Sam Cassell, one of the NBA's foremost experts on being a couch potato, plops himself onto a leather sofa inside the Bucks' players lounge and starts describing the 10,000-square-foot mansion he plans to build outside of Houston this summer. So geeked is Cassell about his new digs you half expect him to pull out his wallet and proudly display snapshots of the floor plan. "I'm going all out," he says. "This is going to be a masterpiece."
He isn't kidding. Cassell's subcontractors include a home-stereo-system consultant whose annual salary is $10 million and an artworks consultant who pulls in $8.1 million per. Cassell is woofer-impaired, and he wouldn't know a Jackson Pollock from a Scot Pollard. So he'll happily defer to the experts and, best of all, it won't cost him a penny. If it does, then stereo guru/Bucks small forward Glenn Robinson can forget about seeing the ball anytime soon. The same goes for art collector/shooting guard Ray Allen.
"Glenn doesn't know it, but he's going to be involved," says Cassell of the Bucks' leading scorer, who coordinated the installation of Sam's car stereo system. "He can look through a stereo book and say, 'This piece, that piece, that piece, that piece.' It's amazing to me to hear him talk about it. I'm like, 'Where the hell do you find the time to know this?'"
As for art decor, Cassell is most familiar with the collected works of whoever does those paintings of dogs playing poker. Enter Allen, who brings a sense of style, taste and appreciation to the process. "I'm going to talk to Ray about artwork that fits sections of my house," says Cassell. So that means Cassell knows something about painting? "Nah." Would he be interested in checking out a local gallery with Allen? "Nah. Nah. Nah. I'm not big into ... see, I just like to relax."
This is the Big Three mantra: relax, have fun, get along. There is no Kobe vs. Shaq controversy here, no late-season, Blazerlike implosion. Cassell, Robinson and Allen, stuck in forgotten Milwaukee, actually like each other. Better yet, they respect each other. Together, the Big Three have pushed the Bucks past the 42-win mark for the first time since '91. Attendance is up. So are playoff expectations for a team that hasn't reached the second round in 12 years.
"People say there's not enough balls in Milwaukee for Ray, Glenn and Sam," says Cassell. "That's bull! That's bull! That's people just trying to get into our heads and say there's not enough, trying so it won't work. But now people see it's working. Then you throw Tim Thomas in there ... this team can go far."
This ain't your ordinary contender. You've got the Wal-Mart of point guards, a shooting guard so Renaissance man-ish that he ought to be wearing an ascot and a small forward who gets pep talks and free lunches from Cheeseland's senior U.S. senator. And, oh yeah: They've even started little 6'7" Darvin Ham at center, team defense is a rumor and the head coach -- who still can't believe the standings -- is now the highest-paid coach in all of sports. Somehow, it all works. Somehow, this team can win with three perimeter players and two other guys whose main jobs are to rebound, stop transition baskets and check their egos at the locker room door.
But that's the beauty of the Big Three -- nobody in Milwaukee seems to mind who does the postgame player of the game radio gig. "If that table right there represents our team," says Allen, gesturing to a three-legged stand, "Sam is in the middle and Glenn and me are on both sides. If one of them isn't there, then the table is going to be imbalanced."
While Allen and Robinson are the All-Stars, the Bucks won't go anywhere unless Cassell is in the lineup. Earlier this season, as Cassell was dropping a career-high 40 points on the Bulls in a double-overtime win at the Bradley Center, a scout from an Atlantic Division team couldn't help himself. "That's the best buy in the NBA right there," he said, pointing to Cassell. "For what he's producing and what he's making, it's not even close."
Mention this to Cassell, and you get both a mouthful and an earful. "I think everyone in this organization is happy financially but me," he says in just one of the many ways he'll describe his situation. But in all of them, the man has a case. After all, he is averaging 18 points a game, and he ranks eighth in assists (7.6) and 15th in shooting percentage (48.5%). "I think the most important guy right now is Sam," says coach George Karl. "Ray and Glenn probably are more powerful, more dominating, more intimidating, but Sam is probably more important. Does that make any sense?"
It does to Cassell, who made the mistake of signing a six-year, $21 million deal while he was still with the Nets. He didn't figure he'd be part of a three-way deal that would get him shipped to the Bucks in March '99, or see the market value of point guards go through the ozone layer. His $3.5M salary -- good through next season -- is as obsolete as a 50-MHz Gateway. Now he wants top point guard money.
"I know for a fact I helped make Glenn and Ray better ballplayers," he says. "I helped make Keith Van Horn better, for that one year, his rookie year. When I was with Van Horn in New Jersey, people were putting him in the same category with Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. Now he's been shopped."
Cassell wants an extension with a raise -- the Bucks say they will consider it during the off-season -- but that doesn't stop him from playing hard, no matter how many zeroes and commas are on his paycheck. Born and raised in inner-city Baltimore, Cassell saw poverty, saw drugs, saw friends die. There are memories that even now he won't discuss with anybody. "I know a lot of things that I shouldn't know about, because I've seen a lot of things that I shouldn't have seen," he says. "I try to forget, but I can't forget."
Maybe that's why Cassell, a virtual '93 first-round afterthought as the 24th pick by Houston, can bitch about his deal in the afternoon and score 40 on the Bulls that night. He knows he's underpaid, but that doesn't mean he'll do a J.R. Rider and phone it in. Cassell is a carefree, quote-a-nanosecond, walking-smile of a point guard who also understands cause and effect. He's the cause, and the effect is that the Bucks finally have a little point to their antlers.
Watch the guy during warmups. Shirt tail out. Warmup pants undone on the sides. Big grin on his face. He chats up the refs. He chats up the opposition. He chats up anybody who has a working eardrum. "He probably sleeptalks, too," says Robinson.
Robinson and Cassell have done their own sneaker commercials, but that's nothing compared to Allen, who's done the sneaker thing and Spike Lee's '98 film, He Got Game. He does the art thing. He can work a crowd. He loves to network, golf and travel. If you didn't know any better, you'd think he was Pierce Brosnan with a hellacious dribble drive. "I feel like I can get along with anybody because there's not much that's going to disrupt my well-being," says Allen, an Air Force brat born in Merced, Calif. "I will not let anybody walk up to me and make me unhappy. But I love for a person who I don't know -- and does not know me -- to come up to me and treat me like a regular person."
Allen knew Cassell socially even before Cassell was traded from the Nets. He was the same guy then as he is now. "I think Sam's happy with the skin that he's in and, of course, it shows," Allen says. Robinson, born and raised in hard-bitten Gary, Ind., is another story. Allen didn't know much about Big Dog when Ray first arrived in Milwaukee in '96 as a No.1 pick from UConn. And what he did know wasn't encouraging. Robinson had a reputation for being on the icy side. But guess who was one of the first Bucks to introduce himself, shake Allen's hand and ask him if he had found a place to live.
"I think he's more than what he lets on to be," Allen says. "People say Glenn is not outgoing, but he protects himself from people he doesn't know. We all do that, but he does that more than anybody I know. You just don't walk up to him and get a bear hug. And I think a lot of people want that bear hug from him."
Robinson saves the hugs for his mom and his stepdad. One of the first things he did with his newfound riches was splurge on a house outside Gary for the folks. As for himself, he's thinking of taking the Rolls-Royce plunge, but not now. "Maybe in my 10th year," he says. First, Robinson would like to celebrate an actual playoff series victory. He is the lone remaining Bucks player from '94-95, when he was a rookie and the No.1 overall pick out of Purdue. Since then, he has seen everything from a 25-win season to this year's surprise. Maybe that's why Senator Herb Kohl, who has owned the Bucks since '85, pays special attention to Big Dog. The two could be seen recently at Milwaukee's Pfister Hotel, chatting away in the coffee shop.
"He was just telling me we have a great chance to do special things this year," says Robinson. "He told me to stay positive, to stay focused. He told me it starts with me, to pick up my leadership. I'm kind of like the senior on the team."
Back when 'fros were 'fros and game shorts were Village People tight, the Bucks won the NBA title the old-fashioned way: They were so bad they got the first pick in the '69 draft, chose Kareem when he was still Lew, traded for Oscar Robertson the next season, then popped the bubbly in '71 after sweeping Baltimore for the hardware. Simple.
Thirty years later, with that same championship trophy still sitting by itself, the Bucks are trying to win another title with an altogether different strategy, though it's best not to remind Karl. "There are many nights I walk off the court not understanding how we won -- other than that we made jump shots," says the coach, who just signed a two-year, $14 million contract extension that also includes a reported 1-2% stake in the team. "What we do is kind of anti-The League."
Duh. The jump-shooting Big Three account for 60% of the Bucks' scoring and 100% of Karl's pained looks. That's because this is still a league, especially come playoff time, that guards the basket, guards the paint and guards the three-point line. The midrange shots? For the taking. So the Bucks take and take and take. The Bucks are third in the league in scoring, and in one 10-game span this season, Cassell, Allen and Robinson each recorded his career high game -- 40, 42 and 45, respectively.
If nothing else, the Big Three have forced the rest of the league to acknowledge that the audacious scheme has its moments. The Bucks have pulled off back-to-back wins against the Lakers and the Jazz, as well as road wins against Philly, Miami and Charlotte, among others. Still, this is the same team that gave up 124 points to the layup-challenged Cavs, and 120 to Vancouver, and recently eked out a mere 78 in a loss to the Sixers, prompting a minor hissy fit by Karl, who benched Big Dog for the fourth quarter. Now, ready or not, here come the playoffs.
"We're not afraid of no one," says Cassell, who has two championship rings from his days with the Rockets. And Allen insists, "We're respected."
Maybe. Maybe not. Unless the Bucks make it past the first round one of these days, the Big Three risk becoming the Big Belly Flop. No wonder Karl is cranking up the pressure.
"The biggest step this team has to make is to win a playoff series," he says. "Once it wins a playoff series, it could be explosive. But they still have to understand -- Ray and Glenn especially -- the mentality, the focus, the pressure and the incredible ..." He pauses. He wants to get this right. "Look, it's the best players playing the best basketball in crucial situations with the best coaching."
Understood. Now it's time The Three got ready.
This article appears in the April 16 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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