Omri Casspi continues to inspire his home country as the only Israeli-born player to ever play in the NBA.
On Friday, Nov. 6, a shooting at the Beit Anan junction, north of the West Bank city of Hebron, left a 19-year-old Israeli soldier critically wounded in the upper body. It was the fourth terror attack on Israelis in the West Bank that day.
Omri Casspi digested the devastating news inside the Sacramento Kings’ home locker room in Sleep Train Arena. He has the Red Alert application on his cell phone, which shrieks with every fired rocket, mortar or missile into Israel.
Such is life for the first Israeli-born player in NBA history. “It’s hard having my family so close to the border, in the line of fire, we call it,” Casspi told SI.com. “It’s really hard to focus.”
Casspi was born in the city of Holon, a suburb on the central coastal strip south of Tel Aviv. When he was 3, Casspi’s parents moved to a smaller city, Yavne, only 25 miles north of the Gaza Strip.
“Every time there’s stuff going on in Gaza, my family feels it because it’s right around the corner,” Casspi said.
The Casspi house was constructed in 1992, before modern Israeli standards began requiring all homes in the area to include a bomb shelter. The nearest communal shelter lies 100 meters from the Casspi house. “We just ran to one of the rooms and gathered until the bomb was over,” Casspi recalled.
Casspi’s maternal great-grandparents escaped Poland during the early stages of the Holocaust. They landed in Spain where his grandmother was born. From there, they moved to Cyprus before ultimating arriving in Israel. His father’s side hails from Morocco. Today, Moroccan Jews comprise the second-largest Jewish community in Israel.
His older brother Eitan, now a youth coach for Rishon Etzion, introduced Casspi to basketball at the age of 10, as Michael Jordan and the 1997 Bulls defended their fourth title. Chicago was the only NBA team broadcasted in Israel, launching a Jordan fan base half a world away from the Windy City.
“I always felt like the Bulls was the team of all of us,” Casspi said. Now, Casspi is the NBA player inspiring young children across Israel.
He’s used his global platform as a springboard to advocate for his country, an opportunity he wasn’t afforded before reaching the NBA. During international flights with the Israeli National Team, Casspi and his countrymen are always instructed to hide their team apparel within their luggage due to safety concerns.
“It’s sad to me, really,” Casspi said. The team is accompanied by six armed security guards and local law enforcement escorts the team upon their arrival.
During his four years with Maccabi Tel Aviv, Casspi faced anti-Semitism inside every road arena. “That’s just normal,” Casspi said. “It’s just part of Maccabi’s way.”
Life in the NBA opened a door he never imagined. “I feel like people want to know more,” Casspi said. “A lot of players in the Association are always asking, ‘What’s going on?’ ‘What do you think?’ ‘When’s it going to end?’ ‘What’s the solution?’ ‘How can you live like this?’”
Casspi decided to show them, first hand, this summer, escorting fellow Kings players DeMarcus Cousins and Caron Butler, as well as former teammates Chandler Parsons, Tyreke Evans, Iman Shumpert, Alan Anderson and Roger Mason to Israel for one week. The second Israeli-born NBA player, former Dallas Maverick Gal Mekel, also joined.
“Even though he got to leave and see the world, he still wants to give back and he wants to bring a lot of what he’s learned and who he’s met to where he’s from,” Shumpert said.
Yaron Talpaz, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s vice president of international operations, points out the significance of the trip: It meant more than basketball and more than politics.
“We know that the politics will always get most of the headlines, but there are more sides of Israel to show,” said Yaron Talpaz, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s vice president of international operations.
Talpaz recalls Sacramento’s visit to Madison Square Garden in 2010 as the catalyst of Casspi’s advocacy efforts. The rookie forward scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds in front of a raucous New York crowd during the Knicks’ “Jewish Heritage Night.” Talpaz watched live from Israel, broadcasting the game for The Sports Channel.
“Half of MSG that night [were] Casspi fans,” Talpaz said. “I think he understood the ability that he could do that after that crazy game.”
Casspi’s group trip went viral this summer, most notably the hilarious photo of DeMarcus Cousins and Iman Shumpert flanking him, all three colossal human beings covered head to toe in mud from the Dead Sea. The group took a helicopter tour around Jerusalem. Each player approached the historic Western Wall and placed notes in its crevices as thousands descended upon the plaza to celebrate Shabbat that Friday evening.
“Everything seemed ... epic,” Shumpert said. “It felt like it meant something to be standing in the spots we were standing in. “
The trip also included two basketball camps, hosting 150 Jewish, Arab and Druze children in Tel Aviv and around 200 more in Jerusalem. “I’m in the unique position to show my best friends, it’s the only country in all of the Middle East that you can be free religion. You can practice Islam, you can practice Christianity, you can be Jewish,” Casspi said. “Which is remarkable in that region.” The camps featured extensive drills with Shumpert teaching ball-handling, Cousins teaching post-up play and Parsons teaching jump shooting.
“He’s very proud of where he comes from,” Parsons said. “He served over there (in the Israel Defense Forces), his sister served, his dad served, his brother is still in [the reserves.]”
Casspi knows he’s not a politician. “We need a miracle,” is his solution to the never-ending war in his country.
For now, he’s focused on “shedding a positive light” on Israel while balancing the rigors of an NBA schedule across the Atlantic.
This season, Casspi is scoring a career-high 12.8 points per game while ranking third in the league in three-point percentage. Only four players in the NBA this season are shooting 50% from the floor, 40% from three and hitting at least one triple per game: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Omri Casspi.
Casspi is the one player doing so with the weight of a nation on his shoulders.