Cassell's next deal will help find home Soon-to-be free agent willing to stay in N.J.

April 11, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- From the upper floors of the place that Sam Cassell calls home these days, there's a spectacular view of the New York skyline. In an area where traffic jams are a daily nuisance, Cassell's commute might take a minute. Two minutes tops.

Still, even with the impressive view and the convenient commute, living in a hotel is a drag. Cassell knows. Playing on his third team this season, Cassell -- currently wearing the uniform of the New Jersey Nets -- has been living out of hotels for nearly four months.

"People just don't know how tough it is," Cassell said. "When you're at home, you can relax. You can watch what you want on television. In a hotel, you're limited to what you can watch. Even buying a cold soda, you have to call room service. This has been really hard on me."

Cassell, a Dunbar High School product, owns a home in Houston. And at this time a year ago, he was hoping his Texas address would be long-term as one of the most popular players with the Houston Rockets, a team he helped to win back-to-back NBA titles.

Instead, Cassell, a 6-foot-3 guard, was sent packing to the Phoenix Suns last off-season in a multi-player deal so that the Rockets could acquire Charles Barkley. Another multi-player deal in December shipped him to the Dallas Mavericks. And after yet another multi-player deal just before the February trading deadline, Cassell found himself with the Nets.

Three teams. Four coaches (three of them rookie coaches). Numerous teammates. And because he's a free agent, Cassell may be on the move again after this season.

"People always ask if being traded bothers me, but I know why I've been traded -- this is my free-agent year," Cassell said. "It's not because of my effort. It's not because of my talent -- I can compete with any guard in this league. It's a contract thing."

Cassell, who makes $1.2 million this season, is looking for a long-term deal. Ask him specific numbers, and he mentions the contracts signed last summer by Portland Trail Blazers guard Kenny Anderson (average of $7 million) and New York Knicks guard Chris Childs ($4 million average).

"I think I should be right between those figures," Cassell said. "I know, the money's crazy. But this is the business of the league. What I'm asking for, it's nothing."

A general manager might point out during negotiations that Cassell was a backup for his first three years and that he was a backup to Kevin Johnson (Phoenix) and Derek Harper (Dallas) for part of this season.

And Cassell can argue in return that, since assuming a starting role with the Nets, he has averaged 20.0 points and 6.7 assists (going into tonight's game against the Washington Bullets). Comparing those numbers to the current NBA statistical leaders, Cassell would rank 17th in the league in scoring (second among point guards to Allen Iverson) and 18th in assists.

"I've proven that I can run a team as a starting point guard," said Cassell, who, while backing up Kenny Smith for three years in Houston, was often the guard who finished close games. "If I get enough minutes, I'm going to score. I'm going to create shots for my teammates. I can hit 30 points and be effective. I can score 16 and be effective. I know my role, and I play it to my fullest."

Cassell will be the first to admit that he's not a point guard in the traditional sense.

"But after John Stockton, who is?" Cassell said. "People have always said that I don't jump or I don't dunk. That I'm not fast enough. And that's OK. Maybe I'm not fast. In fact, I'm not fast.

"But I have a lot of herk and jerk in me," Cassell said. "I may not outrun you, but I'll drive you five steps hard, stop on a dime and pull up. I can do that. I can take a shot when you don't think I'm going to to take it. And make it."

Cassell does not lack confidence. And his fearlessness is a big reason the Rockets won consecutive titles in 1994 and 1995. It was Cassell, as a rookie, who hit a three-pointer in the final minute that sparked Houston's Game 3 win over the Knicks in the pivotal game of the 1994 NBA Finals.

"That jump-started my career, that one shot," Cassell said. "It's a shot a lot of people wouldn't have taken. I didn't even think about it, I shot it. Even though we beat the Knicks, people in New York give me mad love. I like it here. Now, it's up to Cal to keep me here."

"Cal" as in John Calipari, Nets coach and executive vice president of basketball operations. Calipari hasn't had the smoothest transition to the NBA, but he appears to have a big fan in Cassell.

"He has a lot of character, he's willing to listen and he's a player's coach," Cassell said. "He knows I get nutty on the court sometimes. He pulls me up and says, 'Sam, you're losing your mind right now.' "

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