Shooting For Respect

Feeling overlooked since his high school days at Dunbar, Sam Cassell is an NBA All-Star at last.

February 13, 2004|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS - The date was March 17, 1987, when The Sun published its annual 20-player All-Metro first and second basketball teams. The pictured faces all beamed, their basketball promise seemingly certain.

Sam Cassell, a junior point guard at Dunbar at the time, looked that day for his name, and eventually found it.

In the honorable mention column.

For some, that would be a pretty significant accomplishment, but in Cassell's mind, that was the first, but not the last, time his skills would be overlooked.

"By far, I was the best player in Baltimore City as a junior," said Cassell recently. "In my senior year, they [The Sun] made me the Player of the Year. That's ironic, ain't it? That's when they all started [overlooking] me. It all started then."

In the days leading up to Sunday's NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles, Cassell, who has helped lead the Minnesota Timberwolves to first place in the Midwest Division, couldn't help but think he would be denied a place on the Western Conference squad.

How could he not? In his mind, he should have been an All-Star many times before, only to get edged out by a Jason Kidd here, a Baron Davis there, both players whom Cassell respects, but in no way takes a back seat to.

This season, Cassell is 12th in scoring in the NBA at 21.1 points a game, tied for fourth in assists at 7.8, tied for 11th in shooting at 49.5 percent - the highest ranking guard - and 12th in three-point shooting at 42.2 percent.

Yet, somehow he didn't even place in the top 10 in fan balloting among Western guards for the All-Star Game.

"I look at the All-Star balloting and I'm not in the top 10. Stuff like that doesn't get to me," Cassell said. "It's like, did these people forget about me? I don't ever question whether I can play, because I put my skills up against any point guard in this league. Eventually, I'm going to be all right.

"People say, `You're having a great year, a breakout year.' A breakout year? I've been doing this for seven years, since I've been a starter. What do you mean a breakout year? Maybe I've never shot 50 percent, but as a starter, I'm shooting 46 or 47 percent. That's excellent for a point guard."

That's excellent for any guard, and someone finally noticed. The Western Conference coaches, who vote on the seven reserves, selected Cassell to the All-Star Game, making him at 34 years and 89 days at tipoff Sunday, the second-oldest first- time All-Star in league history.

Cassell, who was told about the selection by Minnesota coach Flip Saunders before the Feb. 3 home game against Orlando, played down the significance, but people who know him say it means a lot.

"Over the years, when he had gotten his hopes up high, thinking that he had a good chance of making it, and he didn't make it, it kind of disappointed him," said TNT analyst Kenny Smith, who shared playing time with Cassell in Houston for two years.

"It seemed like this time, he was trying to downplay it leading up to it, because he wasn't sure if he was going to make it. I kept telling him that he was going to make it, that it was no problem, that he was the best guard in the West. I don't think he believed me. It's really going to set in when he comes to L.A. That's going to be the tale of all the tape."

Talking the talk

Some would say that a successful 11-year career, with two championship rings, millions of dollars and the NBA lifestyle, ought to be enough to bring a level of forgetfulness for any real or perceived slights as well as quiet.

But for Cassell, even in his youth, silence has never been an option.

"I could tell it was going to be a two-way conversation when a decision had to be made with Sam. He was a fierce competitor," said Pete Pompey, Cassell's coach at Dunbar.

Pompey inherited him from Bob Wade in Cassell's sophomore year, and quickly noted the 6-foot-3 guard's combination skills.

"The best part of his game was the fact that he could handle the ball like a point guard, but he could shoot like a two guard," said Pompey, now the athletic director at Edmondson.

"He helped us eliminate just about any double team on anybody else on the floor because of the things he could do with the ball," he said. "He could find the right guy and penetrate, and when he penetrated, he could bring people to him and kick the ball out. Or he could put that extra dribble on the floor and drive to the basket."

Two successful years at Florida State and six NBA teams later, Cassell is doing the same thing with the Timberwolves, who dealt for him in the offseason, sending former Maryland star Joe Smith to the Milwaukee Bucks as part of a four-team deal.

In some corners, Cassell had been labeled a troublemaker with the Bucks and New Jersey, his previous stop before Milwaukee. The Bucks, who had a potent trio with Cassell, guard Ray Allen and forward Glenn Robinson, shed all three by the end of last season, then waved goodbye as coach George Karl resigned.

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