Rockets' Cassell sits and learns


After sitting on the end of the bench with a towel draped over his shoulders for most of last week's game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Houston Rockets guard Sam Cassell finally ripped off his sweat pants in the game's final minute.

The action may have been a slight tease to his family and friends who made the two-hour drive from Baltimore, because Cassell ** did not play that night. In fact, he hasn't played much this season.

It's unfamiliar territory for Cassell, a former standout at Dunbar High School and later a star at Florida State who finds himself learning from the bench as he adjusts to life in the NBA.

The 24th pick in the first round, Cassell finds himself the fifth guard in a four-guard rotation on a team that's off to the hottest start in the league. The Rockets are 9-0 going into tonight's game against the Chicago Bulls in Houston, and have held every opponent under 100 points. With that hot start, Cassell, 6 feet 3, has averaged just 4.3 minutes in the three games he has played.

"I'm learning right now," Cassell said. "It's going to take awhile, but I just want to get comfortable. As I learn more and more, then I should be playing."

Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich said he wants to play Cassell, but it has been difficult with Kenny Smith, Vernon Maxwell, Scott Brooks and Mario Elie getting off to fast starts.

"In the draft, I spotted him on the tapes and said: 'I wonder why this guy's not rated as high as some other players,' " Tomjanovich said. "He can really add something to our team with his penetration, shots off the dribble and creativity. But the tough break for him is he's come into the league on a good team."

Cassell said that his main adjustment has been competing against stronger players.

"But that's nothing major that I have to adjust to," Cassell said. "I feel confident since I had a good training camp and a good exhibition season. But I knew that when it was time for the real thing that I would just have to wait my turn. When? I have no idea. That's Rudy's decision."

Cassell promises that when that time comes, he'll be ready, and Tomjanovich agrees.

"I have no doubt that he'll be a good NBA player, and he has a chance to be better than good," Tomjanovich said. "I know he's frustrated, and if he wasn't, then I'd be disappointed. I like his tough-mindedness and his winning attitude. He'll be fine."

Bill comes due

You kind of get the feeling that Isiah Thomas' phone was ringing off the hook with congratulatory calls last week after he broke his right hand while punching Detroit Pistons teammate Bill Laimbeer in the head during a practice.

Reaction from NBA players showed the lack of respect they have for Laimbeer, who was nailed after he threw an elbow at Thomas:

* "In my opinion, he couldn't have picked a better guy to punch," said Orlando Magic guard Scott Skiles.

* "He's always been a cheap-shot artist, and I don't think he'll ever change," said Portland Trail Blazers guard Clyde Drexler.

* "If you're going to break your hand, then you might as well break it on him," said Boston Celtics center Robert Parish.

The incident was the latest mishap for the Pistons, the one-time "Bad Boys" who won consecutive NBA titles and now Team Turmoil. On Nov. 4, guard Alvin Robertson attacked player personnel director Billy McKinney. Robertson was suspended indefinitely and was traded last week to the Denver Nuggets.

And this is a team that traded Dennis Rodman because he was a disruptive force?

With Thomas hurt, rookie guard Lindsey Hunter is starting. On Sunday, Hunter, a first-round pick out of Jackson State, played all 48 minutes and scored 23 points and had one turnover in a win over Philadelphia.

Thomas will be out four to six weeks. A word of advice for the Pistons point guard, who in 1989 broke his left hand punching Chicago Bulls center Bill Cartwright: Maybe it's time to take karate lessons.

Running of the Bulls

Remember when Chicago was winning three straight titles and was the Invinc-i-Bulls?

Minus Michael Jordan, they are the Beat-a-Bulls, as evidenced by Sunday's 103-101 loss to the Sacramento Kings. The Kings ended a six-game losing streak against Chicago -- just one of what are certain to be many Bulls streaks that stop this season.

When Chicago lost its home opener to Miami Nov. 6, it halted a nine-game Bulls home winning streak against the Heat. Chicago's nine-game home winning streak against the Seattle SuperSonics ended last week, as did a four-game winning streak against Portland.

Chicago has been hurt by Jordan's retirement. Add the injury to Scottie Pippen, who was placed on the injured list after two games with chronic tendinitis in his right ankle, and you're left with an ordinary team.

Two teams the Bulls have dominated in recent years have been the Washington Bullets and the Dallas Mavericks. Chicago owns an 11-game winning streak over the Bullets and a 10-game streak over the Mavericks.

Dallas, with a 1-8 record going into tonight, will be host to the Bulls on Friday. It's a game that might show how far the mighty have fallen.

Tall order

When you think of three-point shooters, you think of shooting guards such as the Cleveland Cavaliers' Mark Price, the Bullets' Michael Adams and the Charlotte Hornets' Hersey Hawkins, yet three of the top four three-point shooters in the NBA going into last night's games were 6-9 or taller.

Leading the way is Bullets 6-10 forward Tom Gugliotta, who is hitting 69.2 percent from three-point range (and 37.8 percent from everywhere else).

In second and fourth place, respectively, are SuperSonics 6-9 center Sam Perkins (62.5) and Seattle 6-10 forward Detlef Schrempf (60.0).

Stats worth mentioning

* Atlanta Hawks guard Mookie Blaylock, who is 6-1, in Saturday's game against Charlotte: 12 assists, 13 rebounds.

* Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal, in Saturday's win over New Jersey: 24 points, 28 rebounds, 15 blocks.

Words worth repeating

* Kerry Eggers of The Oregonian in Portland, dubbing Laimbeer "the Abominable Slowman."

* New York Post columnist Peter Vescey on former Bullet and current Los Angeles Clippers forward John "Hot Plate" Williams, who was put on the suspended list before the season for being too heavy: "Most teams have a go-to guy, [Williams] is the Clippers' 'to-go' guy."

* Clippers center Elmore Spencer, on being third string behind Stanley Roberts and Bob Martin: "Every first and 15th [NBA paydays] stifles any disappointment."

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