Israeli hoopster Omri Casspi, a first round draft pick for the Sacramento Kings, hopes his tenacity and passion for the game will keep him in the NBA.
This fall, many thousands of Israelis will be getting out of bed at four in the morning to catch live broadcasts of the world’s preeminent professional basketball league.
For his countrymen, Omri Casspi’s debut for the Sacramento Kings is a matter of history in the making. No Israeli has ever suited up in an NBA jersey, and the eyes of a nation will be on him from the season’s tip-off on October 23.
In July, Sacramento tagged Casspi for its 23rd NBA Draft pick, making him the first Israeli to be selected in the draft’s first round. Now the 21-year-old, six foot nine inches tall, small forward has to live up to being something of a national obsession: The greatest hope in Israeli basketball history.
First, there’s the small matter of adapting to life in the US. “It’s not easy arriving at an unfamiliar place,” his father, Shimon Casspi, tells ISRAEL21c. “He’s had to start everything from zero – for example finding somewhere to live, buying a car and opening a bank account. The local Jewish community, in particular, is really embracing him. They are warm and supportive, and there are also some Israelis living there who are helping him.
“We speak every day. He has settled in well, and tells me about the good atmosphere in Sacramento. His brother Eitan is with him at all times,” says Shimon, who adds that Eitan quit his studies to become Omri’s personal manager. They share a rented house, so that when his brother gets home from practice he has everything he needs.
Pre-season preparation is good
“He has learned to deal with the media pressure, and his English is excellent thanks to the American players at Maccabi. In all, I would say that his entry into this whole new world has been smooth. Touch wood – he feels good. All this means that his pre-season preparation has been good,” says the proud dad.
Casspi was born and raised in the urbane town of Yavne, south of Tel Aviv. His career began with Hapoel Holon’s junior team, and he made his professional debut as a raw 17-year-old with Israel’s basketball powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv during the 2005-06 season.
After gaining valuable court time on-loan with Hapoel Galil Elyon for the 2006-07 campaign, he returned to the perennial national champions in the summer of 2007 and became a key player on the Maccabi Tel Aviv’s multinational roster. Following the 2009 Draft, he signed a reported three-year, $3.5 million contract with the Kings.
Other Israeli hoopsters have tried to make the NBA grade in the past. Back in 1979, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s rising star Miki Berkowitz – who went on to become one of Europe’s outstanding hoopsters – wanted to join the Atlanta Hawks, but Maccabi refused to release him.
Passion and tenacity
Two decades later, Maccabi’s Oded Katash landed a two-year contract with the New York Knicks, but the NBA lockout and contractual issues killed the deal. In recent years Doron Shefer, Lior Eliyahu and Yotam Halperin were drafted, all in the second round, but failed to make the big-time.
What makes Casspi special, says his father, is his passion for basketball. “He loves the sport and wants to play in every game. When he was a child, he would wake up early in the morning to watch the Chicago Bulls. Michael Jordan was his hero.”
Casspi’s home environment was conducive in the extreme. “We used to take our children everywhere to games,” recalls Casspi senior.
Shimon and Ilana Casspi’s 16-year-old daughter, Aviv, plays for the national women’s team. “Pound-for-pound, she has even more talent than Omri,” boasts her dad. “Eitan could also have been a fine player, but he chose to put his energies into being a paratrooper.”
Casspi, by his own admission, is still a work in progress: A capable shooter, rebounder and ball handler, but not outstanding by NBA standards. His most salient assets are his passion, toughness and tenacity.
On the right track
He made a slow start with the Kings, shooting 33 percent in his first four summer league games, averaging 7.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and four turnovers. In his first pre-season game, Casspi scored nine points and shot four-for-four from the floor in his debut nine minutes of play during the Kings’ 98:86 defeat to the Portland Trailblazers.
“I was nervous at first, but that passed after a few seconds,” he confided to the Hebrew media after taking the plunge. “I had a good game, but that doesn’t help when you lose.”
In his second game, the Trailblazers won 89:86 and Casspi scored seven points during 17 minutes on court, including his first dunk. He played a similar role in the third pre-season game against Los Angeles Lakers, scoring six points and playing for 16 minutes.
Indeed, Kings head coach Paul Westphal said before the pre-season that Casspi has a long way to go before making the grade, but noted that accumulating minutes of the parquet is a sign that he is heading in the right direction.
“At first they didn’t think he would play so much, but he’s surprised them,” says his father. “He was excellent against Portland. I understand that there’s already talk of him eventually being in the opening five. Not that there aren’t fears – this is the first year, and everything is different from what he knew: The game style, the mentality. It’s been a 180-degree switch – basketball is more about personal ability there. There are real superstars there. It’s more of a show. But I’m not worried – he’s ready for the NBA.”