Passion to teach drives Cassell

By Frank Dell'Apa
Globe Staff / November 18, 2008
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To Celtics teammates, Sam Cassell is like a guru emerging from the mists of a time before cellular phones and Jumbotrons. They have seen him impose his will on a game, conjure up shots, cast a spell on the ball and opponents, his good-natured trash talking in practice the chanting of a high priest of point guards.

But Cassell hasn't always been the elder statesman. Nobody reaches the NBA level without having world-class athletic ability, and younger Celtics might be surprised to know he was once known as "Slam" Cassell because of his dunking ability.

As Cassell reaches a milestone - he turns 39 today - there is symmetry in the fact that he is concluding his career on the banks of the Charles, 20 years after first arriving in New England, a homesick teenager taking the first major step on the road to becoming a professional athlete.

"I went from East Baltimore to Pittsfield, Maine, and it was a shock," Cassell said yesterday of attending Maine Central Institute. "It was a small town and I saw how hard people work and how everybody knows everybody, there's one theater and the same movie is there for a month. It was all cool with me.

"But I got homesick and left. After a month, I called my host family and asked if they would forgive me for leaving."

Tom Cianchette told Cassell, "You can come back any time, son."

From that day, a bond formed between Cassell and the Cianchettes.

"Bonnie and Tom, to this day I call them mom and dad, and their daughters are my sisters, they're all grown up and have babies themselves," Cassell said. "They welcomed me back with their arms open, accepted me like a son. They showed me how to be responsible, and they taught me that I was an adult and I had to live with my decisions.

"And when it was time to leave, the weather was breaking, and I didn't want to go."

But Cassell moved on, first to San Jacinto Junior College in Texas, then to Florida State, then to NBA championships with the Houston Rockets in his first two years in the league.

"When it was time to go to [a four-year] college, we went over the pros and cons," Cassell said. "UNLV, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Boston College. Tom was a Celtics fan and he knew if I went to BC he could see me more, but he told me, 'No, you're an ACC guy; go to Florida State.' "

The moving around, the adjusting, the exposure to socio-cultural diversity shaped Cassell.

"When I was traded [in the NBA], it was no problem making the move," Cassell said. "And there's only a handful of guys who stay with one franchise their whole career."

Low-key presence

Cassell is in transition from player to coach. Though he has not played a minute for the Celtics this season, he is involved in practices and acts as an unofficial assistant coach during games. Head coach Doc Rivers still plans to use Cassell in a playing role but is holding him in reserve, to be brought out at about the same time he was last year when he joined the Celtics for their run to the NBA championship.

During a recent practice, Celtics president Danny Ainge noted that Cassell could start for five NBA teams. Cassell replied that he could start for six. But Cassell has opted to remain in a low-key role as the Celtics shoot for back-to-back NBA titles.

"Two or three years from now, I want to be a head coach," Cassell said. "And I'm going to be a hell of a coach."

Cassell has bridged generations. He emerged as a young pro playing against veterans such as Rivers, became the ballhandler for Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston, and for Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, then was one of the final pieces in the Celtics' championship puzzle.

Before the world was inundated by technology and sports camps, Cassell was developing his game on the fly.

"This is a new generation of basketball, way different than when I came in 16 years ago," Cassell said. "The culture is different, there are so many things to occupy the time of these young guys. When I came in, it was basketball.

"All my friends were in the streets, and one thing I had, they did everything in the world to protect me, everything. If they would see me on the corner, day or night, not doing nothing wrong, but just out there, they would say, 'Hey what you doing out here, get off the street.'

"Basketball was my outlet. Kids today don't play basketball like when I was growing up. We would play all day every day. You go to Boston right now, a nice day like this, you'll see 20 courts empty. Twenty years ago, 30 years ago, those courts were filled with guys, everyone had something to prove. Now, it's video games.

"It's nothing like when I was 15 years old. I'd get on the house phone - we didn't have cell phones - call five or six of my boys, and we'd go neighborhood-hopping and play. You never see that now. We would be on the court from 10 o'clock to 4, come home at night and my mom says, 'My son, how you been?'

"We'd play all day, that was it. I'd pack three shirts, two pairs of socks, take a little bag, bring them home, and wash them every day. That was my routine.

"I dreamed about being a professional basketball player, and I would see guys with that opportunity before me that messed it up with all types of drugs, and I said, 'That's not going to be me.' I took advantage of the opportunity and I twisted it, like an old towel, got everything out of it. If I didn't have a passion for this, I wouldn't have come back this year."

The learning curve

Cassell learned from older players, as a youngster in Baltimore, as a young pro in Houston. Now, it is his turn to teach.

"When I was in Houston, they were all veterans," Cassell said. "I couldn't make a mistake - every mistake I made was pointed out, in the middle of the court. But that was cool, that's how it was going to be. I had to have mistake-free games. That's hard to do, but I tried, and it made me a stronger player.

"It was easy because I had Hakeem, so if I needed to get to a guy to make a play, get it to him. Most of the time, I watched, like you guys, I had the best seat in the arena, only I was standing up. But if they threw me the ball back, I had to make a shot. I knew how to get a shot off and score.

"That's how it is here, with Paul [Pierce], KG, Ray Allen, they've got to leave somebody open, and that could be me. Anybody can shoot it, but you've got to make it. I've seen a lot of guys who don't want the ball in the forecourt with three minutes to go in a game . . .

"But that's it, you're hero or goat, and some nights you are going to be the goat and have to sit in front of you [media] guys - sit in the firing range, I call it, in front of the snipers. And the fans, they pay money for tickets, so I understand it, especially if I miss it."

Cassell is about pragmatism and realism, not magic words, spells, or incantations.

"I classify myself as a winner," Cassell said. "I took teams that weren't playoff teams to the playoffs. I brought that fire you've got to have to get there.

"The atmosphere we have here is a winning atmosphere. Guys understand that to win, winning is hard to do. But we have the right concept to win, we've figured it out. It's a secret, a lot of intangibles. People always say hard work, but I see guys working out one hour, two hours, getting nothing done - it's how you work.

"Some guys think sweating is working out, but we have a saying: 'Keep it real.' Some guys get the ball and take 20 dribbles and take a fadeaway jump shot, but be realistic - you might get five dribbles and a fadeaway jump shot, that's realistic. It's about mental toughness."

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