SHOOTING FOR RESPECT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MINNEAPOLIS - The date was March 17, 1987, when The Sun published its annual 20-player All-Metro first and second basketball teams. The pictured faces all beamed, their basketball promise seemingly certain.

Sam Cassell, a junior point guard at Dunbar at the time, looked that day for his name, and eventually found it.

In the honorable mention column.

For some, that would be a pretty significant accomplishment, but in Cassell's mind, that was the first, but not the last, time his skills would be overlooked.

"By far, I was the best player in Baltimore City as a junior," said Cassell recently. "In my senior year, they [The Sun] made me the Player of the Year. That's ironic, ain't it? That's when they all started [overlooking] me. It all started then."

In the days leading up to Sunday's NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles, Cassell, who has helped lead the Minnesota Timberwolves to first place in the Midwest Division, couldn't help but think he would be denied a place on the Western Conference squad.

How could he not? In his mind, he should have been an All-Star many times before, only to get edged out by a Jason Kidd here, a Baron Davis there, both players whom Cassell respects, but in no way takes a back seat to.

This season, Cassell is 12th in scoring in the NBA at 21.1 points a game, tied for fourth in assists at 7.8, tied for 11th in shooting at 49.5 percent - the highest ranking guard - and 12th in three-point shooting at 42.2 percent.

Yet, somehow he didn't even place in the top 10 in fan balloting among Western guards for the All-Star Game.

"I look at the All-Star balloting and I'm not in the top 10. Stuff like that doesn't get to me," Cassell said. "It's like, did these people forget about me? I don't ever question whether I can play, because I put my skills up against any point guard in this league. Eventually, I'm going to be all right.

"People say, 'You're having a great year, a breakout year.' A breakout year? I've been doing this for seven years, since I've been a starter. What do you mean a breakout year? Maybe I've never shot 50 percent, but as a starter, I'm shooting 46 or 47 percent. That's excellent for a point guard."

That's excellent for any guard, and someone finally noticed. The Western Conference coaches, who vote on the seven reserves, selected Cassell to the All-Star Game, making him at 34 years and 89 days at tipoff Sunday, the second-oldest first- time All-Star in league history.

Cassell, who was told about the selection by Minnesota coach Flip Saunders before the Feb. 3 home game against Orlando, played down the significance, but people who know him say it means a lot.

"Over the years, when he had gotten his hopes up high, thinking that he had a good chance of making it, and he didn't make it, it kind of disappointed him," said TNT analyst Kenny Smith, who shared playing time with Cassell in Houston for two years.

"It seemed like this time, he was trying to downplay it leading up to it, because he wasn't sure if he was going to make it. I kept telling him that he was going to make it, that it was no problem, that he was the best guard in the West. I don't think he believed me. It's really going to set in when he comes to L.A. That's going to be the tale of all the tape."

Talking the talk

Some would say that a successful 11-year career, with two championship rings, millions of dollars and the NBA lifestyle, ought to be enough to bring a level of forgetfulness for any real or perceived slights as well as quiet.

But for Cassell, even in his youth, silence has never been an option.

"I could tell it was going to be a two-way conversation when a decision had to be made with Sam. He was a fierce competitor," said Pete Pompey, Cassell's coach at Dunbar.

Pompey inherited him from Bob Wade in Cassell's sophomore year, and quickly noted the 6-foot-3 guard's combination skills.

"The best part of his game was the fact that he could handle the ball like a point guard, but he could shoot like a two guard," said Pompey, now the athletic director at Edmondson.

"He helped us eliminate just about any double team on anybody else on the floor because of the things he could do with the ball," he said. "He could find the right guy and penetrate, and when he penetrated, he could bring people to him and kick the ball out. Or he could put that extra dribble on the floor and drive to the basket."

Two successful years at Florida State and six NBA teams later, Cassell is doing the same thing with the Timberwolves, who dealt for him in the offseason, sending former Maryland star Joe Smith to the Milwaukee Bucks as part of a four-team deal.

In some corners, Cassell had been labeled a troublemaker with the Bucks and New Jersey, his previous stop before Milwaukee. The Bucks, who had a potent trio with Cassell, guard Ray Allen and forward Glenn Robinson, shed all three by the end of last season, then waved goodbye as coach George Karl resigned.

The Timberwolves, who, for seven straight years, have been bounced from the first round of the Western playoffs, were thought to be playing with dynamite in getting Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, who came from the New York Knicks. Sprewell, suspended from the Golden State Warriors in the 1997-98 season for choking his coach, was fined this year for a profane tirade directed at Knicks management during Minnesota's visit in December.

The two have combined with Kevin Garnett - an early favorite for league Most Valuable Player honors - to form the NBA's most potent scoring threesome and power the Timberwolves to a 37-15 mark, landing them atop the NBA's toughest division.

"Any time you make a trade, there's always a gamble, but we didn't think it was a gamble at that time what we were doing," Saunders said.

He pointed out that Cassell averaged close to 20 points a game and shot 50 percent last season. "So we weren't getting a guy in a rocking chair," who hadn't played or required a resurgence in his career, Saunders said.

And while outsiders and fans may undervalue Cassell, his teammates admire his spirit and work ethic.

"He obviously feels like he's found a home in Minnesota," Garnett said. "He tends to like the guys here, and when I hear him talk about Milwaukee, you can tell he's a little crushed on how the whole Big Dog [Glenn Robinson] and Ray Allen thing went down and the potential that the Big Three could have had there. It sort of left a bad taste in his mouth.

"I told him that he's here now and he can forget all about that. ... He's playing his best basketball, and if you put him around positive people, positive things happen. I try to be that positive outlet, and so does Spree [Sprewell] and this whole locker room."

Thriving not surviving

Beyond being the literal center of the locker room as well as its source of laughter, Cassell is getting better on the floor. He is thriving at a point in a career when the production of many players slows.

Since the 1999-2000 season, Cassell has averaged at least 35 minutes a game and shot at least 46.3 percent in each of the past five years, while his scoring has also increased steadily from 18.6 in 1999-2000 to this year's 21.1, a career-high. According to the NBA Statistical Yearbook, an annual analysis prepared by Harvey Pollack, lead statistician of the Philadelphia 76ers, Cassell was the third most productive point guard in the league last year, behind Kidd and Utah's John Stockton.

If anything, Cassell has made his game better by shortening it. Last season, he led the league in 12- and 13-foot jumpers and was third in baskets from 14 and 15 feet away.

In other words, with the game going to the extremes of the perimeter or the dunk, Cassell excels at midrange.

"That's my bread and butter," said Cassell. "That's what keeps me in the league a long time, that midrange game. Everybody in today's game wants to shoot the three or go to the basket and dunk the ball. Nobody wants to shoot the 15-foot pull-up, the 10-foot pull-up, which is a difficult shot, but it's a shot I love to take. ... I hope these young kids that come in the league don't, because that will keep me with a job."

Said Smith: "If you go to the park, there's always a guy like that. ... He doesn't use his athleticism all the time, but he stays on the court because he uses the angle. Sam's that guy. He's the 42-year-old guy in the park, playing with the 18-year-old kids. And he's killing them ... because he understands the game and he understands the angles."

Just as valuable to the Timberwolves was his ability to deliver down the stretch. Pollack's research showed that last year Cassell was the fourth most productive person in the league in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime, behind Garnett, New Orleans' Jamal Mashburn and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers.

"We were looking for a guy that could give us some toughness and scoring under really tough duress in tough situations," said Kevin McHale, Minnesota's vice president of basketball operations. "He and Spree brought a real maturity level to our team in terms of toughness. They are old veteran, grizzly kind of guys that just know how to play."

Cassell lives in Houston, where he won two championships in his first two seasons in the league, but he visits his family and friends in East Baltimore each summer. His contract has two more years to run, at about $5.5 million each year, and he says he wants an extension so he can finish his career with Garnett and Sprewell in Minnesota.

Even if that doesn't happen, no one will be able to take away the moment Sunday when the name of Sam Cassell is added to the list of NBA All-Stars.

And what will be going through his mind when his name is called?

"Finally. Finally. The haters finally realized," Cassell said.

Sam Cassell file

Age: 34

Height, weight: 6-3, 185

Position: Guard

Hometown: Baltimore

Background: High school, Dunbar; college, San Jacinto Junior College (Texas) and Florida State.

NBA career: Playing with his sixth team in his 11th season. ... A two-time NBA champion as a member of the Houston Rockets (1994, 1995). ... Scored career-high 40 points against Chicago Bulls on March 3, 2001. ... Has career averages of 16.3 points, 6.3 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game.

Better with age

Former Dunbar star Sam Cassell will be the second-oldest first time All-Star in NBA history. The three oldest to make their initial appearance:

Player ................... Team ...... All-Star Game....... Age

Nathaniel Clifton .. NewYork ....1957 .... 34 years, 94 days

Sam Cassell .........Minnesota ... 2004 ....34 years, 89 days

Anthony Mason ..... Miami ....... 2001 ... 34 years, 59 days

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