Welcome, The King Of Israel

December 21, 2009

Sacramento rookie Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the NBA, is a dedicated collector of floor burns as well as a modern extension of the league's Jewish roots

Rabbi Reuven Taff took 21 members of his congregation to Israel this summer and made sure they saw all the historic landmarks most sacred to Jews from Sacramento: the Western Wall, the Golan Heights, Old Jaffa, Masada, the Dead Sea, the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem and, of course, the childhood home of Kings rookie Omri Casspi. On a 10-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land, that had to be their first stop.

They flew into Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, changed into fresh purple-and-black garb and hopped a bus straight to the suburb of Yavne, once known as the first settlement after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., now known as the first town in Israel to produce an NBA player. The congregation could identify the hallowed house by all the bouquets of flowers on the sidewalk, left by neighbors and fans after Casspi, a 6'9" forward, had been taken by Sacramento two weeks earlier with the 23rd pick in the draft.

The visitors were greeted at the front door by Casspi's parents, Shimon and Ilana, and led to the backyard, where they feasted on bourekas and wine. After many mazel tovs and l'chaims, it was time to reboard the bus and head back to Tel Aviv, but Shimon would not let the rabbi go. "He came running up to me, and there were tears in his eyes," Taff says. "He was carrying two Israeli flags in his hands, and he told me to take them." Shimon explained that he had bought the flags when Omri was 14 and waved them at every international game his son had played. "I want you to promise me," Shimon told Taff, "that these two flags will be at every game Omri plays in Sacramento."

The request didn't come at the best time for the rabbi: He no longer had his season tickets. So on Rosh Hashanah, Taff walked down from the pulpit, carrying a wireless microphone in one hand and the flags in the other, and outlined the challenge that Shimon Casspi had put to him two months earlier. Even if the Kings were in last place, even if Omri Casspi never got off the bench, at least one member of the Mosaic Law Congregation had to attend every game at Arco Arena—and to stop by the synagogue first to fetch the flags.

The congregation has responded, and so has Casspi. He doesn't start and isn't even Sacramento's best rookie (see high-scoring combo guard Tyreke Evans), but at week's end he was averaging 11.0 points on 52.5% shooting and 4.0 rebounds, contributing 23.8 strong minutes per game on a 10--12 team that has exceeded expectations. Beyond that, Casspi is making an impact on the NBA in more original ways—debating Kobe versus LeBron in Hebrew, eating foods prepared by a kosher cook, wearing number 18 because it is the Jewish symbol for life and playing with what he calls "the Israeli spirit," which manifests itself in floor burns and busted lips. "He can piss some people off," says Kings swingman Francisco Garcia, "and I love that about him."

Casspi is a spindly 225 pounds, with a black beard that covers his sunken cheekbones and a toughness that belies his frame. He can defend everyone from point guards (he hounded the Bulls' Derrick Rose) to centers (he begged to cover the Suns' Amar'e Stoudemire). Each steal or tip-in provokes a swell of national pride within him. "Every time he scores," says Kings assistant G.M. Jason Levien, "it's as though he's wrapped in the Israeli flag."

Like most NBA players, Casspi grew up watching Michael Jordan—only he had to wake up at 4 a.m. to do it. At 17 he signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv, the best team in Israel and one of the best in Europe, but a year later he was drafted into the army. Every able-bodied 18-year-old Israeli must serve three years in the Israel Defense Forces, a rule that derails most promising athletic careers. But Casspi was among a handful of basketball players chosen by the IDF's sports committee as an "outstanding athlete," meaning he would stay with Maccabi and be sheltered like an elite American college recruit. Although he went to basic training and learned to shoot a gun, he only had to report to the base in Tel Aviv twice a week, and then he wore a sweat suit instead of a uniform. While his older brother, Eitan—a standout point guard in high school—was a paratrooper jumping out of planes in the middle of the night, Casspi was sorting paperwork and refereeing officer basketball games, a soldier in name only. Basketball kept him safe, but it also kept him separate, and even though he was grateful for the arrangement, there were times he felt a little guilty.

"In Israel, being in the army is a special experience, and my friends will take it with them their whole lives," Casspi says. "I didn't have that experience. I didn't really do anything in the army. But right now, I am trying to serve my country in another way."

Before this season 70 nations had sent players to the NBA, from Iceland (Peter Gudmundsson) to Estonia (Martin Muursepp), from Egypt (Alaa Abdelnaby) to Iran (Hamed Haddadi). But Israelis had a history of rimming out. Mickey Berkowitz tried to sign with the Hawks in 1979, but Maccabi would not release him from his contract, and when Berkowitz took the team to court, a judge denied him as well. Oded Katash signed a two-year deal with the Knicks in 1999 but lost patience during the ensuing lockout and returned to Israel. The Sonics took Yotam Halperin with the 53rd pick in 2006, but second-rounders are not given guaranteed contracts, so he too went back to Israel.

That crushed Levien, who was then an agent representing Halperin. A former guard at Pomona who was bar mitzvahed in Jerusalem, Levien was driven to bring the first Israeli to the NBA. After Halperin went home, Levien turned his attention to an athletic but unpolished teenager from Maccabi, Omri Casspi. "He was frenetic," Levien says. "He was a force of nature. He dunked in a way I'd never seen a player from Israel dunk." But before Levien could enter Casspi in the 2009 draft, he was hired last November by Sacramento. Although Levien still wanted to see an Israeli make it to the NBA, he now had to value the Kings' interests over Casspi's, Israel's and even his own. "I had to be totally objective," Levien says.

Meanwhile, Casspi was seeing Levien at predraft workouts, telling him, "If you pick me, I will fight for you. I will go to war for you." Coming from another athlete, the war reference might have been off-putting, but given Casspi's background, it had greater meaning. As a Kings executive, Levien appreciated Casspi not because he was a potential pioneer but because he could bring energy off the bench immediately; over time, under Sacramento's coaches, he could add strength and smooth out his jumpers. G.M. Geoff Petrie and other Kings scouts, who brought imports Hedo Turkoglu and Peja Stojakovic to Sacramento with great success, had tracked Casspi for years and were already intrigued with his abilities. When NBA commissioner David Stern announced that Sacramento was selecting Casspi, Stern cracked a smile, which Casspi maintains was a little wider than usual. "Because he's Jewish," Casspi reasons.

There is a scene in the movie Airplane in which a flight attendant asks a female passenger if she would like something to read. The passenger asks the flight attendant, "Do you have anything light?" Without hesitation, the attendant hands her a leaflet entitled Famous Jewish Sports Legends. The joke, which has dozens of derivatives, was a bit off-base, especially regarding hoops. The first basket ever in the Basketball Association of America—predecessor to the NBA—was scored in 1946 by Ossie Schechtman, a Jew from Brooklyn who played for the Knicks. The '46 Knicks had four Jewish starters in all. Three years later the Syracuse Nationals signed Dolph Schayes, who made 12 All-Star teams and the Hall of Fame. But since Schayes's son, journeyman center Danny Schayes, retired in 1999, the only Jewish player of repute has been Lakers guard Jordan Farmar.

David Vyorst, who produced and directed the 2008 documentary The First Basket, believes that Jewish migration to the suburbs after World War II is to blame for the falloff. If difficult and densely populated environments tend to yield the best basketball players, it only made sense that the next Jewish hope would come from Israel. When Tal Brody arrived in Israel in 1966—he was drafted 13th by the Baltimore Bullets out of Illinois but signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv instead—every game was played outside. Maccabi played in the rain, in the snow, on a kibbutz in the middle of a dust storm. When Saddam Hussein was in power in Iraq, Israeli high school players hauled gas masks to the court as if they were part of their uniform.

When Casspi was drafted, Brody called it "the completion of a circle." Mickey Berkowitz said it "made my dream." Dolph Schayes started checking Sacramento box scores every morning.

At first Casspi appeared overwhelmed by U.S. hoops, shooting a ghastly 29.5% in the Las Vegas Summer League. After a morning practice in late September, Francisco Garcia told Casspi to meet him in the gym at 10 p.m. "He showed up at 9:45," Garcia said. That night Garcia revealed his secret to life in the NBA: "Work when everyone else is asleep." Garcia underwent surgery on his right forearm and wrist in mid-October and will miss most of this season, but he is still traveling with the Kings, mainly to keep an eye on Casspi.

Casspi's combative approach could land him in some trouble. During a predraft group workout he accidentally hit Gonzaga's Austin Daye with an elbow, splitting his lip. During an early-season game against the Warriors, he went face-to-face with notorious brawler Stephen Jackson. Even in practice Casspi is constantly hand-checking teammates, bucking the image of the soft Euro. Among the Kings he is a source of admiration and irritation both. "He gets people riled up," center Spencer Hawes said. "He gets them to the brink." Casspi developed his style under Zvika Sherf, coach of the Israeli national team, who used to tell his players before big tournaments, "We are not going to be the tallest or the strongest or the most talented. But we have something different. We are Israel. We are going to play harder, and that's how we are going to win."

In recent years Hollywood has released films such as Munich, Defiance, American Gangster and Inglourious Basterds in which the main characters are aggressive, physical and Jewish. "It used to be that tough Jewish actors had to play Italians because nobody believed Jews could be that way," said Rich Cohen, author of Tough Jews. "James Caan played Sonny Corleone. Henry Winkler played Arthur Fonzarelli. Jewish characters always had to be the nebbish sidekick—the doctor, the lawyer, the banker, the accountant. There is a very different image of Jewish men in the world right now."

Omri Casspi plays a small role in the evolution, a seventh man in Sacramento trying to establish himself in the NBA, willing to throw a few elbows if that's what it takes. His physicality is part of his appeal, along with his sense of service. On Nov. 17 the Kings lost to the Bulls by 14 points, and Casspi scored only two baskets. But after the game he stood patiently on the court, posing for pictures with the Pollack and Gonzalez families, members of the Mosaic Law Congregation who that night had waved Shimon Casspi's flags. Being the first Israeli in the NBA comes with a responsibility to meet the local rabbis and hit the community Hanukkah parties. More important, though, it comes with the responsibility to keep fighting when everyone else is asleep.

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Casspi plays with what he calls "the Israeli spirit." Says Garcia, "He can piss some people off. And I love that about him."

PHOTOPhotograph by ROCKY WIDNER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESCHAI THERE! Jewish fans at Arco Arena carry the flag for Casspi, who wears number 18 because it is the Hebrew symbol for life. PHOTOGREG NELSON[See caption above] PHOTOCOURTESY OF OSSIE SCHECHTMAN (SCHECHTMAN)IN THE BEGINNING Ossie Schechtman (left) was a pro hoops pioneer and Dolph Schayes (center) a Hall of Famer; when Dolph's son, Danny, came along, the NBA's Jewish population had waned. PHOTONBA PHOTO LIBRARY/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (DOLPH SCHAYES)[See caption above] PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN /NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (DANNY SCHAYES)[See caption above] PHOTOROCKY WIDNER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESOMRI PRESENT Casspi's aggressive play has earned him a spot in Sacramento's rotation.

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Eagle (-2)
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