LOS ANGELES – Sam Cassell remembers Wednesday, June 22, 1994.
He was a 24-year-old rookie with the Houston Rockets about to play in the biggest game of his life. It was Game 7 of the NBA Finals against one of the jewel franchises of the league, the New York Knicks. As he made the drive just outside of downtown Houston, he recalled the thought that was going through his mind.
We ain’t going to lose. Not at the Summit.
Now, a quarter of a century later, Cassell has different responsibilities. The result of the game isn’t dependent upon him making or missing a jump shot. As an assistant coach of the LA Clippers, Cassell’s team faces a daunting task in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.
With two rookies, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet, playing prominent minutes for the Clippers, Cassell is trying to share the lessons he learned in his first season that helped him earn the praise of being “clutch.”
Cassell’s journey to the pros didn’t portend instant NBA success.
Cassell was recruited to Chicago’s DePaul University after playing a year of post grad ball in Maine, but ended up being ruled academically ineligible by the NCAA. He wound up enrolling at San Jacinto College in Houston, a place that would become home just a few years later, before transferring to Florida State University for his junior and senior years.
As his amateur career wrapped up, he wondered if he would get his shot to play professionally.
“I remember the day of the draft. I was back home in Baltimore and my grandma kept paging me,” he recalled. “[Then-Rockets head coach] Rudy Tomjanovich called three times to tell me they had picked me.”
The struggle to get to the NBA helped hone Cassell’s work ethic. When he got to Houston, Cassell once again had to hustle to earn his minutes joining a team that had won 55 games the year before and featured future Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon as well as a crowded backcourt.
The Rockets picked up where they left off, winning 58 games and finishing as the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. That meant only spot starts for Cassell as he carved out a backup role.
Houston took care of Portland in the first round, setting up an epic series against the defending Western Conference Champion Phoenix Suns.
”It was unique because we knew we had our work cut out,” Cassell says. “Phoenix was a great ball club. Charles Barkley was amazing, Kevin Johnson was amazing, they had a lot of great talent, but we had the best chemistry in basketball at the time.”
The series went to a deciding Game 7, which was also Cassell’s coming out party. The kid from Baltimore finished with 22 points and 7 assists, helping to lead the Rockets to a 104-94 win. The Rockets went on to eliminate the Jazz in the Western Conference finals, setting up the series against the Knicks.
Even as a rookie, the spotlight wasn’t too bright for Cassell.
”I wasn’t nervous, I have been in so many big games,” Cassell remembers. “As a kid you dream about playing in the NBA Finals. Until you get there, you really don’t know what to expect.”
The series went back-and-forth leading up to the deciding game, where Cassell stamped his arrival to the big leagues. He finished with 13 points in 18 minutes, helping the Rockets claim their first NBA championship by beating the Knicks 90-84.
“I remember after the game, Vernon [Maxwell] and Kenny [Smith] were crying,” Cassell says. “I was looking at them and thinking, ‘What’s wrong with you boys?’ I didn’t respect the journey because I had won a championship my first season.”
The Rockets repeated as champions in 1995, but Cassell didn’t fully appreciate winning a title until being a part of the 2008 Boston Celtics, coached by current Clippers bench boss, Doc Rivers.
“That experience was different for me; we were a hungry veteran team that knew how hard it was to win,” Cassell recalls. “Our squad now is so young. I try to tell the young fellas not to take being in the playoffs for granted.”
The three-time NBA champion knows the importance of having strong leadership and guidance as a first-year pro. When he reflects back on his career, Cassell can’t overstate the importance of having Tomjanovich as a coach in his rookie year.
He sees a lot of the same qualities in Rivers.
”[Tomjanovich] let me go play. He trusted a rookie to run his ball club,” Cassell says. “A lot of coaches don’t have that kind of confidence in a rookie, to have that trust in a young player to run his team, but Doc does. That’s why you’re seeing Shai and Landry excel.”
Rivers’ message to his team has been consistent all season. No one expected the Clippers to be in the playoffs, except themselves.
After completing a roster overhaul at the trade deadline, the team’s youth was even more important to that postseason push.
“We will be in every game because of how hard we work and our chemistry,” Cassell says. “In the NBA, you want to give yourself a chance to win in the final minutes, and as long as we stick to our game, we can beat anybody.”
With the postseason now officially here, Cassell reflects back to 25 years ago when he was wearing a jersey instead of a suit. He has simple advice for the pair of 22-year-old rookies who are facing the likes of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson in their first taste of playoff basketball.
“I tell them [Gilgeous-Alexander and Shamet] that they’re here for a reason. They’re damn good players who will continue to evolve their game,” Cassell said about the pair of talented rookies. “If they stay consistent and confident, the sky is the limit for both of them.”