70 of the area's recreation centers.

"It's not good when you're not wanted."

These days, Cassell, 24, doesn't have to worry about that. He's in demand. And it has happened so suddenly.

The former Florida State guard was chosen by the Houston Rockets with the 24th overall pick in last year's NBA draft. He played on a limited basis for much of the regular season, averaging 6.7 points and 2.9 assists, but emerged in the playoffs.

There were the 22 points he scored in the seventh game of the Western Conference semifinals against the Phoenix Suns, including nine in the fourth quarter. And the three-point shot at the end of Game 3 of the NBA Finals in Madison Square Garden that gave the Rockets a 2-1 series lead over the New York Knicks.

He also scored Houston's first six points of the fourth quarter of Game 7 and later made an 18-foot baseline jumper, as the Rockets secured their first title with a 90-84 victory.

A star was born, even if he didn't feel like one.

"It's all happened very fast, but I worked hard for it," he said. "Nothing was given to me. I had it in my heart that I could do it, and I did.

"I don't consider myself a star. I don't consider myself a hero. I'm a guy who had an opportunity to showcase his talent and took advantage of it."

His notoriety has led to a slew of television and newspaper interviews, and even an appearance on "Late Show with David Letterman." But that isn't where Cassell says he feels needed. His favorite audiences are in his hometown.

"I had a lot of the same problems as these kids; financially and personally," Cassell said.

"What got me over was I believed in myself and what I could do. And with the Lord on my side, it happened for me."

That message was delivered to nearly 1,000 youngsters at the Lake Clifton function.

"I like how he carries himself," said Damon Spells, 15. "He's accomplished so much. And he's stressing how you should stay in school and do your best."

As Cassell tries to influence the futures of these kids, he refers to his past.

"Sam Cassell certainly does remember from where he comes," said Len Elmore, a former All-American at the University of Maryland who is Cassell's lawyer and representative. "He's been involved in a number of things, basically grass-roots type situations, in the Houston community as well as Baltimore, but particularly in Baltimore.

"The bottom line is he relates his experiences with those of his own, and that's important," Elmore said. "His motivation is not to be seen so much as a role model, but to be able to give back to the same community that spawned him."

Cassell said the old neighborhood hasn't changed much, except "the kids today know more about the streets than I did when I was growing up."

And as the father of a 2-year-old son, Sam Jr., who lives in Baltimore, Cassell has greater reason to be concerned about what goes on here.

"I know my son is going to interact with guys older than him when he gets bigger. I want it to be safe for him," said Cassell, who has many family members living here, including his parents.

"It all comes with maturity," said former Dunbar basketball coach Pete Pompey. "I've always told him, 'It doesn't have to be money. Just give something back.' And he's doing it."

Cassell's return home hasn't been without its troubles. He has been reminded that the fame and riches that come with playing professional basketball -- he signed a five-year contract with the Rockets reported to be worth $5.2 million -- don't make you immune to certain hardships.

Twice, he said, he has been pulled over by the police while driving through the city; a black man in an expensive car, an easy target of suspicion. Both times, he said, the reasons the officers gave for stopping him were vague.

"It's frustrating," he said. "You come back to your hometown and get harassed by the police. It's everyday life, and I understand it, but it hurts sometimes."

Those were exceptions, though, to what has been a joyous -- and busy -- summer for Cassell.

"What I try to tell guys, and Sam understands this very well," Elmore said, "is that sooner or later you're going to come back to the community where you started, either physically or spiritually. There's going to be that need. You may as well build that bond now."

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