When Sam Cassell was growing up in East Baltimore, the kids in the neighborhood used to imitate their favorite professional basketball players. Some would be Dr. J, others Magic Johnson.
Cassell would be Skip Wise, whom he met when the former Dunbar legend and Clemson phenom had gotten out of jail after the first in a series of incarcerations during the late '70s and early '80s.
Though Wise might seem an unlikely role model, Cassell patterned his game after the first player to be selected all-Atlantic Coast Conference as a freshman. They were about the same size and played with a similar bravado, talking trash and usually backing up what they said.
"He had a flair, in my opinion, of a young Skip Wise," said former Maryland coach Bob Wade, who coached Cassell at Dunbar. "He even positioned the ball the same way when he shot -- behind the head."
"One of things I learned from Skip was to have fun on the court," Cassell said this week. "He told me that if you're not having fun, get out ofthe sport. Why can't you have a smile on your face when you're playing?"
Cassell, who said that Wise's life experience has helped him make the right decisions off the court, is having a lot of fun these days at Florida State. The 10th-ranked Seminoles are on a roll, having won five straight and nine of their past 10.
Florida State (18-6, 8-2), tied for first-place in the ACC with North Carolina, hopes the fun continues today against Maryland (10-10, 1-9) in a 1:30 p.m. game at Cole Field House. The game is sold out.
"An awful lot of credit has to go to Sam," Florida State coach Pat Kennedy said last night. "Sam's playing a very steady game, and everyone else is falling in line. He's been a big key."
If Cassell continues to play the way he has for past few weeks, there is no telling how far the Seminoles can go this season. Since taking over again at point guard after Charlie Ward sustained a separated shoulder five games ago, Cassell has been the best player in the ACC. (Ward returned earlier this week with his left shoulder protected by a sling.)
"He's the most multitalented player in our league," Wake Forest coach Dave Odom said before Cassell scored 25 points, had six assists and three steals, and didn't make a turnover in 34 minutes of a 111-94 rout of the Demon Deacons Wednesday night in Tallahassee. "He's the most dangerous player to play against in the league."
Maryland forward Evers Burns, who has known Cassell since they played AAU ball as 11-year-olds, said: "Sam is unique. He's the type of player who likes to talk. He'll do it the whole game. He'll talk so much that he'll p you off. But he has a lot of fun out there."
A month ago, Cassell's enthusiasm started to wane. Thrust into the point guard role before Ward had returned from his duties as the starting quarterback on the school's No. 2-ranked football team, Cassell was struggling to co-exist in Florida State's backcourt with Bobby Sura.
Before a 105-85 victory over Maryland, Cassell said in his typical candor: "This team doesn't need me to be the set-up man. This team needs me to score points. If I'm the set-up, we're not going to win a lot of games."
Some took Cassell's remark to reflect what they believed was a selfish attitude on the court. In truth, Sura was just as culpable as Cassell, and in some games more guilty, of taking bad shots and playing out of control. But because he was the more experienced player, and Sura was a sophomore, Cassell took the heat
Kennedy had a couple of talks with his starting guards to get them on the same wavelength. While Sura continues to be erratic, Cassell has displayed remarkable control that has become the talk of the league. Combined, they are the nation's leading scoring and rebounding backcourt.
"I've never seen Sam Cassell play more under control," Virginia coach Jeff Jones said of a player who was second team All-ACC last year. "Maybe he has something to prove."
Cassell, the team's leading scorer at 18.6 points a game, said: "I just put it in my mind to assume the leadership role. Not just score. That means defensive pressure, distributing the ball. I said to myself, you don't need to score 25 points for us to be successful. You can score 18 or 19 and have six or seven assists, a few steals. I felt I had to better my game."
Cassell's new-found maturity is apparent off the court. After coming over from San Jacinto College in Texas, Cassell struggled academically in his first year at Florida State. There were rumors last spring that the 6-foot-3, 190-pound transfer would be ineligible this year, meaning his college career would be over.
"Coming from a junior college, I didn't know what to expect," said Cassell, who has credited Ward with helping him bear down academically. "I didn't have any communication with my professors the first semester. I was like a freshman. Now I know what I have to do."
Cassell's pro stock has taken off as well. While scouts were mixed on his potential -- some saw him as a low first-round to middle second-round pick, and others said he needed a couple of years in the Continental Basketball Association -- the feeling is that Cassell will be a first-round draft choice this year.
"He could be the first shooting guard taken," one scout said this week. "The thing that we have always liked about him was his ability to make his own shot. But what he's done lately is show what kind of defensive player he can be, and that he can run a team."
If he does make it to the NBA next season, Cassell will be reunited with several friends from the old neighborhood, including Charlotte Hornets point guard Muggsy Bogues. The two talk by telephone every few weeks. "He tells me to keep having fun," Cassell said.
That's something Cassell has been doing a long time. Ever since he got word from a Dunbar legend named Wise.