NEW YORK -- Hakeem Olajuwon on Sam Cassell: "I do not look at him as a rookie. He's an experienced player. He's a smart player. He plays with a lot of confidence."
Otis Thorpe on Sam Cassell: "I keep hating to call him a rookie because he definitely doesn't play like one."
Rudy Tomjanovich on Sam Cassell: "I think he's courageous. I think he's fearless."
Sam Cassell on Sam Cassell: "I'm just having fun. I'm enjoying it while I'm in there."
Rookie ... first-year player ... non-veteran ... wild and crazy kid ... whatever you want to call him, he is one of those time-bomb players who can enliven ballgames. Every single time Rudy T throws him into a Rockets game, the mentor is rolling the dice. Sometimes it's snake-eyes, in which case there is always tomorrow. And sometimes Rudy hits the jackpot, as he did last night, when you can argue that Sam Cassell was the difference between defeat and victory for the Rockets.
For it was Cassell who took an inside-out feed from Olajuwon and hit a three-pointer that gave Houston a non-refundable 89-88 lead with 32.6 seconds remaining. It was Cassell who subsequently sank four free throws to preserve the 93-89 Rockets win. It was Cassell, in fact, to whom Rudy T entrusted his team for the final 11 minutes and 12 seconds of the victory that gave the Western Conference champs a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals.
The Sam Cassells of the world are the guys who get the personnel directors fired. The owner takes a look at a kid taking over a championship series game and wonders to himself, "Hey, how come this guy was the 24th player taken in the draft? Why didn't we get him?"
What we have here is still more evidence that drafting is a highly inexact science.
Cassell, a Baltimorean out of Dunbar, had some good numbers during his two years at Florida State. He averaged 18.3 points the first year and 18.4 the second, and he dished out a total of 289 assists, a figure that is even more impressive when you consider that he spent many of those games playing in the same backcourt with Charlie Ward, whose game does not involve moving without the rock.
So that's 18 ppg for two years in the ACC, which also means that Cassell wasn't exactly underexposed. All the great scouting minds of the Western world had their looks at Cassell, and most rejected him in favor of stiffs who will be European-bound in a year of so.
Rudy T did his own drafting last year, by the way, but he is not the sort who would act smug. Hamtramck guys just aren't like that. "His interview clinched it for me," said Tomjanovich. "He showed some of the stuff he did tonight during the interview."
Now Rudy T is speaking a bit of code here. It's highly unlikely the Rockets hooked the kid into some sort of interactive thing whereby he could simulate making a humongously clutch three-pointer to win a playoff game. What Rudy means is that Cassell demonstrated the same sort of feisty spirit in the interview that was on display last night, most notably when he took a shot in the solar plexus from Derek Harper with 8:54 to go. The Rockets called a 20-second timeout in order to help Cassell regain his wind. Not even for a millisecond did the thought of leaving the contest creep into his mind.
"This is the Finals," he pointed out. "I can heal in the summer."
The world at large first got a glimpse of Cassell's explosiveness during the Phoenix series, when he submitted a 10-assist relief effort in Game 3 and then plunged a dazzling 22-point, seven-assist, two-steal dagger into the Suns' heart in Game 7. By that time Rudy had made a key decision: there was going to be no such thing as "Veterans' Privilege." If Sam gets on a roll, that's Kenny Smith's tough luck. The eight-year man will take a seat and lead the cheers for the kid.
"I look at coaching almost as survival practice," sighed Rudy T, who doesn't talk like a man who intends to make head coaching a long-term career. "I don't have a formula. I try to have a feel. If I think a game's under control, I'll stay with a guy."
Lucky for Sam, he doesn't play for K.C. Jones, who probably would have given him about 400 minutes all season long, simply because he's what you call your basic rookie.
Cassell blows hot and cold. Some nights he shoots you in; some nights he shoots you out. He wasn't exactly All-Universe in either Game 1 or Game 2 (2-for-8 in 23 minutes).
"I'm not saying he's never going to fail," said Houston assistant Carroll Dawson. "But the thing about Sam is that he will never be afraid to try."
"That's definitely true," agrees Vernon Maxwell, who knows a thing or two about being a macho man on the court. "He is a free stroker. He's never afraid. To Sam, any shot is a good shot. He's just like me."
All of which makes Cassell a very dangerous opponent. Some guys go their whole careers never even taking -- let alone making -- a shot like the icy three-pointer Sam Cassell made last night. And yet Olajuwon had complete confidence in the kid when he passed up a jump hook in favor of the dish-out.
"I was making my move, and I saw him wide open," explained The Dream. "I'd rather go for a three instead of a two. And as I told you, Sam is not really a rookie."
Right, Big Fella. We get the message.