I eat, sleep and dream basketball.
-Sam Cassell, assistant coach, Washington Wizards
He's not kidding.
As a kid growing up in the 1980s, Cassell would shoot hoops all day with his pals on East Baltimore's playgrounds, then grab a bite "and brag about what we'd just done to each other."
At night, Cassell would curl up in his room on North Montford Street, a ball alongside his bed. Oh, the dreams that lad had.
"I was always the point guard for either the Philadelphia 76ers or the New York Knicks," he said. "Magic Johnson and 'Dr. J' [Julius Erving] were my teammates. But I was the star."
Now 39, Cassell, the guest of honor at a retirement ball in Baltimore Saturday night, is a bit worn down and beat up after 15 years of NBA play. But he has never outgrown his teenage crush on the game, a fact that might help his move into coaching, those who know him say.
Hired by last-place Washington in May, the former Dunbar High star boasts that youthful zeal plus a swagger that can't help but shore up the sleepy Wizards.
"Sam absolutely loves basketball like no one I ever met," said Pat Kennedy, who coached Cassell at Florida State. "He's a gym rat. The game is his passion, morning, noon and night."
That his one-time star guard would pick up a clipboard doesn't surprise Kennedy, now the coach at Towson University.
"At halftime [at FSU games], Sam would get all emotional and go after players, telling them to rebound better or to take better shots," Kennedy said. "He's not about beating around the bush. He gets right to the point. That's the giddyup enthusiasm you want in an NBA coach."
It's a career that Cassell began mulling at age 30 as a journeyman playing for Milwaukee in 2000. That's when Bucks coach George Karl pulled him aside and said, "You'll make a good coach if you take this aspect of the game serious."
And Cassell thought: Why not?
"I enjoy teaching basketball," he said. "I wasn't the most talented guy out there, but I know all of the angles. And I know the chemistry of the game. Coaching in the NBA is about more than X's and O's. It's about managing guys."
The take-charge stance, Cassell adopted early on.
"He played like a coach from the start," said Keith Green, a teammate at Dunbar, where both graduated in 1988. "Sam started as a sophomore - a skinny little guard barking orders to a bunch of upperclassmen. Their egos didn't want to hear it, but Sam was clearly a cut above the rest, always thinking two or three plays ahead."
What he lacked in talent, the 6-foot-3 Cassell made up for in grit. His jump shot, not a beautiful thing, won many games down the stretch. In high school, he would have practiced all night, had coach Pete Pompey not turned out the lights.
"Even then, he would shoot in the gym in the dark," Pompey said. "Finally, we had to put a chain lock on the doors to keep Sam out."
Eat. Sleep. Dream.
"We had better shooters and leapers at Dunbar, but he had a never-back-down mentality, a bulldog attitude," Green said. "Those guys in the NBA who have gotten by on pure athleticism can learn some things from this guy."
Cassell retired last year with three championship rings, having averaged 15.7 points per game while playing for eight teams in his career. Not bad for a guy who an NBA general manager once said would "never be more than a minor league player."
He displayed a flexibility on the court that should prove useful in coaching, Len Elmore said.
"Sam was never so structured in discipline that he couldn't adapt," said Elmore, a former Maryland star who was once Cassell's agent. "He has a high IQ for the game. He can read defenders. He can read situations. He can read people."
Cassell, who has a home in Baltimore and a son who attends Towson Catholic, wants to be a head coach and has given himself five years to do it.
"Hopefully, sooner," he said. "But if it takes five years, then five years it will be."
That might sound fanciful, but don't bet against Cassell, acquaintances say.
"Coaching? I can't see Sam doing anything else," said Charlie Ward, the three-sport star and 1993 Heisman Trophy winner who played basketball beside Cassell at Florida State. "He's a good networker who knows how to sell himself. He can sweet-talk the refs. He's very loud and he says what he thinks, but he hasn't gotten in too much trouble for that.
"Mostly, he has a wealth of knowledge of what it takes to win, and maybe sharing that with the Wizards can make it happen."
A retirement ball honoring Sam Cassell will be held at 9 tonight at the Hippodrome Theatre. Tickets are $47.50 at the box office and Ticketmaster. Proceeds benefit the Sam Cassell Charitable Foundation, which helps inner-city youths.
Age: 39 Job: Assistant coach, Washington Wizards Hometown: Baltimore Education: Dunbar High, Florida State Family: A son, Sam Cassell Jr., attends Towson Catholic Career highlights: No. 1 draft pick of Houston in 1993. Played for seven other NBA teams over 15 years (Phoenix, Dallas, New Jersey, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Los Angeles Clippers and Boston). Scored nearly 16,000 career points.