HOUSTON -- It's a fantasy that's followed Sam Cassell from the playgrounds of East Baltimore, those days when the Houston Rockets guard would imagine he was Julius Erving with the ball in the closing seconds of a seventh game.
"I was Doc -- I couldn't dunk then, but I was still Dr. J," Cassell said. "Every guy goes through that -- and you always hit the winning shot."
New York Knicks forward Antho- ny Mason couldn't even bring himself to dream the moment when he was struggling through professional ball in Turkey and the CBA, hoping and praying he'd get a chance to even sit on somebody's bench in the NBA.
"Then you're working hard, never really dreaming about getting to the finals," Mason said Monday. "Now you're there, and in a seventh game -- it's like a dream come true."
Tonight one team's dream becomes reality, and the other team's dream comes to a frustrating end as the Rockets face the Knicks here at The Summit in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
"Big game, big game, that's all [Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich] has been saying all season," Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon said. "Now, I actually believe him."
All Olajuwon has to do is drive though this city, where fans are sporting "Clutch City" attire and businesses are decorated with signs saluting the Rockets. It's an atmosphere created by the fact that a Houston professional team has never won a championship -- and has never even been in the position to play a game for one.
"The city, I think, is overdue for a championship," Houston forward Otis Thorpe said. "We just want to come out and play the game and try not to get caught up in all the excitement that's going on and just understand what we have to do on the court."
But for the Knicks, the perspective is different. The team saw how New York united behind the Rangers as they were closing in on their first championship in 54 years last week.
"I wish our whole team could have been at that game, to get the feel of that crowd and how they were embracing that team," said Mason, who was at that Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. "To be able to hug everybody, to throw your hands up and show that you're the best . . . we're not thinking about losing."
It was clear yesterday that, with the latest ending to a season in league history, both teams simply want to get on with the game. The players made it known they were tired of the media (Mason and John Starks didn't bother to show up yesterday, both being fined $10,000).
"It's a little bit boring waiting for this game," Knicks coach Pat Riley said. "[Tonight] there will be a tremendous excitement and intensity that will come over everybody. Getting to the game is what everybody is waiting for."
New York point guard Derek Harper barely slept Monday night, thinking last night was game day.
"I'm so anxious that I got up a few times in the middle of the night just thinking about it," Harper said. "Sooner or later, it'll come to an end and we'll be champions."
To do that the Knicks will have to win on the road, something that hasn't happened in the finals since the Washington Bullets did it against Seattle in 1978. The home team has won 11 of the 14 seventh games played in the finals, and 19 straight seventh games in the playoffs.
This will be New York's third Game 7 of the playoffs, a fact the Knicks feel will help.
"I think it's our destiny to win the championship," Harper said. "And it seems right that we do it the hard way because it's been the hard way all along."
Twenty-four players will be in uniform vying for the championship, from future Hall of Famers Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing to all-stars Charles Oakley and Starks. But there's just one player in tonight's game who has experienced the euphoria that one team will feel sometime around midnight tonight.
Earl Cureton, a seldom-used center who signed with the Rockets the last week of the season after playing with Magic Johnson's traveling team, was on the Philadelphia 76ers' championship team in 1983.
"It's the best feeling in the world," said Cureton. "Nothing can ever replace the feeling when it's all over and there's only one team left."
Tomjanovich said a pep talk won't be necessary.
"If I have to go in and give some kind of rah-rah speech before this game, then something is wrong," Tomjanovich said. "This is what we've been pointing for. This is the first time we'll play in a game with a chance to win a title."
GOOD TO BE HOME
When the NBA championship series has gone to a seventh game, home teams have won 11 of 14 times (home team in bold):
1951: Rochester 79, N.Y. 75
1952: Minneapolis 82, N.Y. 65
1954: Minneap. 87, Syracuse 80
1955: Syracuse 92, Ft. Wayne 91
1957: Bos. 125, St.L. 123, 2 OT
1960: Boston 122, St. Louis 103
1962: Bos. 110, Lakers 107, OT
1966: Boston 95, Lakers 93
1969: Boston 108, Lakers 106
1970: New York 113, Lakers 99
1974: Boston 102, Milwaukee 87
1978: Wash. 105, Seattle 99
1984: Boston 111, Lakers 102
1988: Lakers 108, Detroit 105
N.Y. KNICKS vs. HOUSTON
(Series tied, 3-3)
Gm. 1: Rockets 85, Knicks 78
Gm. 2: Knicks 91, Rockets 83
Gm. 3: Rockets 93, Knicks 89
Gm. 4: Knicks 91, Rockets 82
Gm. 5: Knicks 91, Rockets 84
Gm. 6: Rockets 86, Knicks 84
Date Site Time
Tonight at Houston 9
TV: Chs. 2 and 4