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Sweet 16

The Baltimore Sun

Two days after soaking in the love of the fans in his basketball home, Sam Cassell bathed in the admiration of the fans in his real hometown. And after spending most of Saturday evening as the center of attention at a celebrity charity game at the Towson Center, Cassell proclaimed that neither Boston, Baltimore nor the NBA had seen the last of him in uniform.

"I'm playing next year, playing my 16th year," Cassell said without hesitation, minutes after the conclusion of the game put on by his friend and fellow Dunbar alumnus Kurk Lee, benefiting Lee's foundation.

"After winning a championship, it's just so hard to walk away from that," Cassell said, describing the title he contributed to with the Celtics last week, their 17th in franchise history and Cassell's third. "Certain guys did it, but as I tell the guys, every great movie has a sequel. And since we consider ourselves a great team, we've got to go and repeat."

Coaching in the NBA is still his dream, he said. But even as he turns 39 early next season, Cassell wants to put that off to try to end his playing days the way they began, with two straight championships.

The past week was a rush: the title clincher in Boston on Tuesday, the victory parade Thursday, the return to town Friday and the game Saturday. Cassell also made a quick trip back home between the Eastern Conference finals last month and the start of the NBA Finals. No matter how long or short his offseason is, he has always made sure he got back to comfortable surroundings.

This postseason was long because at midseason he negotiated a buyout of his contract with the Los Angeles Clippers and signed with his eighth team, the Celtics.

"People have to remember," Cassell said, "I wanted to go to Boston, but Boston had to want me. But they wanted me, and they welcomed me with open arms. And when I got there, I fit in."

Primarily, he fit in with - and was welcomed by - Kevin Garnett, his former Minnesota Timberwolves teammate, with whom his quest for another championship ring had ended in the Western Conference finals in 2004.

The second half of his career had been dominated by his hunger for another title, to add to the two he won fresh out of the box with the Houston Rockets, in 1994 and 1995. He also fell one game short of the Finals with Milwaukee in 2001 and saw his chance with the Clippers (who lost in seven in the West semifinals in 2006) blow up when Elton Brand and Shaun Livingston suffered devastating injuries.

Those heartbreaks seemed to have been forgotten by those who snarked that Cassell was coattail-riding in Boston this season. He didn't play a lot in the playoffs, even when starting point guard Rajon Rondo was injured in the Finals, and sometimes looked his age when he did. But his impact off the court (veteran guidance for Rondo and even Finals Most Valuable Player Paul Pierce) and on (scoring bursts in games 1 and 5) can't be minimized.

He even felt compelled to defer to his teammates in the record Game 6 rout, with the title in sight. "Doc [Rivers, the coach] wanted to put me in the game in the fourth quarter when we went up by 30 points," he said. "I said, 'Doc, no, let those guys play. I'll just stay here and enjoy it.' "

Anyone in the mood to be critical of Cassell's motives or role wasn't welcome at the Towson Center on Saturday. Sprinkled among the crowd that took up about three-quarters of the 3,800-capacity building were members of his AAU teams, who are still raising money to attend the national tournament in New Orleans next month, and more Celtics gear than has ever been witnessed in one location in this area.

Even with local names like Carmelo Anthony and Rudy Gay on hand, along with Ravens players, actors from The Wire, musicians, models and reality-television stars, Cassell consistently got the biggest ovations. Lee, of course, did a lot to encourage them, pointing him out frequently on the public address system and awarding him MVP honors afterward.

"With Sam Cassell being an NBA champion this year, showing up, I'm just happy about that," Lee said. "That enlightened the crowd - one of Baltimore's own, born and raised, and he came back and gave his time to my celebrity all-star game. That's great."

Three rings and plans to go for a fourth - Cassell's basketball life, even at this late stage, does seem nothing less than great.

Listen to David Steele Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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