Cassell, pride bruised, back as heart of Nets Leading role salves free-agency wounds

December 12, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

To put it bluntly, Sam Cassell's summer of free agency left him furious. In an era when even marginal players receive astronomical salaries, the two-time member of NBA championship teams felt he'd cash in after completing last season with the New Jersey Nets.

But Cassell found the market temporarily dry. And with his choices reduced to going back to the Houston Rockets and taking the team's $1 million offer involving a loophole in the salary-cap rules or re-signing with the Nets for $21 million over six years, Cassell -- at the urging of his mother -- took the security.

But he felt slighted.

"Yeah, I deserved more. You look and see guys like Wesley Person [seven years, $39.9 million] get his money and what can I say, what can I say?" Cassell said. "No, you just have to be thankful for what you have. And don't count anybody else's money; just take care of your own business."

These days, the business at hand for Cassell is as a leader for the Nets, who were on top of the Atlantic Division for much of the first month of the season before a recent 1-4 stretch.

After last night's loss in Detroit, Cassell, who scored 22 points in the game, is averaging 19.2 points, 7.7 assists and a career-best 35.5 minutes.

"Getting all of that contract stuff behind and just getting a chance to run a team, it's been real good to me," Cassell said. "This is my ballclub."

His ballclub played well during November, when the team's 9-5 record was the best in club history for that month. And the team has a lot of weapons: Jayson Williams is one of the top rebounders in the league, Kendall Gill is effective at both ends of the court and has sacrificed a lot of his game for the team, and Keith Van Horn might prove to be one of the top rookies in the league.

As for Cassell, he's probably the least orthodox of all the league's starting point guards. The 6-foot-3 former Dunbar star is not exceptionally quick, is not the most athletic and is not the greatest of shooters (his current .387 percentage is a career low).

But what he has is something some of the game's most talented players never acquire: the ability to play without fear in crunch dTC time. When the game is on the line, Cassell is often successful in getting into the lane to squeeze off one of his herky-jerky shots.

"He's a leader on this team," said Nets coach John Calipari. "And he makes things happen on the court. He's a courageous player."

And Cassell, who won his two championship rings in his first two years in the league with the Rockets, is not afraid to express his confidence in himself.

"Little guys in this league can't stop me," Cassell said. "I don't care who it is. I stop myself."

Or to stress his importance to the Nets.

"Everything goes through me," Cassell said. "I initiate the plays, and if I'm not going, we're not going."

There was no better example of that than on Tuesday, when Cassell struggled (eight points, 3-for-12 from the field) in a 21-point loss to the Washington Wizards. That's a line that could get you annihilated in the New York-area media, although Cassell said he has no problem dealing with the press there.

"I know how to handle them," Cassell said, after the media pack shifted away after questioning him about his poor performance. "You just say what you have to say to them and go about your business."

What the media are finding is that Cassell is one of the cooler heads these days in a locker room that is getting slightly panicky. One of the lessons he learned in Houston was to stay on even keel.

"This is the NBA, and no team is going to play the same way for 82 games, so all we have to do is stop the bleeding and we'll be fine," Cassell said after the Nets suffered their worst defeat of the season to the Wizards. "One thing about me, is I don't linger on one game."

And yet later, after most of the media members had departed, Cassell would say that he needs to turn his game up a notch for the team to return to its winning ways.

"I just need to do the things that Sam Cassell can do and just have fun, because having fun is my game," Cassell said.

"It's up to me to take care of business with this team. I'm a leader. This is my ballclub. I have to take the responsibility for this team. Who else is [Calipari] going to give it to?"

Pub Date: 12/12/97

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