Cassell has team to call his own

Newest Clipper was brought in as leader


WASHINGTON -- In Houston, where Sam Cassell started his NBA career in 1993 by helping the Rockets win championships his first two seasons, it was Hakeem Olajuwon's team.

In Minnesota, where Cassell spent the previous two seasons and helped the Timberwolves reach the Western Conference finals for the first time in 2003-04, it was Kevin Garnett's team.

Now in Los Angeles, with the Clippers, it is finally Cassell's team.

"I was brought here for direction, for leadership, to help us win some games," Cassell said after the Clippers finished a rigorous practice yesterday at MCI Center, where they will play the unbeaten Washington Wizards (3-0) tonight. "We lost a lot of games down the stretch last year. We just didn't know how to win."

The early returns have been positive. Cassell scored 35 points in an opening-night victory in Seattle, including 15 in the fourth quarter, and helped the Clippers to subsequent home wins over Atlanta and Minnesota.

It marked the team's first 3-0 start in 20 years.

"We have a group of guys that are starting to understand how to win, to play harder, and we're doing that," said Cassell, who is averaging 17.5 points and a team-high 6.3 assists in 35.5 minutes a game.

Though his return to Minnesota Monday night was not successful - the Clippers lost for the first time this season and Cassell scored just 11 points on 3-of-10 shooting - the 35-year-old point guard from Dunbar has made an immediate impact on his new teammates and coach Mike Dunleavy.

Elton Brand, now in his fifth season with the Clippers and his seventh year in the NBA, knew Cassell only peripherally, mostly as an opponent who hit big shots and, on more than one occasion, had a big mouth that seemed never to stop talking trash after many of the 12,960 points he had scored.

Brand was not exactly thrilled about the trade that brought Cassell to the Clippers for point guard Marko Jaric and forward Lionel Chalmers last summer, mostly because Cassell didn't seem too excited about coming to a team that hadn't made the playoffs since 1996-97 and only three times since coming to Los Angeles in1984-85.

"The reports were that he really didn't want to be with the Clippers, and I thought that he was going to be a tough guy to be with," Brand said. "I don't know if it was holding out, something about his contract, but he's a great guy, a great teammate, a great friend. I love having him here. Things were misconstrued."

Rookie point guard Daniel Ewing, who made the Clippers after being drafted in the second round out of Duke in June, got to know Cassell over the summer during pickup games that also included another new Clipper, Cuttino Mobley.

"He's experienced just about everything you can," Ewing said of Cassell. "He's been really good for our team, not just me but for all the guys."

Dunleavy watched Cassell from the opposing bench during his own stops in Milwaukee, Portland and for the past two seasons in Los Angeles, but wasn't sure what to expect. Dunleavy's friends in Milwaukee, where Cassell shared the ball and headlines with Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson for four seasons, gave mostly positive reports.

"The only surprise I've had is how easily he's integrated himself with our players from a team chemistry standpoint; it's pretty amazing to me," Dunleavy said. "I always thought he was a really smart player who knew how to play the game, and that he's got the ability to make tough shots. He's been great."

Dunleavy said that Cassell, who had averaged more than 16 points and six assists over his career, assumed a leadership role from the start.

"From an age factor alone, he's the elder statesman," said Dunleavy. "He's got a couple of rings, guys look up to him and he does good things."

Cassell knows that he's likely not going to win another ring, at least with the Clippers, before he retires in a couple of years. But with the hamstring injury that caused him to miss 23 games last season healed, Cassell is looking to close out his career showing how good a leader he has become.

He doesn't see his career as a vagabond - the Clippers are his seventh team - as a negative.

"I've had a great career so far," said Cassell. "I think I've done a whole lot better than people expected me to do. I have no regrets about how my career has gone."

And he's happy with his new surroundings, on and off the court.

"How can you not love L.A.?" he said.

Clippers @Wizards Tonight, 7, Comcast SportsNet, 980 AM

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