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Omri Casspi’s quote on Tamir Goodman

Casspi in charge MATT DeFAVERI
CJN Staff Reporter

Photo by: David Liam Kyle

Israeli basketball phenom Omri Casspi, the 23rd overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft and the first Israeli player selected in the first round, realized his dream of playing in the NBA after signing a three-year, $3.5 million contract with the Sacramento Kings.

“I got drafted when I was in my third year in the army,” said Casspi, now 23. “Moving to the U.S. was different, especially in the beginning. Going to a new country, leaving all your family and friends, going on your own and trying to settle in … it was different food, different culture. But after that, I think the transition’s been pretty smooth.”

Where it began

Casspi was born in Holon, Israel, and grew up in Yavne, a coastal town of about 33,000 people. Although he’s far from home, he still finds ways to connect with his country during the regular season.

“I’m starting a foundation,” Casspi said. “It’ll be affiliated with the Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Israel. It’s a kids’ hospital, I like the cause.” Casspi has already donated 121,000 shekels ($31,452 USD) to the hospital, located in Petah Tikva.

Once the offseason hits, Casspi usually flies home, where most of his family still lives. His parents and siblings also visit him on the High Holidays during the regular season.

“Like Chanukah, my mom was here for a week,” Casspi said. “My dad’s coming in a month. Hopefully during Passover, we’ll be in the playoffs, so I’ll see my family again.”

Casspi said he’s a staunch observer of all High Holidays, and even ran into some conflict between his religion and his NBA schedule.

“The only thing that I had was in my rookie year, media day fell on Yom Kippur, so obviously I didn’t go. They had to postpone my media day. We did it at a different time.”

It’s not Game 1 of the 1965 World Series, but it’s reminiscent of pitching great Sandy Koufax, who refused to pitch that game because it fell on Yom Kippur.

Golden state woes

During his rookie season, Casspi meshed with the Jewish community in Sacramento. “I had a wonderful two years there,” he said. “The people in Sacramento have been great to me and my family.”

A rabbi from a Sacramento synagogue even contacted ARCO Arena, where the Kings play, and arranged for an Israeli flag to be hung in the rafters for every home game. “He’s a big Kings fan, he and his family,” Casspi said of the rabbi. “They’d show up to all our games, it’d be great.”

But not everyone in Sacramento welcomed Casspi the same way. On three separate occasions, billboards featuring Casspi’s face were spray painted with a swastika, but that didn’t diminish Casspi’s appreciation for the city.

“I was surprised when it happened,” he said. “We treated it with caution, but it can happen everywhere. And it’s unfortunate for the world right now that we still have to face anti-Semitism like that.”

Despite acknowledging the anti-Semitic behavior, Casspi said he never personally felt any hatred toward him or his family. “That’s the honest truth … I always looked at being Jewish as a privilege,” he said.

Coming to Cleveland

Casspi was already traded to Cleveland when the collective-bargaining agreement, which governs rules for NBA’s players and owners, expired at midnight on June 30, 2011, resulting in a 149-day lockout that ended Nov. 26 with a handshake agreement between the two sides.

Casspi spent three months of the lockout playing for Israel’s national team, Maccabi Tel Aviv. He also spent time working out in Las Vegas, New York City and Los Angeles, but said he was excited to get back to basketball and to his new city once a new agreement was worked out.

“I was excited about our team and the organization and about the city,” said Casspi, who lives in Lakewood. “I’m not really going out and partying or traveling a lot. If I’m not practicing, I’d rather go home and rest and prepare myself for the next game.”

“In general, I’ve been really close to the Jewish community in Sacramento. Hopefully we’re going to have enough time to get closer and closer to the Jewish community here. It’s really important for me.”

The cramped NBA schedule makes that goal difficult, said Casspi, who plays 66 games in a shortened season due to the lockout.

“Now it’s a little more intense,” he said. “We’re playing more games in smaller amount of time. Eighteen, 19 games a month. Usually we have 14 or 15 … but everything I can do to help or to be around, I’ll try to do the best I can.”

His hectic schedule also doesn’t leave Casspi, who’s single, much time for dating, but the transition to Cleveland was easy, said Casspi, who hadn’t been to the city outside of Kings’ road games.

“I don’t think anything was difficult,” he said. “Moving my car, getting all my belongings and my personal stuff. Other than that, the Cavs helped me with everything I needed. I have some friends from Cleveland and from Ohio, so they helped me as well.”

Team Seder? Maybe later

Casspi said he’d be open to hosting a Seder or Shabbat dinner at his house in Lakewood, but wouldn’t pressure his teammates to join him.

“I mean each player in the NBA is for himself and everyone has his own beliefs,” he said. “So I’ll do it if somebody wants to join me. I don’t want to make someone feel uncomfortable somewhere they don’t want to go.”

And though he’s religious, Casspi doesn’t like to pray to the basketball gods before games.

“I don’t want to bother anybody for basketball,” he said. “I feel that there are more important things for people to pray for. Just focus on myself and be myself. I’m a great believer in God and my family.”

Casspi also said he looked forward to spending time with fellow Israeli basketball player Tamir Goodman of University Heights, who gave up a possible NBA career for Judaism.

“I’ve been in the city for only three weeks now, you know, but I’m looking forward to talking to him,” Casspi said. “He’s a great guy, a great role model. We have a lot of common friends.”

Casspi said the support from Clevelanders has been great at home games, “especially when you go to the game and you see a lot of Israeli flags.”

Striving for success

Now that he’s in Cleveland, Casspi said he doesn’t consider himself a role model but wants to succeed on the court and earn respect from his peers and his fans. He’s averaging 8.1 points and 2.8 rebounds per game this season, slightly under his career averages of 9.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.

“I’m trying to be the best I can be, as far as working hard, treating my teammates and my opponents with respect, going on the court and playing hard,” he said. “I want to show younger kids that I’m here, and you can do it as well.

“I just want to try to focus on working hard, better my game, and help my team to win.”

mdefaveri@cjn.org