- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 23, 2009

Five years into his playing career, and just three seasons removed from back-to-back championships with the Houston Rockets, Sam Cassell looked at coach Rudy Tomjanovich, observing the respect he commanded and the knowledge and insight he shared. Cassell thought to himself, “I want that.”

At that moment, the Baltimore native decided that as soon his playing days ended, he would cross the bridge into coaching.

“I just loved it. I said, ‘This is what I want to do,’ ” said Cassell, who retired after 15 NBA seasons and begins the next chapter of his life as an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards. “I just became a student of this game. I know the history of this game, I love the history of this game, and that’s key.

“I eat, sleep and dream basketball. This is my life. It’s the life I chose, and it’s a great life to have. I just enjoy the game of basketball, and early in my career, I was just fascinated about being a part of the NBA. But now it’s my livelihood - it’s what I feed off, it’s my energy. I love being in the gym. If guys want me to be in here with them 11, 12 o’clock at night, I’ll be here.”

That dedication, along with the leadership skills Cassell exhibited as a player, made him an easy pick for Flip Saunders as he fills out his roster of assistants. Cassell played under Saunders for two seasons in Minnesota and during that time expressed his desire to coach.

Saunders said one of the first calls he got after being hired in April was from Cassell, who wanted to be part of his staff. After working out the details, Washington signed Cassell on Thursday.

Cassell was on the Boston Celtics’ roster much of this season but didn’t play a game. He used that time to get a head start on his coaching career.

“I learned so much from Doc Rivers, just as what it takes to be a coach in this league,” Cassell said. “This last year, it showed me what I had to adjust to. In Boston this last year, [Rivers] had me in the coaches meetings; I was in the huddles. I helped make some decisions, he asked my opinion on some things going on on the court and I gave it to him.”

Saunders also named former Minnesota assistant Randy Wittman to his staff and likely will add another coach or two, but their roles have not been determined. Cassell does know one of his responsibilities will be further developing franchise player Gilbert Arenas as a floor general.

“My job is to get him to understand overall, just him being a leader,” Cassell said. “Leadership starts by setting examples, and he understands. The relationship between Gil and Flip and the staff will be wonderful, and we should win some games this year.”

Cassell has a good relationship with a number of Washington’s players and went to the same prep school as co-captain Caron Butler, who said Cassell’s presence in the locker room is just what the Wizards need. That presence is critical considering the Wizards have six players 23 years old or younger who have maturing to do, and Cassell said he believes he can help with that.

“You’ve got to respect the game of basketball. If you don’t respect the game of basketball, the game of basketball will disrespect you more than you ever dreamed of,” he said. “There is no situation that the guys will be in that I haven’t been in as a player. I’ll be valuable in that aspect of coaching, and they know what I’ve done as a player - I don’t have to tell them.”

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