LOS ANGELES – When Omri Casspi entered the game for the woeful Sacramento Kings
one night last December, a raucous cheer erupted from the Staples Center
“Casspi, Casspi, Casspi,” they chanted, jumping and waving Israeli
flags amid a sea of white-jerseyed Clippers fans.
“He gets cheered on
while we’re on the road,” teammate Jason Thompson said of the
Casspi is the first Israeli to play in the NBA and his fan
base has no city limits.
The 22-year-old small forward has become
something of a rock star since being selected by the Kings as the 23rd overall
pick in the 2009 NBA draft, which added Israel’s name to the 39 countries and
territories that have players on NBA rosters.
When Casspi moved to
Sacramento, the local Jewish community helped him buy a car and a house. And
when he greets his fans after games, some, he said, have tried to set him up
with their Jewish daughters.
One couple named their son after
“I’m just enjoying it,” he said, smiling.
His jersey is among
the top 40 sold in the NBA store in New York even though the Kings, at 14-43,
have one of the worst records in the league, and the 6-foot-9 Casspi has started
only 25 of 55 games, averaging 9.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 25.8
Yet against the Clippers that night he scored a teamhigh 21
points on eight-for- 11 shooting, and he faced them again Monday, though this
time it was in Sacramento’s Arco Arena.
Kings Coach Paul Westphal said
Casspi has become “a major cultural hero.”
“Without much exaggeration,”
Westphal said, “he has the hopes of a nation riding on everything he
In November 2009, Casspi put that to the test when he and Hamed
Haddadi – the only Iranian in the NBA – embraced before a game against the
It was an especially powerful moment because Iran
doesn’t recognize the state of Israel and that can spill over to
In fact, in the days leading up to that Kings-Grizzlies game,
Haddadi told reporters how in 2005 his Iranian team was not allowed to go to
Argentina for the FIBA World Championships for Young Men because Israel was a
Casspi keeps a framed photo of that embrace in his
living room to remind him of its healing potential and of the responsibility he
At times, though, that responsibility can hurt.
2010-11 season, Casspi was in Israel celebrating Rosh Hashana when he learned
that a Sacramento mural prominently featuring his image had been defaced with a
A little over a week later, the crime was
Police investigated but no arrests have been
“Those people don’t deserve my attention or the people’s
attention,” he said.
Westphal said he’s made a special point of staying
wellinformed on what’s going on in the Middle East, and Thompson said his
opinion of Israel has changed since playing with Casspi.
Thompson went to
Tel Aviv last summer to attend the wedding of Casspi’s brother, acknowledging
that he was nervous before the trip, envisioning Israel to be a war-torn country
rife with terrorists.
“It was the opposite,” Thompson said. “I’m going
back next summer for fun.”
Casspi’s impact has extended beyond the
Last summer he helped facilitate basketball games between
Palestinian and Israeli youths at the Peres Center for Peace sports camp in
While there, he played basketball with Jewish and Arab children
and said he watched friendships form.
During a recent trip to LA he was
invited to speak to children at a synagogue in Beverly Hills about his NBA
experience. Soon, 150 children had surrounded him pleading for
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski stayed close by, ready to shoo them
away as soon as Casspi showed any sign of fatigue. After 100 autographs, Casspi
was still going strong.
“I’ve seen basketball players sign two or three
things and then try to get away,” Pilichoswki said. “He wouldn’t
For Casspi, being a role model is much more than a mere
“I love it,” he said.(Los Angeles Times/MCT)