TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In the fall of 1991 – Florida State’s first year as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference – Sam Cassell felt like he was in on a secret.
Most of the buzz around the league centered around Bobby Bowden’s football program, and for good reason. FSU football was still in the early stages of the “dynasty era” and in the next year would close in on its first national title.
Few in the ACC orbit, however, seemed to pay much mind to Florida State’s men’s basketball team. And Cassell liked it that way.
“In the early 90s, Florida State football was dominant,” Cassell said. “It was dominant. And they didn’t know that we played basketball down there.”
The ACC hoops landscape back then looked a lot like it does now: Duke and North Carolina grabbing the lion’s share of the headlines with a handful of other member schools taking occasional turns in the spotlight.
But Cassell and his Florida State teammates felt like they were set to spring a surprise on Tobacco Road.
“We knew we had a good team,” Cassell said. “I saw the talent (and said), ‘If there’s five teams in that conference that are better than us, they’ve got to be damn good.’
“Because I knew we were good.”
Cassell’s Seminoles didn’t wait long to show it.
In their ACC debut at North Carolina, in just their fifth game of the season, the unranked Seminoles thumped No. 5 North Carolina, 86-74, in front of 19,505 fans at the Smith Center.
In the process, they served notice to the rest of the ACC that they had indeed arrived.
Nearly 30 years later, it still rates as one of Cassell’s favorite memories from his time at FSU.
“I will never forget that game,” said Cassell, who went on to a 17-year NBA career and is now an assistant with the Los Angeles Clippers. “Because no one that follows college basketball – fans, sports reporters, anyone – gave us a chance of going into the ‘Dean Dome’ and winning that game without our best player.”
Cassell was referring to Douglas Edwards, who missed the game due to a suspension. But if the Seminoles missed him, they didn’t show it. Cassell drained a 3-pointer just seconds into the game and finished with a game-high 22 points. Four other teammates – including emerging two-sport star Charlie Ward – scored in double-digits.
“Charlie Ward, Bobby Sura, Chuck Graham, Rodney Dobard, Andre Reid, we just clicked as a group,” Cassell said. “We said ‘We’re going to spread ‘em out, we’re going to dribble-penetrate ‘em, we’re going to drive and kick ‘em and we’re going to make shots and give ourselves a chance to win the game in the last three or four minutes.’
“And that’s what we allowed ourselves to do.”
Coach Pat Kennedy at the time called the win “among the greatest moments and greatest victories” in Florida State history.
And the Seminoles went on to one of the greatest seasons in the program’s history.
They spent the second half of the season ranked in the AP Top 25, finished a respectable 11-5 in ACC play and reached the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 before falling to eventual Final Four participant Indiana.
“It was an awesome time,” Cassell said. “… We just played. We were all great friends. We lived next door to each other in our apartments. We knew what we had. We knew what was in front of us. And we were ready for the challenge.”
Living more than 3,000 miles from Tallahassee, Cassell still stays connected with his alma mater’s hoops team – and in more ways than one.
He of course catches the Seminoles’ games as often as he can and is thrilled with the program’s success over the past few years, which includes Sweet 16 and Elite Eight appearances, as well as a 2020 ACC championship.
“It’s awesome to see my alma mater do the things that they’ve been doing,” Cassell said. “I think Leonard has done a tremendous job of getting some good, quality players in there and making everything mesh together.”
But Cassell also has a much more hands-on dynamic with two of FSU’s stars.
Terance Mann and Mfiondu Kabengele, who both played key roles in the Seminoles’ return to national prominence, were each drafted by Cassell’s Clippers last year.
And both were off to promising starts before the COVID-19 pandemic put the NBA season on hold in March.
“Both guys are hard workers,” Cassell said. “Both guys are coachable guys. The best thing about both of them, they’re great young men. Of course, they come from Florida State. That’s why they’re great (laughs).”
Cassell described Mann as a mature player who “knows how to handle himself well” – which is something Cassell has seen plenty of rookies struggle with as they adjust to the demands of professional basketball.
He also said that Kabengele is a “competitive” player that “checks all the boxes” of what the Clippers want on the floor.
“That’s one thing that our organization thrives off of,” he said. “Guys who want to compete.”
Cassell sees bright futures for both.
“They’re a joy to be around,” he said. “Once they figure out the process, I think both of them will be pretty good professional basketball players in the league for a long time.”
And those players feel the same about their coach, and the tradition that they share.
“Just being able to have Sam around, knowing he’s in my corner and knowing he comes from the FSU legacy is big-time for me,” Mann said. “It’s for life, and he really shows it, and he’s really proud of where we came from, which is Tallahassee.”
Like most of the sports world, Cassell has spent the last three months in “wait-and-see” mode as the pandemic courses throughout the world.
But he did get some clarity a few weeks ago, when the NBA detailed its plans to resume the season.
Starting July 31, the league will hold a 22-team, eight-game schedule to finish the regular season and then begin the playoffs – all within the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World in Orlando.
The Clippers, who had the second-best record in the Western conference when the NBA suspended its season, will be among the favorites to compete for a title.
Cassell, who won three NBA championships as a player, is focused on helping the Clippers win their first.
But he’s also happy to just be a part of something that can bring some joy to people in the midst of an otherwise difficult time.
“I think our country needs sports,” he said. “Our world needs sports. Slowly but surely, they’re trying to make a comeback.”
Navigating a non-stop NBA schedule for the last 27 years has left Cassell without any time to plan a return trip to Tallahassee.
He said he’d like to come back as soon as he can – to tour the renovated Donald L. Tucker Center, explore the program’s training center and otherwise take a trip down memory lane.
Until then, though, Cassell is happy to hold on to the memories of his time in Tallahassee – everything from beating the ACC’s blue bloods to making lasting friendships with fellow athletes and students on campus.
He remembers being starstruck at his first sight of football starts Amp Lee and Edgar Bennett. And chatting with Derrick Brooks over lunch, both bonding over the jersey No. 10 they wore for their respective sports.
“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Cassell said. “Florida State was great for me. It was awesome. I had a great time with everybody around the campus. It was cool. It was real cool.”